SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO — A few hundred feet from the Coach House, cars whisked by Monday night on the San Diego Freeway, while inside the club Ian Tyson sang of coyotes, cowpokes, broken pickup trucks, old corrals and sagebrush, and the sighing of the pines near the timberline.
Tyson's 85-minute set, which celebrated the working cowboy and the magnificent Western landscape, seemed a bit incongruous in Orange County, where sagebrush is rapidly being covered by highways and housing developments. It may be that as we lose our wide open space we need to appreciate it even more. Certainly, the disappearing West has no better spokesman that Tyson.
In fact, Tyson is the founding father of a quiet resurgence of the Western side of country-Western. Best known as half of Ian and Sylvia, the popular '60s folk duo, Tyson, an ex-rodeo rider who runs a horse ranch in Canada, started singing about the working cowboy in his 1983 album, "Old Corrals and Sagebrush."
In the last decade, he has released five albums of cowboy songs, with a sixth due in January.
Tyson's Western albums have not been chart-toppers in the United States, (although his 1987 "Cowboyography" went platinum in his native Canada), but they have been deeply influential.
In 1990, Michael Martin Murphey followed in Tyson's footsteps with his album "Cowboy Songs," which included a version of Tyson's "Cowboy Pride." The success of Murphey's Western album inspired Warner Bros. to create Warner Western, a series of Western albums, which includes Randy Travis' latest, "Wind in the Wire." Even Garth Brooks has shown his affinity for the Western theme by recording at least one cowboy song on each on his albums.
Tyson couldn't resist a good-natured dig at Brooks on Monday as he introduced Michael Burton's "Night Riders Lament," which he recorded on "Old Corrals and Sagebrush" and Brooks covered on "The Chase."
"I sing it better than Garth," Tyson joked, then proceeded to make good his boast in a version complete with a spine-tingling yodel.
Accompanied by Nathan Tinkham on acoustic guitar, Phil Hall on bass and Cindy Church on vocal harmonies, Tyson breathed new life into the Old West with a 17-song set that focused on material from his cowboy albums.
Tyson's richly detailed songwriting and resonant baritone drew the audience into his world of trail dust, saddle sores and hard-working country people.
Although he hasn't played in Orange County since the 1970s, and some members of the crowd called for Ian and Sylvia songs, Tyson avoided any hint of nostalgia.
The only Ian and Sylvia songs he performed were his two most enduring: "Someday Soon" and "Four Strong Winds," both with Western themes that fit nicely with Tyson's cowboy material. Tyson also introduced several new Western songs he said will be on his next album.
Throughout the evening, in his songs and tales between songs, Tyson communicated the joys of living close to the land and, without preaching, imparted a sense of impending loss for a disappearing way of life.
In two of the original songs he performed Monday, Tyson paid tribute to his idols, cowboy author Will James ("Will James") and Western artist Charlie Russell ("The Gift"). Tyson's own songs, which are rapidly becoming Western classics, will surely stand beside the works of his heroes as enduring documents of the West.
Sister Moon, a three-woman, one-man Orange County group, preceded Tyson with a 30-minute set of music that was as far away from Tyson's gritty cowboy songs as Mars is from Tyson's Alberta.
Sister Moon's nine-song set alternated between spacey dreamscapes, made even more ethereal by the use of a harp on some numbers, and jazzy upbeat tunes.
Opener Dennis Roger Reed, with his clever original songs about rural life, was far more compatible with Tyson's material. Accompanied by his brother, Don, on acoustic lead guitar, Reed introduced five of his songs and performed inspired covers of Chris Gaffney's "Frank's Tavern" and the Nat King Cole oldie, "Mona Lisa." Don Reed sparked the last two numbers with his fiery lead guitar work.