various artists,
The Gift: A Tribute to Ian Tyson
(Stony Plain, 2007)

Years ago, interviewed by the New York Times, Ian Tyson remarked wryly that throughout his career he had always had a folk audience. He was referring, in fact, to two "folk audiences" -- the first the folk-revival crowd of his days with Ian & Sylvia, the second a fan base of actual folk: ranchers, cowboys and farmers who live and toil in the Western regions of North America. In the early 1980s Tyson, now a working rancher in southern Alberta, rose to renewed prominence, this time as a musical spokesman for the emerging cowboy-culture movement, where he remains a widely admired, even revered figure.

Except for a brief detour into country music (with the critically acclaimed but commercially failed Great Speckled Bird, toward the end of his marriage to Sylvia Fricker Tyson), Tyson's basic songwriting approach remains firmly rooted in the Anglo-Celtic ballad tradition, just like the original cowboy songs of the 19th century. Though now usually performed in front of a full band, those songs don't represent any radical departure from ones he was writing in the early days. "Someday Soon," "Short Grass," "The Renegade," "Old Cheyenne" and others, all set in the post-frontier modern West, would fit comfortably alongside anything he's written since.

There is only one Ian Tyson, and that Ian Tyson is as good a songwriter as the folk revival -- or Canada itself -- has produced, and a cowboy poet to rival the great Charles Badger Clark (1863-1957). "Four Strong Winds" -- incredibly, the first song he ever wrote, its inspiration another wind song, freshly made, that Bob Dylan had just sung to him: something called "Blowin' in the Wind" -- is a kind of alternative national Canadian anthem.

Tyson's weathered baritone is so distinctive that not only his songs but his performances of them have a way of putting themselves inside one's head and staying there. Many artists (among them Neil Young, Bobby Bare, Judy Collins, Johnny Cash) have covered his songs, some more successfully than others, of course, but nobody has ever done a Tyson song better than its creator.

That's true of The Gift: A Tribute to Ian Tyson, following by four years the multi-artist salute to Canada's other folk icon, Beautiful: A Tribute to Gordon Lightfoot. Lightfoot himself appears here, though from a 1987 version of "Red Velvet" recorded for an album under his own name. (Ian & Sylvia, who covered "For Lovin' Me" and "Early Morning Rain" in 1965, were first to serve notice of Lightfoot's particular songwriting genius to the world beyond the Toronto folk clubs.) Most of Gift's other offerings are from Canadian singers and bands; the exceptions, all Americans, include old Tyson pals Ramblin' Jack Elliott and Tom Russell, plus Los Angeles chanteuse Jennifer Warnes, who turns in an agreeable folk-pop reading of "Blue Mountains of Mexico."

To give the album what it deserves, though, you may have to do as I did: keep reminding yourself that nobody here is Ian Tyson and that each performance has to be heard and judged with that simple consideration -- in both senses of the word -- in mind.

That means that your brain doesn't shut down at the opening cut the moment it grasps that Blue Rodeo has arranged "Four Strong Winds" as a kind of 1970s California country-rock tune, in other words with vocals and harmonies inspired by the slick folk ("fauxk") groups of the early 1960s combined with honkytonk-inflected electric and steel guitars and percussion. The consequence would probably be more jarring to my ears if the first recording of "Winds" I heard personally hadn't been done by the markedly ungritty Brothers Four. While it's certainly listenable, what gets lost in Blue Rodeo's translation is the song's most striking element, its unforgettable way of communicating what distance and loss feel like.

Corb Lund's reading of "M.C. Horses" isn't much different from Tyson's, except that -- inevitably, alas -- it shows up the latter's superior singing and interpretive skills even when you're trying not to think that. In the Good Brothers' handling, "Summer Wages" --among my all-time Tyson favorites (and, incidentally, not a cowboy ballad) -- turns into a smooth commercial folk exercise, with autoharp and banjo, two instruments I haven't heard associated with a Tyson recording since Ian & Sylvia. It may not be Tyson, but it's not bad either.

Some performers take an even more minimalist approach. With Elliott (a new recording of "Will James," done previously on his 1995, Grammy-winning South Coast) and Russell, it's just acoustic guitars, perfectly effective, and especially so in Russell's grave and unsparing "Old Cheyenne," among the most wrenching, least sentimental rodeo ballads ever conceived, and a flat-out masterpiece. The title song, which celebrates the famous Western artist Charles M. Russell (1864-1926), receives an endearingly grizzled recreation, like something you might hear in a Western saloon sung by a cowboy with a few whiskeys in him, from former Tyson band member and longtime Canadian folk fixture David Rea. Russell's sketches of frontier scenes grace the cover and interior of the album.

Another standout is the McDades' "Smuggler's Cove," a fairly recent Tyson composition (on his 1999 Lost Herd), a lovely song calling up the writer's memories of his childhood in British Columbia, here treated as if an old Irish ballad. Impressively reworked by The Circle of Flames with Buddy Cage (Cage is an ex-Great Speckled Bird), "Someday Soon" doesn't sound like anything Judy Collins and Suzy Bogguss would have recorded.

At 74, Tyson is slowing down, on a reduced touring schedule and shorter stage time, fresh songs arriving with ever decreasing frequency. His last album (Songs from a Gravel Road, which I reviewed in this space on 28 May 2005) was something of a disappointment. When Tyson's gone, nobody will fill his space, and others will be left to sing his songs. The Gift, a gift to Tyson in honor of all the gifts he's given the rest of us, prepares us for that day. It's a worthy project -- not Tyson, but not bad either.

review by
Jerome Clark

22 September 2007

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