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Ian Tyson

As one half of the husband and wife harmony duo Ian & Sylvia, Ian Tyson was at the forefront of the early-1960s folk revival and later became a pioneer of the emerging country-rock genre later in the decade. Among his many creative achievements, the former Canadian rodeo rider turned singer/songwriter is perhaps best known for writing "Four Strong Winds," a song that became a widely covered folk standard and remains one of Canada's most beloved anthems. Although Ian & Sylvia initially made their fortune amid the same bustling Greenwich Village scene that launched the careers of Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul, and Mary, they are most associated with their home country and, following their 1975 divorce, Tyson settled in Southern Alberta where he ran a horse ranch. He was eventually able to parlay his laid back folksy demeanor into a successful second act, refashioning himself as cowboy troubadour of the Canadian Prairies with a string of successful solo albums in the '80s and '90s. Tyson remained a regular performer well into the 21st century and in 2010 published his memoir, The Long Trail. He also continued recording and, despite an injury to his vocal chords, managed to produce high quality releases like 2012's Raven Singer and 2015's Carnero Vaquero. Born in Victoria, British Columbia, Tyson developed his love of horses from his father, a British immigrant and who loved playing polo. He began riding at a young age and was drawn to the rodeo where he competed for several years in amateur events. While recovering from a bad fall, he taught himself guitar and eventually graduated from the Vancouver School of Art in 1958. His music career began in Toronto where he met his singing partner and future wife, Sylvia Fricker. The couple moved to New York where they became early involved in the burgeoning folk revival of the early-'60s. Signing with influential manager Albert Grossman, Ian & Sylvia released their eponymous debut album in 1962, but it was their 1963 follow-up, Four Strong Winds, that effectively launched their career. The Tyson-penned title song, with its evocative descriptions of the Canadian Prairies, was an immediate Top Ten hit in Canada, and soon became a staple among the folksingers of the era as well as a number three country hit for Bobby Bare a few years later. Over the decades that followed, "Four Strong Winds" slowly took on a life of its own, especially in Canada where it is often considered to be the unofficial anthem of Alberta. Tyson claims to have written his signature song in less than a half hour in Grossman's apartment. He and Sylvia married in 1964 and landed a Canadian chart-topper with their version of Gordon Lightfoot's "Early Morning Rain" from their album of the same name. A move to Nashville in 1967 yielded the pioneering country-rock album, Nashville, which preceded both Dylan's more famous Nashville Skyline and the Byrds' Sweetheart of the Rodeo. Settling back in Canada, Ian & Sylvia formed the Great Speckled Bird, a country-rock combo that appeared alongside the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, and Buddy Guy on the 1970 traveling music festival Festival Express. In 1975, after a spate of albums for Columbia, Ian & Sylvia called it quits, both as a couple and a performing entity. It was an amicable divorce and they capped their performing career with a final duo appearance at Toronto's Horseshoe Tavern. Tyson, who had already released 1973 solo album Ol' Eon, said goodbye to Toronto and his CTV program The Ian Tyson Show, and moved to Alberta to train horses. A popular Neil Young cover of "Four Strong Winds" helped him purchase his own ranch outside of Calgary and he spent the latter half of the '70s and early '80s living and writing about the western life. Solo albums like 1983's Old Corrals and Sagebrush and 1987's Cowboyography were charming, well-crafted collections that strongly emphasized the "western" in country & western. Tyson's warm voice and easygoing style gave his cowboy narratives a natural appeal and helped extend his chart success into the '90s with albums like 1994's Eighteen Inches of Rain and 1996's All the Good 'Uns. He was also inducted, along with Sylvia, into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame and was awarded the Order of Canada. His legacy secure, Tyson remained active into the 21st century, writing and singing about his passion on albums like Songs From the Gravel Road (2005), Songs From the Stone House (2011), and Raven Singer (2012). The latter of these releases bore the effects of his lengthy tenure as a performer; at an Ontario music festival in 2006, Tyson gravely injured his vocal cords, leaving them scarred for the remainder of his career. If anything, the rougher, dustier-sounding timbre gave his later albums an even more authentic tone. He also took this time to complete The Long Trail: My Life in the West, his 2010 autobiography co-written with journalist Jeremy Klaszus. Released in 2015, Carnero Vaquero proved to be Tyson's final album. After surviving a heart attack and enduring open heart surgery, he eventually passed away on December 29, 2022 at his Alberta ranch at the age of 89.
© Timothy Monger /TiVo
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