November 2, 2010
As with many others in the audience a couple of years back when famed Canadian troubadour Ian Tyson last blew through Hebertown as a featured performer for the "Cowboy Poetry Gathering," I was somewhat taken aback by the dramatic change in his singing voice.
Where smooth river rock once populated the lower registers, rough-edged gravel now held forth. We would learn later that the root cause of this seemingly catastrophic vocal transformation transpired when the strain of attempting to overcome a less-than-adequate sound system at an earlier show collided with the onset of an ornery vigilante virus.
What transpired among the Tyson faithful, however, proved equally surprising. Before long, we became more comfortable with his new sound. It lent itself quite well to his latest batch of postmodern cowpoke ballads, "Yellowhead to Yellowstone and Other Love Stories."
By the middle of his set we had become downright smitten hootin’ and hollerin’ and stompin’ and singing along off-key at high volume with our own gravel-based vocals once he had taught us our parts. Some of his stories, of course, riveted us in place when the obvious deep reverence they rode in on became apparent. If a pin had dropped, it would have been strung up on the spot.
The good news is that Ian Tyson is returning to Heber for this week’s 16th edition of the annual Cowboy Poetry Gathering. There really isn’t any bad news unless it’s that he’s only performing one show, Saturday evening, November 6 at 7:30 p.m. in the Wasatch High School Auditorium.
The man who wrote "Four Strong Winds," "Someday Soon," and "Navajo Rug," and who performed for years as part of the seminal folk duo "Ian and Sylvia," has never really lost his power. His craft remains one of high compositional and performance art.
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A true shaman of the historical Western horseman ethic, Ian Tyson holds forth in quite rarified air. Roaming a landscape where not everyone claiming the distinction truly embodies the inventiveness of a poet, Tyson has routinely corralled the vernacular of his space-time into what could only be termed classic Western literature put to song.
And then there’s his stage-side manner which, while not overly folksy, certainly imparts a welcoming vibe to the faithful. As a sidekick to both Dylan and Lightfoot during the heady early days of the 1960s folk revival, Tyson easily connects with both those who have followed his evolving career over the years and those who have only recently joined his ever-expanding posse.
I believe his "new" voice might even add to the quiet intensity of his current work. Possibly it is now less of a vocal reach for him to evoke the nobility and dignity inherent to the protagonists inhabiting his quite creatively-packaged storylines.
They often play out in black and white in a kind of "equine noir." The herd is restless. Something’s in the air — something much more esoteric and unnerving than a sidewinder, a drygulcher, or a rustler. These are times when nightriders stumble into unforeseen depths of metaphorical limbo. It is a nature more obscure.
Tyson is also a historian of some repute whose lyrics are sprinkled liberally with insights gained from both personal experience and long hours immersed in the literature of his chosen Western lifestyle, especially of horse culture.
In "La Primera," he traces the horse’s return to North America, where it originally evolved before totally disappearing from the landscape. Among the first Spanish horses loaded aboard ships in 1493 for the grueling voyage to the "New World" was the survivor "La Primera," to whose bloodlines all wild mustangs can be traced.
Through her offspring, she soon appeared with Cortez and his Conquistadors in Mexico before serving both Comanches and cowboys farther north. To this day, they continue to thrive amid the labyrinths of the rugged western panorama. The work snorts, and rears, and gallops, as any pure Ian Tyson composition involving his beloved horse must.
He’s been at his musical art for five decades now, combining chores at his ranch just south of Alberta with a touring schedule that, fortunately, brings him back to Heber City this coming Saturday night. The quite hip and swinging "Hot Club of Cowtown" is also on the bill. If you haven’t yet caught the new Ian Tyson vocal style, check it out. It’s a regular "hoarse opera."
Jay Meehan is a culture junkie and a free-lance writer with a background in commercial and community radio, among other pursuits. He has been a columnist and feature writer for various Park City publications going back to 1973.