Friday, January 24, 2014

Cowboyography - Ian Tyson

Ian Tyson
Sugar Hill Records SH-1021

This is the 1987 American release of the Ian Tyson solo album originally released on Stony Plain Records in Canada.  I have been reading Tyson's memoir "The Long Trail."  I was primarily interested in reading about Ian and Sylvia, but Tyson has very little interest in that period of his life and career as it is confined to a little more than a chapter.  Most of the book is devoted to his childhood, his solo career and most particularly his experiences with horses.  He distances himself from Ian and Sylvia suggesting that it was not really his style or vision, observing that "our duo was based on Sylvia's concept of harmony."  I was not happy reading about his ambivalence about that music, because I idolize Ian and Sylvia and treasure their albums.  This is the album Tyson seems most proud of and I like it too, but I would not trade it for any of my Ian and Sylvia albums.  As you can probably tell from the title, the record is about cowboys and their lives and beliefs, something Tyson greatly identifies with.  The record opens strongly with "Navajo Rug" which Tyson co-wrote with the country singer, Tom Russell.  In the song, Tyson reminisces about a love affair with a diner waitress that took place on the titular rug.  It has a jaunty tune and a warm vocal from Tyson.  Ian and Sylvia cut a folk rock version of "Summer Wages" in 1967 on "So Much For Dreaming" and then a country rock version in 1971 on "Ian and Sylvia."  Tyson delivers a straight country version of it on this album.  I prefer the 1971 one myself but I don't mind him taking another crack at it, it is one of the best songs he ever wrote.  The fiddling on this tune is very pretty.  "Springtime" is a detailed description of life on his ranch and in the cattle country on the eastern slope of the Canadian Rockies up in Alberta.  In "Fifty Years Ago" Ian sings about a guy nostalgically recalling a youth spent busting broncos and wooing the prostitute he was in love with back then.  It is an upbeat song driven by some lovely piano lines.  Tyson slows things down for the similarly themed "Rockies Turn Rose" in which the subject of the song finds himself in Texas missing the girl he once loved up in Calgary.  Tyson's evocative vocal reminds me of the great Lefty Frizzell.  The side concludes with "Claude Dallas" written by Tyson and Tom Russell.  It is based on a true story in which a poacher, Claude Dallas, murdered two game wardens in Idaho and then escaped from prison after being convicted.  The song is sympathetic to Dallas and suggests that he may not have been in the wrong.  I suppose that might be true, aside from Dallas the only guys who really know what happened are dead.  Nonetheless my sympathies are with the families of the men Dallas murdered, I have no use for songs that glorify criminals.  I don't care for the lyrics, but musically this is one of the best songs on the record.  It has a compelling melody that gives it a lot narrative drive.  Side two opens with "Own Heart's Delight" which Tyson wrote about his second wife, Twylla, and their life together on his ranch.  It is a romantic song sweetened with lyrical steel guitar and fiddle lines.  "The Gift" was inspired by a painting by Charles Marion Russell that Tyson viewed in the Montana state capitol building in Helena.  The song celebrates Russell's life and his art.  In "Cowboy Pride" he admonishes a fellow cowboy who has left his wife and ranch to run off with an underage waitress to go back home.  He attributes his behavior to his "cowboy pride" but it sounds more like a mid-life crisis to me.  There may be a little autobiography in this song, Tyson did a little wild living in his 40s and Twylla was 17 when he met her in a bar where she served the food.  The tune is a little too mellow for my taste, but it gives Tyson plenty of opportunities to display the wonderful resonant tones of his voice.  "Old Cheyenne" is about rodeos and bull-riding.  It is another remake, dating back to the final Ian and Sylvia album, "You Were on My Mind."  I prefer the original which is more uptempo, but I think Tyson sings better in the remake.  The rider in this song is shaken after seeing his friend get killed riding a bull and he's looking for his lover's help to get out of that life.  Tyson sings the song with a lot of feeling and Adrian Chornowol's piano playing at the end of the song gives the song a graceful finish.  The album ends with "The Coyote & The Cowboy" in which a cowboy compares his life with that of the coyote with the coyote coming out on top.  The song is done as a quasi-live sing-a-long with plenty of comments and noises from the audience.  It ends the album on a warm, light-hearted note.  This is a very likeable record with a consistent theme and tone that I find very appealing, that is one of things I like about albums.  It is almost a concept album in that regard.  Musically I like my country music to be a little rawer and have more bite, this is kind of slick, but Tyson is such a great singer that he can deliver some of the punch that the music lacks.  Recommended to people who think that if a country singer wears a cowboy hat, he ought to know something about being a cowboy.  I doubt that there are any in Nashville that know more about it than Tyson. 

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