Ian Tyson,
Carnero Vaquero
(Stony Plain, 2015)

Revisiting his 1984 song "Will James" on his new album, Carnero Vaquero, Ian Tyson recalls his early cowboying on "Dead Man Creek" as occurring "some 60 years ago." The original has it "30 years and more." Yes, it's been a long time. It's also been a unique career.

Now 81, Tyson, who ranches in southern Alberta, came into prominence with the 1960s folk boom. Then, he was half of the duo Ian & Sylvia with Sylvia Fricker. When he started writing his own songs, he produced the likes of "Four Strong Winds," which would become a beloved folk standard, and more. Some of them ("Someday Soon," "Short Grass," "Old Cheyenne") were Western-themed. After he and Sylvia divorced, Tyson for a period removed himself from the music industry to purchase a ranch, financed in good part with the royalties from Neil Young's cover of "Winds." By the 1980s, as the cowboy culture movement was emerging in the Rocky Mountain region of Canada and the United States, Tyson found a new artistic home. While he is hardly the only musician in that movement, nobody disputes that he is its most revered one. Since then, he's issued a series of albums focused on modern cowboy life.

I suppose there's something inherently romantic in the notion of cowpunchers, ranchers and rodeo riders, but Tyson is not a romantic in any easy, sentimental sense. Nor is he a modern-day Gene Autry, Sons of the Pioneers or Marty Robbins, who trafficked in a cartoon West and gloriously inauthentic music. Tyson is writing and singing about an occupation that's pursued in a particular landscape, with its own special customs and experiences. The music is a continuation of the Scots-Irish ballad tradition that formed the template for earlier generations of Western song-makers. Tyson has the distinction of being the only folk singer to effect the transition between a folk-revival audience and an audience of actual folk, in other words the rural people he sings about.

The freshly released disc marks a glorious return to form. The 10 songs, originals, co-writes and covers, are uniformly strong. In the late years, as he's remarked from time to time, new songs don't come so easily. Rather than force the issue, Tyson has wisely decided just to go for the good stuff, wherever it comes from. The good stuff includes the traditional "Doney Gal," Will Dudley's "Colorado Horses" and Tom Campbell & Steve Gillette's "Darcy Farrow," first recorded on the 1965 Ian & Sylvia album Early Morning Rain. The ballad, which feels so authentic that it might as well be out of the late 19th century, has been recorded many times since. Tyson's reading here has to be the deepest and most moving of them all.

The stand-out collaboration is "Jughound Ronnie," composed with Canadian poet/actor/musician Kris Demeanor, a witty modern retelling of "The Gypsy Laddie" (Child #200; also known as "Gypsy Davy," "Raggle Taggle Gypsies," "Black Jack David" and many more) which incorporates a number of the traditional lyrics. Like Richard Thompson, who otherwise is not much like him, Tyson the songwriter holds the anonymous ballad composers of other centuries in awe and draws his inspiration from them. (A previous song, "Ross Knox," parodies "Lord Lovel," #75 in the Child collection.) If "Ronnie" is uncharacteristically devoid of cowboys and horses, the elegiac closer "Cottonwood Canyon," a solo effort carrying an understated but unmistakable environmental subtext, feels like an instant classic of the passing West.

The best part of this already very fine recording, however, is Tyson's voice, nearly fully restored from the ravages of a 2007 incident that reduced that splendid instrument to something like the raw croak one ordinarily associates with Tyson's pal Ramblin' Jack Elliott. Hearing it again, I found myself engaged in happy reflection on how that voice has provided pleasure and comfort over the decades I've spent as a Tyson admirer. Carnero Vaquero is his most consistently accomplished album since 1999's Lost Herd, and that one was a masterpiece. The cowboy's still got it.

music review by
Jerome Clark

30 May 2015

Agree? Disagree?
Send us your opinions!

what's new