Ian Tyson,
Songs from the Gravel Road
(Vanguard/Stony Plain, 2005)

To many listeners, including me, a new Ian Tyson album is a big deal. Tyson has been recording since 1963, when he and Sylvia Fricker (whom he subsequently married) released the first Ian & Sylvia album on Vanguard.

Ian & Sylvia were the most visible Canadian act on the 1960s folk scene, arriving before Gordon Lightfoot but covering two of his songs before Lightfoot himself cut them and went on to become something of a pop star. The Tysons' act faded in the 1970s along with their marriage, and Ian ended up, retired from the music business, establishing a ranch in southern Alberta, which he financed in part from the pleasantly outsized royalty checks generated by Neil Young's recording of his classic "Four Strong Winds" (not long ago, by the way, the winner of a poll in which Canadians picked the best song ever written about their country). In time, though he himself has never been what most would think of as a country singer, he hosted a Canadian country-music show.

By the 1980s he was both living the ranching life and singing about it within the emerging Western music and cowboy-poet movement. Because non-Westerners remembered him fondly from Ian & Sylvia days, he also attracted attention and sold records outside the cowboy circuit. He is a superstar in that realm, judged almost universally to be its most gifted performer and composer. His music hasn't changed much, though the arrangements (at least on the records) are richer, with a full band sound; the folk ballad is still the template, the songs set -- with a handful of exceptions -- in the modern West.

In his previous album of new material, Lost Herd (Vanguard, 1999), he placed a saxophone into the mix on four songs. The horn wasn't there for the purpose of fashioning big-band Bob Wills Western swing or giving the songs an R&B punch, but to deepen the colors of an already autumnal atmosphere. Somehow the experiment, while it did not exactly garner unanimous praise, was pulled off. Lost Herd, a lament for the passing of the rural West, is generally ranked among Tyson's most brilliant recordings -- not because of the sax, but owing to the consistency and power of the writing.

Songs from the Gravel Road brings trumpet or soprano saxophone into four cuts, and they add nothing. "So No More," which one assumes is inspired by the collapse not long ago of Tyson's second marriage, has a smooth-jazz undercurrent that gives a decently crafted song a kind of cheesy ambiance. I say this knowing that Tyson, a jazz fan, has little patience for those of us who are not enamored of his horn experiments; he calls us "Little Joe the Wranglers," which is Western-speak, I guess, for mouldy figs. Still, the muted trumpet on "Love Without End," set lyrically in a wide-open landscape and sonically in a smoky nightclub, is no more than indulgence, an exercise in superfluous noodling that nearly sinks the tune in a MORish ("middle of the road") muck. I plead innocent to both Wranglerism and figgery, by the way.

The hornless "Range Delivery," sung with Cindy Church, is space-filling fluff set to a twee pop/reggae melody. "Always Saying Goodbye" is not an awful song, just an undistinguished one, with the aesthetic appeal of an outtake from Ian & Sylvia's jarringly uneven 1968 Nashville, which the couple recorded to get themselves out of their Vanguard contract so that they could go on to cut a couple of mediocre albums for MGM. There is nothing on Songs as dreadful as "Ballad of the Ugly Man" or "90 Degrees by 90 Degrees," but Nashville does come to mind as the misfires echo painfully in the ear this time around.

There are, on the other hand, some solid songs, such as the opening cut, the anthemic "This is My Sky," a rueful reflection on life's -- in particular, Ian Tyson's life's -- defeats and comforts, set under Alberta's big sky. To his credit, given that many of his fans are deeply conservative red-staters (some of whom have already howled), he dares to pen an uncharacteristic political lyric, an unflattering aside addressed to Bush-era America. "The Ambler Saddle," celebrating the immortal Alberta-born rodeo champion Jerry Ambler (d. 1958), seems almost a joke riff -- a narrative from the saddle's point of view -- but it works, and it works well indeed. Probably only Tyson could pull it off.

Other high points include a tastefully unadorned string-band arrangement of the Anglo-Celtic folk song "One Morning in May" -- there are cowboy variants in the tradition, but interestingly, this isn't one of them -- and a touching yet sap-free remembrance of a beloved dog, "Casey's Gone." "Moisture" affectionately evokes Albertans' penchant for whining about their lousy weather, though as a Minnesotan I know the feeling.

As I listen to Songs, I find myself reflecting that I'd like this album better if it were somebody else's. The problem is that Tyson is so good that he sets a high expectation bar, and this doesn't reach it. Still, it is a marvel that at 71 years, fighting heartache that even younger men struggle to endure, he still sings clearly and affectingly, and he still can write the good song and, more often than most, the exceptional one, too. If this is less than a wholly successful effort, it's only because we know what Tyson is capable of. On the other hand, even a spotty Tyson recording is to be preferred -- infinitely -- to no Tyson recording at all. Let's hope, though, that he has a few more great Ian Tyson songs in him.

- Rambles
written by Jerome Clark
published 28 May 2005

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