Tom Russell,
Play One More: The Songs of Ian & Sylvia
(True North, 2017)

It's remarkable -- in contrast to some of their contemporaries -- how fresh and timeless Ian & Sylvia sound even now, decades after the 1960s and the folk boom that spawned them. While remaining within the genre, both went on to separate performing careers after their divorce in the 1970s, Sylvia Fricker Tyson from her base in Toronto, Ian Tyson from his ranch in Alberta. I am more familiar, I confess, with Ian's later music than with Sylvia's. His most recent, and perhaps final, album is the late-life triumph Carnero Vaquero, which I reviewed here on 30 May 2015.

Besides their masterly way with traditional songs and the occasional Dylan or Lightfoot cover, the Tysons were praised both for subtly sophisticated arrangements and for their brilliant original compositions, especially Ian's "Four Strong Winds" and Sylvia's "You Were on My Mind." There were others just as good, if known only to their fans. Veteran folksinger and songwriter Tom Russell, who lives in Santa Fe, is friends and an occasional collaborator with both. On Play One More (also the title of a 1966 album by the Tysons) Russell revisits songs mostly, not exclusively, from their Ian & Sylvia years, and happily not the well-known ones, which are adequately documented elsewhere. The most recent, "When the Wolves No Longer Sing," a Russell/Ian Tyson co-write, appeared in Ian's version on Carnero Vaquero.

The album opens with the haunting "Wild Geese," from their 1966 Vanguard recording So Much for Dreaming, a melodic, melancholic reflection that has always ranked among my favorites. It's classic Ian, its lyrics evoking a winter landscape and a natural world in which "fresh otter tracks in the snow" are visible along the banks of a stream. (Has anybody ever used that particular image? Would anyone else have thought of it?) The world has produced a fair number of songs about rodeo riders, and some are pretty good, but "Old Cheyenne" is just about sui generis, a novel's worth of narrative playing out in four and a half minutes. Likewise "The Renegade" (with melody by Sylvia), a sad, pointed ballad about a self-destructive episode driven by alienation and hopelessness.

More upliftingly, "Short Grass" is yet another of the exceptional songs that flowed from the couple's collaboration. Its theme, a celebration of Western ranch life, anticipates Ian's later days as the dominant musical figure of the cowboy-culture movement.

Sylvia, who grew up in a small town in Ontario, contributes a vivid story-song I hadn't heard before, "The Night the Chinese Restaurant Burned Down," less about the loss of an eating establishment than the desire to escape into the larger world. She appears as herself in one of the two Ian & Sylvia-era demos concluding the album. Here it's the bluesy "Grey Morning," stripped down from the band version on Dreaming. The other demo, "The French Girl," is just Ian and guitar. The initial recorded version (on Play One More) was set in a string arrangement which, while not awful as such things go, has always struck me as needlessly inflated.

"As Hemingway studied Cezanne at the Louvre Museum in the '20s," Russell recalls in the liner notes, "I studied Ian and Sylvia in the '60s." Though Russell grew into a deservedly acclaimed songwriter himself, the Tysons' influence on at least some of his by now considerable output remains. They've never had a better student. In recreating their songs he keeps things simple, as they were on Ian & Sylvia's early releases. He plays acoustic guitar, and Grant Siemens accompanies him on guitar, acoustic or electric, with Cindy Church showing up for occasional harmony vocals. The emphasis, in other words, is on the songs and the stories.

Russell's voice is not exactly like Ian's distinctive low tenor, but here and there an unexpected resemblance bordering on impersonation startled me. Then again, the man knows how these songs should be sung. Occasionally, I found myself wishing for the addition of a fiddle or a mandolin to fill the sound out a little, but no big thing. Play One More is an expertly tuned tribute to two of the most gifted artists of the folk era and beyond.

music review by
Jerome Clark

3 June 2017

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