Where Have All The Cowboys Gone? At Lunch with Ian Tyson
Anybody over the age of thirty might be surprised to find out that the North American obsession with the cowboy is dwindling, his role as universal hero taken over perhaps by the hipster-tech-entrepreneur-turned-whistleblower-refugee or the returning-for-one-last-case-rogue-cop.
But Ian Tyson knows it’s the beginning of the end for the cowboy. He’s seen it happen, first-hand.
That didn’t stop him from dedicating his latest album, Carnero Vaquero, to the “bighorn ram with the biggest curl in the world, who died after being struck by a vehicle”. Whether in jest or completely serious, it hardly matters, since there are few who can legitimately come up with a dedication like that.
Adding to his authenticity, Tyson recorded the album live off the floor in his Stone House, the spot on his ranch where he does all of his songwriting, resisting attempts to drag him into a more formal studio. The result is remarkably sophisticated, a long way from the early cowboy recordings of Harry Jackson, one of Tyson’s biggest influences. It helped that he recruited Catherine Marx for piano duties, a move that not only felt serendipitous to Tyson, but also enthralled his longtime bandmates: “Catherine changed the whole ballgame so completely in some of those ballads that I thought, well, wow, we’re just going to go with this. It’s so great. She’s a genius minimalist. She knows what to do, knows what to play. Never overplays. I mean, the mood that she sets up is remarkable. She turned my guys on too, big time.”
And so evolved an album that is Tyson through and through, but with a few surprises. One is his vocals: after the surgery that repaired damage done by working against a faulty sound system in concert a few years ago, he’s got his old, warm, melodic voice back, and he uses it to revisit past material on Vaquero. I asked him if the recovery meant a new approach to singing songs like “Will James” and “Darcy Farrow” again. “It’s a lot of fun,” he said. “Sometimes I don’t know what’s going to come out. It’s cool.” Exercises with vocal coach Katherine Ardo were the backbone of his recovery. “She knows what she’s talking about. She’s an ex-opera singer. Some of the exercises she’s given me are simple, but you gotta do ’em, and they’re good.”
For me, a chance to talk with Tyson over lunch is a dream come true: I might have been the only 21-year-old in town listening to Lost Herd on repeat 15 years back, but I didn’t care. His solo western material, beginning with Old Corrals and Sagebrush in 1983, told a story of the West that I hadn’t heard before, and that went a long way in shaping my adult musical tastes.
Since then, Tyson has worked nonstop, producing 12 more albums, each a new take on the history of the North American West, a subject on which his knowledge runs deep. His audience, ever appreciative of his rich voice and complex songs, contained a core of listeners still working the occupations that built the region. Tyson became a fixture at the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko even after the image of the cowboy had drifted away from country music, or morphed into unfortunate reinterpretations like that offered by Jason Aldean. “The thing is, Gillian,” he told me, “There’s lots of guys with big hats, and big trucks; big mouths, and that’s what people think cowboys are.”
Bad news for a songwriter like Tyson, who today struggles to get airtime on radio; even dedicated country stations stay away from material that is explicitly western in nature. It doesn’t help that radio consultants focus on the youth market at a time when baby boomers are well-recognized as a solid market with disposable income, a group that might take to what Tyson has come to label his output: “Music for grownups.”
I suppose I don’t qualify as old to him, being 45 years his junior; no question there are some young ones out there craving music that doesn’t dissipate on first listen like cotton candy. The problem is, unless you’re digging around online, it’s rather difficult to find one of Tyson’s discs. In fact, he stopped at a Walmart on the way into Calgary to pick up one of his own albums to give to me. That alone reflects the sad ways the business fails longtime artists like him, artists whose audience is still inclined to buy physical albums. And this is not due to any neglect on Tyson’s part: after playing to a full stadium for a 2013 flood benefit in Calgary, he developed what he now calls his “stadium set”, a collection of songs designed to uproot his listeners. It’s working. His last show at the Deerfoot Casino had people roaring through the encore.
Most 81-year-olds can’t claim this kind of achievement. You’d think that even in Tyson’s case, he’d be happy to slow down a bit and enjoy more time at the ranch. But he continues to put pressure on himself, to write better songs, and to outdo even his most recent efforts. He partnered with songwriter and poet Kris Demeanor on Vaquero, producing two songs, “Jughound Ronnie” and “The Flood”. Meanwhile, “Wolves No Longer Sing” is a co-write with fellow cowboy Tom Russell. He’s still touring; when I met him, he’d recently returned from a show at City Winery in New York, and is heading to Elko again this winter – and it may be his last show there.
Really, he puts us all to shame. Maybe the inside cover of Carnero Vaquero, showing Tyson in his element, says it all.
He told me, “Old people need love too.” And he’s proven he’s worthy of it yet again.
You can buy Tyson’s latest record on the Stony Plain website. In the meantime, check out this clip of his concert at City Winery.