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A New Home on the Range : Former Folkie Ian Tyson Now Sings About His Cowboy Life

March 30, 1995|BUDDY SEIGAL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Where have all the folkies gone, long time passing?

Phil Ochs, Tim Buckley and Tim Hardin are dead. John Phillips just looks like he is. Names like Jim Kweskin, Tom Rush, Dave Van Ronk, Odetta, Eric Andersen and Bonnie Dobson seem long forgotten.

Then there's Ian Tyson.

As half of the Canadian duo Ian & Sylvia, Tyson was among the elite of the early '60s folk scene. With songs like "Four Strong Winds" and "You Were on My Mind," the harmonizing couple were mainstays of a brief but vital and influential chapter in pop music.

When the folk boom went bust around mid-decade, Ian & Sylvia turned to country music with a group called Great Speckled Bird, named after the old Roy Acuff hit. The couple split up in 1975 and shortly thereafter disappeared from the music scene altogether.

But Tyson has managed to carve out a very comfortable niche for himself in recent years, writing a whole new chapter in his music career as a singer of cowboy songs. He's a huge draw back home in Canada, where he has collected a busload of awards and gold records. His 1987 album, "Cowboyography," was recently certified platinum in Canada, signifying sales of 100,000 copies. And Tyson, who appears tonight at the Galaxy Concert Theatre in Santa Ana, has done it his way.

"When Sylvia and I broke up, I went and pulled out my old saddle from the mothballs," Tyson said in a recent phone interview from his ranch in southern Alberta. Tyson had always enjoyed ranching and rodeo-ing and with his life at a crossroads, he decided to become a cowboy full time following his divorce (Tyson said that he and Sylvia remain on friendly terms).

"I got into 'the life,' as we call it," he said. "I never really looked back. Oh, I'd play a local honky-tonk here and there on the weekends because it was a little extra cash, but basically, I was a cowboy."

Tyson remarried, and his second wife, Twylla, encouraged him to begin chronicling the cowboy life in song. It was all mostly a lark, though, until 1983, when the first Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nev., was held.

"That was my rebirth," said Tyson. "Something like 1,500 people came to the first one, and it's become a phenomenon since then. They phoned me up and said, 'Are you playing anymore? Do you have a band?' I said 'No, but I can sure get me one!'

"It sounded like fun--very exciting, a lot of energy," he said. "Elko is more than just cowboy poets and singers. It's the boot-makers and saddle-makers coming together. And it's how my whole second career got started."

Encouraged by the wildly enthusiastic response from his cowboy brethren, Tyson recorded "Old Corrals and Sagebrush" in his garage in 1983. The album, which he paid for himself, brought increased demands for him to tour. With five more self-produced albums since, Tyson has found himself at a new career peak, particularly in Canada--although he's quite humble about his success.

"I'm the old guy, I guess," said Tyson, who admits to being 60 but is listed as being 63 in at least one reference book. "I cross over up here. But really, they have the same formula in country music up here as you have down there. They don't like to play anyone over 30 or 40. I've been very fortunate in that I've done an end run right around this teen-age hat act, which is great. My people are cowboys and folkies--that's my audience.

Tyson's music career began when he was a young man in Victoria, British Columbia. Like most people his age, Tyson's head was turned around on his shoulders by the newfangled noise called rock 'n' roll.

"I heard Bill Haley & the Comets and I said, 'Hey! That's what I want to do!' " he recalled. "I was definitely a rockabilly guy, yeah."

As singer-guitarist with a group called the Sensational Stripes, Tyson played sock hops and recorded a handful of singles for regional labels that are now collector's items.

In 1958, he read Jack Kerouac's "On the Road" and was inspired to hitchhike across Canada and the United States, eventually settling in Toronto, where he got his first gigs as a folk singer. The following year, he met Sylvia Fricker and they became a singing duo, then, in 1964, husband and wife.

Moving to New York City in the early '60s, Ian & Sylvia were signed to Vanguard Records--the same label that in 1993 picked up leasing rights to Tyson's contemporary output--and became leading lights in the city's folk scene.

There, they hung out with all the big names of the day, including Bob Dylan. "We shared the same beers and cigarettes, and I've hardly ever seen him since then," said Tyson. "He was kind of a pain in the ass to tell you the truth, but I have great, great, admiration for him."

The times they were-a-changin'. Ian & Sylvia were from the "fresh-faced" school of folk music, and as the scene became increasingly politicized, Ian & Sylvia began to fall from favor.

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