Ian Tyson,
All the Good 'Uns, Vol. 2
(Stony Plain, 2013)

The onetime designation "country-western" -- which lives on only in the vocabularies of those blissfully unversed in country music -- acknowledged the now long-gone likes of Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, Sons of the Pioneers, Marty Robbins and other acts not quite so famous. Except for Riders in the Sky, made up of accomplished musicians who have resurrected the style with nods and winks amid the genuine affection, there is no "western" in country anymore. (For that matter, there isn't a whole lot left of country in country either.) The "western" material drew its inspiration from absurdly unrealistic early cowboy movies, and the music was pure 20th-century, pre-rock 'n' roll pop, nothing at all like what was actually sung on the range.

Canada's Ian Tyson is not "western" in that sense, and he certainly can't be classed as country. His unique career spans decades, first as a folk singer (half of Ian & Sylvia) on the Greenwich Village scene in the early 1960s alongside such other still-active luminaries as Bob Dylan, Judy Collins, Ramblin' Jack Elliott and Tom Paxton. In the early 1980s, divorced from Sylvia and operating a ranch in southern Alberta, he found a different kind of folk audience in the cowboy culture of the western provinces and states. Since then, he has recorded a series of acclaimed albums, consisting primarily of his own songs written in an authentic style, though performed and recorded in modern band arrangements. By "authentic" I mean a conscious continuation of the Scots-Irish ballad tradition which shaped the music working cowboys sang in their heyday.

All the Good 'Uns, Vol. 2 picks up the story since 1996, when the first volume, a retrospective on his first 15 years as a western-folk artist, was issued. The past 17 years saw some jarring upheavals in Tyson's personal life, occasionally alluded to in the lyrics, and in his professional life, after a disastrous incident reduced his low tenor to a low growl; both voices are represented in the current collection. (In the past year or two, surgery and vocal exercises have restored most of his old singing voice.) The current retrospective draws from the five CDs Tyson cut from 1999's Lost Herd (a masterpiece, I think) to 2012's Raven Singer (uneven but well worth hearing). Tyson and Holger Petersen, head of Stony Plain Records, selected the 19 numbers.

Except for Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg's "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" -- a fine song, albeit hardly a neglected one requiring a Tyson to revive it -- the choices are good ones, which is to say ones I probably would have picked myself in the profoundly unlikely event I'd been asked. I would have included "Roll On, Owyhee" from Lost Herd, though I suppose Tyson and Petersen figured that Herd was already well represented at six cuts. Among these, incidentally, is the evocative, dream-like "Smuggler's Cove" -- surely among the most powerful of Tyson's many compositions. Keep in mind that we're talking about the man responsible for "Four Strong Winds," and that was, hard though it may be to believe, his first venture into songwriting.

Tyson's subject is the West, almost always the modern one, fading away in the face of social and economic change driven by encroaching suburbanization and environmental retreat. Tyson may be something of a romantic, but he's hardly a starry-eyed one. The individuals of whom he sings tend to be more stubborn than wise. Ross Knox -- a real man and a cowboy poet as well as the title of a song here (originally on Yellowhead to Yellowstone, from 2008) -- is at the receiving of some gentle fun for his bull-headed ways. "Ross Knox" happens to be a parody of a centuries-old ballad of scattered and murky origin, "Lord Lovel" (Child 75). Evidently not the first; writing in 1886, Prof. Child remarked that many had "taken pleasure in parodying it." I surmise that Tyson originally encountered "Lovel" on Alan Lomax's 1958 album Texas Folk Songs, which is also the likely source of Tyson's very first recorded cowboy song, the traditional "Rambler Gambler," on Ian & Sylvia's debut album in 1963.

It ought also to be noted that Tyson possesses the rare talent of telling stories from an animal's point of view without sounding sentimental or ridiculous. Good 'Uns has two examples, "La Primera" (horses) and (co-written with Stewart MacDougall) "Yellowhead to Yellowstone" (wolves), both -- rather astonishingly -- feeling like fully realized epics. Less ambitiously, there is a single country song, a waltz titled "Fiddler Must Be Paid" which, though not a line is not a cliche of some kind, moves the listener into sympathetic gloom. I am impressed, I might add, that in Tyson's West gunslingers and firearms appear practically never. His characters brood over disappointments and broken hearts, and they ride and work hard, but they don't shoot at each other.

Tyson turns 80 in September. When he's gone, which I hope is not soon, nobody will fill those boots.

music review by
Jerome Clark

17 August 2013

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