Ian Tyson, the Canadian folk legend turned cowboy storyteller who penned “Four Strong Winds” as one half of Ian & Sylvia, has died at age 89.
The Victoria native died Thursday at his ranch near Longview, Alta., following a series of ongoing health complications, according to his manager Paul Mascioli.
The singer-songwriter was a part of the influential folk movement in Toronto with his first wife, Sylvia Tyson. But he divided much of his life and career between two passions largely unrelated to his folkie past: living on his southern Alberta ranch and pursuing songs about the cowboy life.
Sylvia Tyson remembered her ex-husband as a “versatile” and “very serious songwriter.”
“He put a lot of time and energy into his songwriting and felt his material very strongly, especially the whole cowboy lifestyle,” she told The Canadian Press on Thursday.
Ian Tyson always found himself drawn to the frontier. In fact, he began perfecting his guitar skills when he was forced to recover from injuries sustained in the rodeo.
“The injury that I received at the time may have been traumatic, but it gave me a lot of material in the years forward,” Tyson said in a 2019 interview with The Canadian Press.
“A lot of pretty good songs came out of that phase.”
Born Sept. 25, 1933, to parents who emigrated from England, Tyson didn’t appear to have a hardscrabble upbringing. He attended private school and learned to play polo before discovering the rodeo.
He lived in Victoria until he was 15 and spent summers at his grandmother’s farm near Cadboro Bay. As a kid he read cowboy stories and dreamed of becoming one himself.
Once he graduated from the Vancouver School of Art in 1958, Tyson hitchhiked to Toronto. He was swept up in the city’s burgeoning folk movement, where legends including Gordon Lightfoot, Neil Young and Joni Mitchell would eventually ply their talents in smoke-filled hippie coffee houses in the bohemian Yorkville neighbourhood.
Tyson soon met a kindred spirit named Sylvia Fricker and they began a relationship — onstage and off — in 1959. They moved to New York together where they met manager Albert Grossman — who steered Peter, Paul and Mary and would soon count Bob Dylan as a client. He signed Ian & Sylvia to Vanguard Records.
Their self-titled debut was released in 1962, a collection of mostly traditional songs. Their second album, 1964’s Four Strong Winds, was the duo’s breakthrough, thanks in large part to its wistful title track, one of the only original compositions on the album.
The pair married in 1964 and continued releasing new records. But as the popularity of folk waned, the duo moved to Nashville and began integrating strains of country and rock into their sound.
In 1969, the Tysons explored that new fusion by forming the country-rock outfit Great Speckled Bird, whose influential self-titled debut dropped in 1970.
They had a child, Clay, in 1968 but the couple grew apart as their careers began to stall in the ’70s, and they divorced in 1975.
In his 2010 memoir, The Long Trail, Ian Tyson admitted that he was pursuing a relationship with another woman during his marriage, and even cavorted with his mistress openly in front of their son, who was a child at the time.
“I wasn’t being very sensitive about the whole thing, that’s for sure,” he wrote.
After their marriage dissolved, Ian Tyson decided to move back West and return to ranch life, training horses and cowboying in Pincher Creek, Alta. These experiences increasingly filtered through his songwriting, particularly on 1983’s Old Corrals and Sagebrush.
Though the album was his third solo release, it was his first devoted entirely to Western material. Tyson had modest expectations for the album, but it was clear he was discovering his voice.
Tyson’s move toward traditional Western music happened at an opportune moment: 1983 also marked the inaugural Elko Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Nevada, evidence of the burgeoning interest in cowboy culture.
Tyson’s self-released 1987 album, Cowboyography, became a surprising word-of-mouth hit and rejuvenated Tyson’s touring career in Canada and the U.S.
Things were going well in Tyson’s personal life, too. In 1978, he met a waitress named Twylla Dvorkin. She was only 17 at the time, but Tyson — then in his mid-40s — pursued a relationship with her despite the gossiping of locals scandalized by the couple’s age difference.
The couple married in 1986 and had a daughter, Adelita, a year later. Their relationship proved longer lasting than Tyson’s first marriage, but still, the couple eventually divorced in 2008. Tyson wrote honestly about the relationship — and the still-fresh wounds created by its dissolution — in his book.
“I wanted to be honest about it and fair,” he said in an interview the year his book was released. “But it was a tough divorce and pretty acrimonious.”
Tyson long held a reputation in the industry for being prickly, which he referenced several times in his book (using the adjective “irascible”). But he could also be unflinchingly honest, and his memoir found him delving into his infidelity, his drug arrest for marijuana possession and his long-ago feuds with other Canadian icons, including Lightfoot and Stompin’ Tom Connors.
Tyson admitted he struggled in the aftermath of his second divorce and was slowed by health problems, including arthritis. He also conquered a vocal problem that forced him to change his singing style. In the latter section of his career, his voice had a grittier, more gravelly quality.
“Through the difficult times … I handled it inside the music,” he said in 2010. “The music really pulled me through, and my horses. But the horse thing, that’s a more abstract kind of thing. The music really helped a lot. The music got stronger, you know.
“Hank Williams said a broken heart doesn’t hurt your songwriting, and he was sure right about that.”
He also picked up numerous awards for his music, including an induction into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2019.
In 1987, he won a Juno Award for country male vocalist of the year and five years later he was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame alongside Sylvia Tyson. He won a Governor General’s Performing Arts Award in 2003, and has been named to the Order of Canada and the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame.
Tyson continued to release music late into his career, including the 2015 album Carnero Vaquero and the 2017 single You Should Have Known.
But doctors’ exams related to a heart attack and subsequent open-heart surgery in 2015 left permanent damage to his voice. That didn’t necessarily slow him down.
Tyson continued to perform live concerts, including a series of shows with country performer Corb Lund in 2018 that marked a celebration of cowboy songs and stories.
They first met a decade earlier, after Lund recorded a Tyson song for The Gift, a 2007 tribute album of Tyson songs. Meeting his idol was a dream come true, Lund told the Times Colonist at the time. “If you’re a cowboy kid from Alberta, Ian is over-arching. You grew up with him — he’s the guy.”
Tyson’s heart problems returned and forced him to cancel an August appearance that year. Despite the setbacks, he continued to play his guitar at home.
“I think that’s the key to my hanging in there because you’ve gotta use it or lose it,” Tyson said a year after the cancellation.
“When you get to a certain age in life, which I’ve attained and probably passed, it’s hard to stay fairly sharp with the instrument. But I’ve committed myself to doing that. It’s paying off, I’m playing pretty good, in spite of all the broken bones and so on over the years.”
Tyson was one of the last remaining singing cowboys, a genre that was once a thriving subset of traditional country music.
“People have been saying this for the last 140 years, but this really is the last of it," he told the Times Colonist in 2018. "I’m very grateful that I got to ride with those [cowboys]. I rode in the deserts of Nevada, and in the mountains of Eastern Oregon. I was cowboy enough that I could do that.”
When asked in 2014 to compare his two lifelong loves — ranching and music — he hesitated.
“They’re both never-ending journeys,” Tyson finally said. “And the journey ends when you tip over. It doesn’t end until you die.”
— With files from the Times Colonist