November 8, 2006
"Think I’ll go out to Alberta,
weather’s good there in the fall."
The stories play out on many levels. Cattle may turn up missing from the herd, or maybe it’s the entire herd that’s mysteriously uprooted, or quite possibly it’s the cowpoke himself who is no longer on familiar ground. But then again, there is always the off chance that what is actually involved is a deeper reality, a nature more obscure, a landscape long forgotten.
Welcome to the art of Ian Tyson and his world of high-consciousness and low expectations. Up in southern Alberta, Canada, where he’s been ranching and composing songs ever since the seminal folk duo, Ian and Sylvia, split their musical and housekeeping sheets back in the day, Tyson’s time is spent mostly with chores and reflection upon songcraft and a "West" that "was once a big empty space" but that is disappearing along with the metaphorical herd.
A few years back, he became engrossed in literature and began reading everything he could get his hands on in order to quench a curiosity that knew few bounds. The horse culture grew in his esteem to the point where some of his songs and stories are told from their perspective without a hoot given to the human in the saddle and his particular tale of woe.
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A sagebrush troubadour with a lilt of voice that would put a night-herder into a trance, his songs harken to changes of the seasons and integration into one’s natural setting. There is a muse that has the paintings and artistic values of Western artist Charles Russell and questions as to the role of art and artist in the wilds of North America always close at hand. The picture is always much larger, and deeper, than it would seem with Ian Tyson.
The detail of lifestyle in his work often overwhelms. When he sings of a vaquero and his tapederos you are taken at once into the day-to-day life of the Mexican horseman and the hooded stirrups of his saddle. The aroma of mesquite is thick upon the nostril and the sombrero is tied tight as the horse gallops off to nudge rebel calves back to the group.
But the musical vignettes hold more than the pastoral views of Ansel Adams settings. Predators and prey play out their methodical tangos under moonscapes of evolved eons within universes that have existed before and, sure as shootin,’ will again. Sagas are sensed rather than witnessed in a visual sense. These are wide open spaces of the interior landscape where the heart also takes its turn eating dust and riding "drag."
A deep love of nature and wildness pervades each harmonic prospect both lulling and jarring in the profoundness of their arrival. A subtle sadness brought on by inevitable change lays like dew upon the prairie. The new flees from the past and the lore contained therein. Words that once were are no longer. Natural vocabulary is lost. A transcendental silence, so rooted in the whole it makes your ears ring, is all that is left.
There are flashbacks to 1493 and the return of horses to North America with Cortez and his Conquistadores and trails of time as, first, the indigenous and, later, the cowboys, acquire their own mounts and specific and collective cultures are transformed. Within the songscapes, earth was created for man, but not for those who do not understand its wild places.
It is the artist in Tyson that best depicts the connections between the day-to-day life of the working cowhands and the natural settings within which they find themselves. He sees it as an integration process that takes place both subliminally and, with rope in hand, in the conscious now. Those who squat around campfires may have forgotten the old words that once roamed this range, but, know it or not, they are constantly being spoken to.
Those who came to Tyson by way of the heavenly harmonies of Ian and Sylvia and have not born witness to his transformation to poet and philosopher during the past 30-some-odd years will find a man reborn of his own device. You’ll recognize him right-off however. As a wordsmith, he remains as singular as the composer of "Four Strong Winds" and "Someday Soon."
Now, however, there are incantations — chants, if you will — that call upon past legends and colors of long-ago dawns to return to us with redemption and absolution. This is a cowboy who never lost that which was subterranean and underground during the ’60s. He just added to it. He went deeper and found himself and a radicalism of spirit in the wild and woolly West along the way.
In recent times, Tyson has become the musical poster child of the cowboy poetry scene. Not that he’s what you think of when the phrase "cowboy poet" passes through your inner ear. Tyson has raised his craft to artistry. Where a cowboy poet is allowed as many verses as he wishes to resolve the usually quite hilarious and ironic storylines, Ian Tyson’s writes literature — very short stories, if you will.
In the length of a three-minute song, he takes you through a novel’s worth of character study and plot. You want setting intrinsic to culture? Well saddle up, amigo, and prepare to meet history draped in knack and know-how. Imagination, ingenuity, and inventiveness escape from hoosegows and hide out in the hills. Resolution takes a backseat. Both the micros and macros are works in progress.
But all this is not to say that one needs sense and sensibility to "get" Ian Tyson. As mentioned previous, his shtick is multi-leveled and includes a topsoil of seeming superficiality that, in itself, is high art. His are stories that play to any who listen – and best to those who listen deeply.
And now to the crux of the matter. Ian Tyson is bringing his instinctive and highly entertaining art-form to Wasatch High School in Heber this Friday evening as part of the annual Cowboy Poetry Gathering. It is the stuff of trail drives and cathouses and a spirit-world gone missing. It’s about notions of passion and tenderness and touch. It’s an Ian Tyson landscape.