Ian Tyson,
Raven Singer
(Stony Plain, 2012)

It is remarkable that Ian Tyson, whose first recording (with musical partner, then wife) Sylvia Fricker appeared in 1963, is still at it. Not only does the music continue, but the songs he writes grow ever deeper and moving. I suppose you could call him a singer-songwriter, but multitudes claim that identification, and Tyson is far ahead of nearly all the rest of that pack. In recent years he has complained that the songs don't come as readily as they once did, and Raven Singer's 10 cuts (one written at least two decades ago and recorded at the time), clocking in at a modest 34 minutes, attest as much, Still, even if difficult of birth, the new songs are strong and robust.

Tyson's distinctive gravelly light baritone was lost through an intersection of unfortunate circumstances six years ago. On his previous release, Yellowhead to Yellowstone (which I reviewed here on 28 March 2009), he was reduced to a half-speaking rasp, though in terms of sheer songwriting the album still managed to be among his finest. Raven Singer shows that Tyson has worked conscientiously to improve his range, and the vocals, if not what they were, are definitely better. The songs -- nine of them; the last cut, "The Yellow Dress," is an instrumental -- will satisfy any Tyson admirer.

Tyson is a folk singer in an old-fashioned sense, the leading musical figure in the cowboy-culture -- an authentic folk -- movement as well as a creature of the "folk" revival that brought him and Sylvia (the two long-since divorced but friendly) from Toronto to Greenwich Village, there to rub elbows and share stages with the likes of Bob Dylan, Dave Van Ronk, Judy Collins, Ramblin' Jack Elliott and the rest. The first song Tyson wrote, "Four Strong Winds," endures as something like Canada's second national anthem. When not performing, Tyson is a hard-working rancher in the Rocky Mountain country south of Calgary, Alberta.

Raven Singer keeps the music grounded: guitars, bass and drums, occasionally augmented by piano, mandolin, steel or pipes. The emphasis is on voice and story, the latter dark with romantic regret and memory. The opener, "Charles Goodnight's Grave," revisits a familiar Tyson theme, the shadows the Old West still casts on the New.

When Tyson isn't celebrating the old cowboy traditions (also the subject of the next cut, the revisited "The Circle is Through"), he's lamenting their imminent passing. But there isn't much of that here. Unusually, not quite every song is explicitly focused on Western ranching or rodeo experience. Two are bluntly, nakedly personal -- "Rio Colorado" (about a rafting trip that he used to heal his voice) and "Under African Skies" (a sojourn to Morocco to heal his heart). The biggest surprise may be the haunting "Song in a Dream," an ambitious, fully realized creation operating at several levels of meaning, contained within allusions to the traditional British Isles folksong "The Lark in the Morning."

My affection for Tyson's music is such that only the release of a new Dylan album excites me more. Raven Singer, a voice sounding in the twilight, is more than worth the wait.

music review by
Jerome Clark

16 June 2012

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