Canadian folk icon and cowboy storyteller Ian Tyson, 89, who co-wrote “Four Strong Winds” with his late wife Sylvia, has passed away. According to his manager, Paul Mascioli, the Victoria resident passed away Thursday at his ranch outside Longview, Alberta, after a long battle with various health issues.
The musician and his first wife, Sylvia Tyson, were integral members of Toronto’s prominent folk scene. However, he spent most of his life and career pursuing two interests that had little to do with his folkie background: living on a farm in southern Alberta and writing songs about it.
Sylvia Tyson reflected on her ex-husband, describing him as “exceedingly serious” and “versatile” in his songwriting. It was clear that “he put a lot of time and work into his composition and felt his material very deeply,” she told The Canadian Press on Thursday.
The border has always held a special attraction for Ian Tyson. In fact, it was during his time recovering from rodeo injuries that he began to hone his guitar talents to perfection. Tyson told The Canadian Press in a 2019 interview that while the damage he suffered at the time was traumatic, it provided him with a lot of material for future work.
Some good songs were written during that time. It doesn’t look like Tyson, who was born on September 25, 1933 to parents who hailed from England, had a particularly rough life. Before discovering rodeo, he attended a prestigious private school and learned to play polo.
After earning his BFA from the Vancouver School of Art in 1958, Tyson hitchhiked to Toronto. He became immersed in the city’s burgeoning grassroots movement, where future Canadian icons like Gordon Lightfoot, Neil Young and Joni Mitchell honed their craft in smoke-filled hippie coffee bars in the artsy neighborhood of Yorkville.
In 1959, Tyson began a relationship with a fellow recording artist named Sylvia Fricker. They moved to the Big Apple where they met Albert Grossman, the manager who mentored Peter, Paul and Mary and who would later sign Bob Dylan. Thanks to him, the two, Ian and Sylvia, are now signed to Vanguard Records.
Their first album, simply titled, was published in 1962. It contained mostly traditional tunes. Their big break came with the release of their second album, Four Strong Winds, in 1964, on which the mournful title track was one of only two original compositions.
They married the same year (1964) and continued to release new music (Lightfoot contributed to their 1965 album ‘Early Morning Rain’, even though he wasn’t famous yet). As folk’s popularity began to wane, the duo moved to Nashville and began adding rock and country influences to their music.
The Tysons experimented with this new hybrid sound by forming the country rock band Great Speckled Bird in 1969; their groundbreaking self-titled first album was released in 1970. Clay was born in 1968, but the couple eventually split in 1975 after both their careers hit a wall.
In his biography “The Long Trail” published in 2010, Ian Tyson claimed that during his marriage he had an extramarital affair and openly had carnal fun with his mistress in front of their young son. He admitted, “I wasn’t particularly sensitive about the whole issue.”
Ian Tyson moved back to the western United States after his marriage ended in divorce. He now works as a cowboy and horse trainer in Pincher Creek, Alberta. His songs, especially 1983’s “Old Corrals and Sagebrush,” contain a deeper layer of reflection on these events.
This was his third solo album, but the first to use only western songs. Even though Tyson didn’t have high hopes for the record, it was clear that he was finding his singing voice as he sang honest yet naive songs about farm life.
Tyson’s shift to traditional Western music in 1983 coincided with a growing interest in cowboy culture, as evidenced by the first Elko Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Nevada. Self-released in 1987, “Cowboyography” became a surprise word of mouth and revived Tyson’s touring career in Canada and the United States.
Even in Tyson’s private life, he was doing well. He first met Twylla Dvorkin, a waiter, in 1978. Tyson, then in his mid-40s, sought to bond with her despite teasing townspeople shocked by the age difference.
This happy couple tied the knot in 1986 and welcomed a baby girl a year later Adelita in the world. Despite the fact that their marriage lasted longer than Tyson’s first, the couple split in 2008. Tyson’s book is candid about their connection and the pain caused by its ending.
“I wanted to be honest and upfront about it,” he said in an interview the year his book came out. However, the divorce was difficult and contentious. Tyson’s long standing industry reputation for irritability is something he addresses several times in his book.
(He uses the word “hot-tempered.”) And yet he was also capable of brutal frankness, as evidenced by his memoir, which discusses his extramarital affairs, his arrest for marijuana possession, and his longtime rivalry with stars like Gordon Lightfoot and Stompin’ Tom Connors.
In the wake of his second divorce and health issues including arthritis, Tyson admitted he was having a hard time moving forward. A vocal problem that had previously forced Tyson to change his singing technique was also overcome. As his career progressed, his voice took on a more rough, hoarse tone.
In 2010, he explained, “The tough moments… made me deal with it in music.” And my horses and the music helped me get through it. However, the concept of a horse is more conceptual. The tunes were a great help. The volume of the song increased.
Hank Williams was right when he noted, “A wounded heart doesn’t hurt your songs.” In 2019, he will be permanently honored in the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame, among his many other musical accolades.
He was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame in 1992 alongside Sylvia Tyson, with whom he had co-written and performed on several of her albums. He is inducted into the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame, the Order of Canada, and received the Governor General’s Performing Arts Award in 2003.
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