Ian Tyson,
Yellowhead to Yellowstone & Other Love Stories
(Stony Plain, 2008)

First, there's the voice, not the one -- at least without prior warning -- that you'd associate with Ian Tyson. It's huskier, worn, rising up from the throat in something between a rasp and a whisper. Not Ramblin' Jack Elliott but a nod in that direction, it is the consequence of time, circumstance and infection. On his previous album, Songs from the Gravel Road (my ambivalent review of which appeared in this space on 28 May 2005), Tyson even in his early 70s had his familiar voice, known well to those who have followed his recording career since the 1960s. It collapsed as he tried to out-sing a lousy sound system at a country-music festival in Ontario in 2006, and a subsequent virus ensured that no recovery would occur.

It is not, however, in any sense an unlistenable voice. To the contrary, it carries a flinty authenticity that serves to deepen the 10 songs of Yellowhead to Yellowstone & Other Love Stories, which itself calls to mind the adjective "wintery." Let me say right here that this is Tyson's finest recording since the masterly Lost Herd (1999), and a substantial improvement over his disappointing last outing (compromised by occasionally shaky material and an ill-conceived attempt to integrate night-club jazz and cowboy balladry). This time the production -- most of it put together in Nashville, the rest in Edmonton, Alberta, all of it commendably spare and restrained -- could hardly be better suited to the songs, which exemplify Tyson at his most intensely focused and affecting. I can't tell you who my favorite songwriter is, but at any given moment I can manage to reel off a top five. The membership may vary from one day to the next, but Ian Tyson is always there.

Tyson, I should stress, is no country singer, though he's sometimes erroneously characterized as one. He is a folk-based singer-songwriter -- working from the same Scots-Irish template that earlier generations of cowboys used to fashion their own musical traditions -- who has obviously listened to country music and absorbed selected influences from it into his sound. Here, that means "The Fiddler Must Be Paid," which affords the impression of being a way better-than-average song that you might have heard about five decades ago, if in truth even then -- an era often recalled, through memory's warm and fuzzy haze, as a golden age -- country-radio songs were rarely as good as this. The chorus quotes, even rhymes, the titles of a couple of mid-century hillbilly hits, Bob Wills' "Faded Love" and Ferlin Husky's "On the Wings of a Snow White Dove." It also boasts lyrics disarmingly awash in cliches, from the title on to suns going down, winds chilling to the bone, hearts being broken and dances ending. Yikes. So why is it still one hell of a song, one of those slow, sad country waltzes that can spread gloom and pleasure with the best of them?

Well, Tyson sings it as if he means it, and probably he does, since nearly every write-up in the press of Canada, where Tyson is famous, mentions unhappy personal circumstances involving a bitterly parted-from ex-wife, girlfriends and children. "Estrangement," concerning the last of these, has no cliches, but if it had one, it would be that cold wind cutting through to the bone. The closer, "Love Never Came at All," is as advertised, a beauty at falling emotional temperature. Love minus zero, so to speak.

As (you might say) the Dylan of the cowboy-culture movement and a working rancher, Tyson -- physically and artistically -- is seldom far from the modern West, its diminishing open spaces and those who still labor there on horseback. That landscape is omnipresent even when unacknowledged, though mostly there can be no uncertainty about the geography.

Amid Yellowhead's particularly memorable occasions, for instance, must be counted "Ross Knox," a bittersweet ballad about a cowboy driven to flee modern-day Arizona, not because the law is on his trail but because bureaucrats have made his days unbearable. The title character, who happens to be a real-life working cowboy, is also a versifier active on the Western-poetry circuit, not to mention co-writer with Tyson of "I Outgrew the Wagon," the title piece of a 1989 Tyson album (revived on the 2002 Live at Longview). The song "Ross Knox," however, owes its inspiration to "Lord Lovel," a very old Scottish ballad that Tyson has rewritten under the new title. "Any song that's lasted 400 years is a pretty damn good song," he observed to a Canadian journalist not long ago. "Ross Knox" is a pretty damn good song, too. Maybe it deserves a shot at 400 years.

More so than any other of his albums since those long-ago Ian &Sylvia and Great Speckled Bird records, Yellowhead is very much a collaborative effort. Eight of the songs share byline credits with Stewart McDougall (spelled MacDougall elsewhere), an accomplished, if rather younger, Edmonton-based country-folk singer and songwriter. The two think alike, it is obvious, and play well together, between them fashioning a formidable art. The one cover, Jay Aylmar's "My Cherry Colored Rose," casts its shadow in the twilight glow alongside the rest, its theme linked to the other songs in its unflinching embrace of life's most elemental experiences: love, age, death and grief. It's a true story about a specific man and woman (a prominent Canadian sportscaster and his wife), but in common with the songs that surround it, it feels as much like metaphor as event.

The country from Yellowhead to Yellowstone is bigger than the West, bigger than all of us.

review by
Jerome Clark

28 March 2009

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