On the backstretch of a storied career, Western singer and horseman Ian Tyson learns that the last leg of a long circle can be the hardest to ride.
[Longview, Alberta - May 1, 2009]
The food at Longview Steakhouse isn’t what you’d expect to find in the Canadian Rockies. Driss Belmoufid, a Moroccan immigrant, opened the restaurant in 1994. The facade lacks the grandeur of a typical steakhouse (it looks like a flower shop), but walk inside and the aromas of turmeric and saffron clear the sinus of preconceived notions.
Ian Tyson has been “eating grub line” for two-weeks on a concert tour through Idaho and Wyoming. Now home in Alberta, he’s ready for a meal with some effort put into it and his choice of Longview Steakhouse is evidence of his knack for finding the West’s back alleys and underdog characters.
Belmoufid meets us at the door and ushers us to a table. “Gracias, jefe,” Tyson says. He removes his hat and takes the corner seat.
“How were your concerts?” Belmoufid asks.
“Attendance was down; the bad economy. But we sold lots of albums.”
“That is good, amigo.” The two are old friends, and their use of rudimentary Spanish is part of the routine. Belmoufid takes our order: Tyson gets New York strip, I opt for the Moroccan lamb.
“When Driss’s family first came here, it was tough going,” Tyson later says. “The cowboys were the only ones that supported him. We gave it a shot out of a sense of adventure. You get tired of barbeque beef and beans.”
Word has since gotten out and the tables are filled with day-trippers from nearby Calgary. It prompts Tyson’s favorite topic of conversation: the changing west.
“These people drive down Highway 22 in the same model cars, and they’re all dressed the same so that you can’t tell the men from the women.” He adds, “I’m afraid that my west is damn near done. It’s been packaged and manufactured.”
Tyson knows that it’s an ironic statement coming from him. His best-selling records have benefited from that packaging. He grapples with the contradiction by quoting his friend, western photographer Kurt Markus.
“It’s gone now, you know. And it’s our fault, yours and mine.” Markus was referring to the Great Basin ranch country they traveled through together in the 1980s. Both men released buckaroo-inspired albums and books that landed the Great Basin squarely in pop cowboy culture. Tyson admits that the harsh verdict is probably true.
However, for Tyson, the changing west is a safe conversation topic. He knows we’re avoiding the question on the mind of every Ian Tyson fan.
“You want to know about my lost voice,” he says, confronting the topic. Tyson has suffered the equivalent of a vocal exorcism. The dynamic tenor that brought “M.C. Horses” and “Summer Wages” to life, has exited the body. And a gangly, warty thing that sounds like a ratchet-strap pulling taught over a load of hay has crept into its place.
Between knife cuts of steak, he tells the story of how it happened, and the night in Arizona when it came to a head.
[Sierra Vista, Arizona - March 2008]
The audience was filled with familiar faces: Baxter Black, Kip Calahan, Jay Dusard, Ross Knox – and that’s just the first half of the alphabet. Even Wyoming horseman Buck Brannaman, who was hosting a clinic near Tucson, was in attendance. Such a turnout in the distant Huachuca Mountains – 20 miles from the Mexican border, and 1,700 miles from Alberta – was a testament to Ian Tyson’s range of influence.
Back stage, Tyson rubbed his throat, wondering if his voice would show up that night. In recent performances, he either had full use of it, or else the vocal chords flat-lined like fence wire blowing in the wind. He was dressed sporting his classic Hawaiian shirt, black jacket and white cowboy hat. But when he walked to the microphone and sang, the sound that came out was anything but classic Ian Tyson.
“My voice croaked,” he says. “It made a sound like these ravens make that are nesting in my barn. The audience was shocked, they didn’t know what to think.”
A reviewer for Western Way magazine, who attended the show, later speculated that Tyson’s voice was affected by the Sonora Desert air. If only that were the case. The truth was that he had wrecked it at a 2006 festival in Ontario, Canada, when he’d tried to out-sing an over-powering sound system. The voice took a death blow a few weeks later when a virus attacked his vocal chords. Over the next few shows, it disappeared completely.
The two-year period that followed was so tumultuous that Tyson relies on a stack of calendars to get the details straight. He’s written on them like a diary, and they give a day-in-the-life sense of Ian Tyson, the cowboy singer and the western horseman.
“I was working a colt from Jim Holmes, back then,” he narrates, flipping through the pages of 2006. One week he’s on the road touring, the next he’s back in Alberta shipping cattle, and then a few weeks later he’s off to compete at a cutting horse competition in Las Vegas. Tyson locates the date of the Ontario festival: August 19, 2006. All he has written is that the show was “real bad”.
“I knew when I finished that I’d done the voice harm, but I didn’t know to what extent,” he says. “I was in trouble, so I took some time off after that.”
Followers of Tyson’s career know that he comes back strong after taking a break. In the 1970s, when the duo Ian & Sylvia dissolved, he took a two-year cowboy sabbatical on a ranch in southern Alberta. Tyson emerged as the cowboy singer he’s known as today. Then in the 80s, with his career in a slump, he hit the road to explore the buckaroo outfits of the Great Basin. That experience inspired a string of successful albums that included Cowboyography – the album that revitalized his career and the entire cowboy music genre.
But this go around, in the years following Ontario, Tyson couldn’t go looking for a solution on some ranch or cowboy outfit in the American West; the struggle was within.
“I was running, hiding and faking, trying to figure out a way through this mess of a voice,” Tyson confesses. ”It was a new instrument and I had to figure out how to use it. I worked on phrasing and began to sing in a weird kind of way.”
After “croaking” the opener at the concert in Sierra Vista, Arizona, he put his lyrical experimentation to work and each subsequent song got progressively better. At the end of the night the audience gave his trio a standing ovation.
“That show was a tipping point. I knew that things weren’t going to be easy, but I could see a faint bit of light at the end of the tunnel.”
[T-Bar-Y Ranch - Today]
Back in Longview, Alberta, Belmoufid arrives to clear the dinner table.
“Magnifico, jefe,” Tyson says.
“What will tomorrow bring, señor?”
“I’ll get up early and play guitar. Then I’ll put on pasture boots and walk around the field kicking piles of horse turds.”
Belmoufid laughs, but the next morning when I drive up to the T-Bar-Y that’s essentially what Tyson’s been doing. He’s on the back porch of a ranch-style home, wearing a pair of mud-caked boots with the spurs ready-attached. It’s a sunny, non-windy day, the kind Tyson says fools people into living in Alberta.
“This country will throw more at you than you can handle,” Tyson says. “You can try to win, but you ain’t gonna. Sometimes I think it’s meant for buffalo and nothing else.”
Ever the chronicler of the west, he makes his point with a story.
“Back in the 1800s, the Mounties (Royal Canadian Mounted Police) rode the Whoop-Up Trail from Fort Benton, and then turned their oxen loose up here for the winter. Much to their amazement, the cattle came in the next spring fat and healthy. They thought, ‘Holy cow, this is cattle country!’ Big mistake. In the good years, cattle prospered. But in the bad, they died by the thousands.”
Tyson, like a century of Alberta ranchers before him, has persevered through another hard winter. Almost on cue, a raven flies low overhead and alights into a nest in the rafters where a cawing ruckus ensues. Tyson is fond of the birds, and thinks of them as his vocal avatar – he dubbed his raspy new sound “raven rock”. But the nest of raven fledglings is also a reminder of spring, and the fact that cattle will soon arrive on the T-Bar-Y. Tyson has a few arrangements to check on and offers to give me a tour of the ranch along the way. We load into a flatbed truck and drive to the back pasture, where a band of cutting mares grazes.
“Horses are what keep me going,” he says. “When I ride I don’t want total control; I don’t need that. The best thing you can do is get out of the horse’s way. They appreciate work, even the most mundane thing. This afternoon I’ll ride my gray mare to check fence on the southeast corner. A horse gets a job like that.”
We pass through a gate and a quartet of mares approaches the truck. Tyson gives a run-down of their San-Doc-Pistol-Bar breeding, a who’s who of the cutting horse world. They are mothers and daughters, with sisters harboring colts at their side in adjacent paddocks. Over the past two decades, Tyson has crafted a stable of cutting horses that competes at the highest level, including a finals appearance at the 1989 World Championship Cutting Horse Futurity in Fort Worth, Texas. Tyson is excited about the next generation of colts to be started. And yet, he reluctantly admits that he’s too old to be “legging-up” young colts. At his 75th Birthday concert in Calgary, he jokingly admonished himself:
“Old cowboys have a bad habit of riding young horses for far too long. It’s a disconnect, they don’t get it. I don’t have that problem. I don’t get on young horses, ever.”
We exit the pasture and turn down a gravel road. To the west is a neighbor’s barn built on a hill top that breaks up an otherwise panoramic view of the Rockies. It’s a beacon that goad’s Tyson back onto the topic of the changing west.
“Good old avarice and greed have lead many ranches to sub-divide. When they put up that barn ten years ago, I thought, there goes the neighborhood.”
We turn off the road and arrive at an old stone house that Tyson uses for a songwriter’s cabin. Tire tracks in the grass are evidence that he’s already been here this morning. We step through a low doorway, past a small kitchen and into a cozy living room whose prominent furnishings are a couch where his guitar sits, and a black and white photograph by Barbara Van Cleve, and a desk where Tyson takes a seat. The desk is well-organized, by bachelor standards; a pad of paper is squared next to a pile of books and stacks of CD’s lined up in a geometric row. The top album on each pile are Lucinda Williams (folk), Taylor Swift (pop country), and Dido (electronica). It’s an eclectic mix, making what he says next not too surprising.
“My favorite western album is Bruce Springsteen’s Devils & Dust.” Tyson pulls out his copy, flips to the liner notes and recites lyrics that are impressively western.
Our mustañeros were the very best, sir/ But they could never lay a rope on her/ No corral will ever hold/ The silver palomino.
“Springsteen is fearless, I have tremendous admiration for him. He’s no cowboy, that’s for sure. But he does his research, because what he writes is correct.”
That’s a high accolade, considering Tyson’s penchant for writing songs that are cowboy-correct. Pick any lyric sheet of his and there’s a vocabulary lesson that would send most songwriters reaching for a dictionary. “Jaquima”, “freno”, “cavvy”; they’re regional terms that entered the lexicon of the American West on the day Tyson recorded them on an album.
No matter what the words, however, it takes a gifted songwriter to make a classic. Case in point, “Bill Kane” on his newest album Yellowhead to Yellowstone and other Love Stories. It has every aspect of a good western: a heroic character, authentic lyrics, and compelling, guitar-driven music. It’s also Tyson’s first cowboy song since the dawning of “raven rock”. As such, it makes for an alternate take on his most enduring theme: the legends of the Great Basin.
We load back into his truck, and as we drive to visit a neighboring ranch, Tyson tells the story of how he wrote the song.
[The Great Basin - 1980s]
With bedrolls and saddles loaded into the back of an old brown van, Kurt Markus and Ian Tyson drove into the high desert of northern Nevada to witness the “lost world” of the Great Basin buckaroo. They hopped from one outfit to the next, riding in on horseback crews that worked cattle in the sagebrush wide-open, as if in defiance of the mechanized world of modern ranching.
“I was blown away,” Tyson recalls. “Before going out there with Kurt, I had no clue that culture existed. I was no buckaroo, but I was cowboy enough that I could throw my saddle on their salty horses and ride. Those days were the last big buckaroo hoorah, when outfits like Allied Cattle, the IL, and the MC were still going strong. And we were out in the middle of it.”
It was a mother lode of story material that would keep Tyson in supply for the next twenty-five years. And yet, of all his Great Basin-inspired cowboy songs, one subject eluded him: Bill Kane.
“He was the iconic figure of that buckaroo generation. Wagon outfits like his on the Spanish Ranch made for great story telling. They stayed out for six months at a time and were manned with kids – gunsels that knew nothing. And Bill Kane went through them like popcorn. He had horses in the cavvy specifically meant for testing the metal of anyone who mouthed off. The old, ‘Rope out Widow Maker for the kid to ride‘ routine.”
However, in Tyson’s travels through the region, he never crossed paths with Kane. He was leery of writing about him until a mutual friend of his and Kane’s, Mike Laughlin (a Nevada cowboy and writer), offered to provide the story material. Laughlin said that it didn’t matter if he hadn’t yet met Bill Kane. Tyson knew the country, and the breed of man it required, and that was enough.
“Mike sent me manila envelopes filled with anecdotal material from guys that had worked with Bill Kane. The stories were great stuff, and the song was easy to write.”
I ask Tyson if writing it made him miss buckaroo country. He answers with a quote from Charlie Russell, the western painter. “The west is dead. You may lose a sweetheart, but you will never forget her.” He adds, “It’s been twenty-five years, and what I saw is gone. It breaks my heart.”
Tyson has survived these challenging years by making peace with an inner-raven. He’s learned to scavenge, and to conserve energy by soaring – not beating wings against the wind. Even his visage looks raptor-like these days. But raven analogies aside, Tyson is foremost a western musician and a horseman.
In words that are cowboy-correct, he concludes, “I’m trying to ride home, to complete the circle in a way that validates my art. I’d like to continue to be creative, because I still have something to say. It’s all just changing so fast.”
Listen to Ian Tyson perform “Blaino’s Song” with a enw sound he’s dubbed “raven rock”. Photography by Ross Hecox.