Farther on up the road with Richard Flohil

by Richard on October 28, 2010

Songwriter, performer, rancher, and irascible and charming in turn, Ian Tyson writes a tell-most autobiography and aims for the best-seller lists.

Richard Flohil has known Ian Tyson for longer than most, has yet to ride a horse, and admires the grumpy old man for simply being himself.


It’s been Ian Tyson’s big week in the Big Smoke.  Honoured at the Canadian Songwriters’ Hall of Fame. Big piece in the Toronto Star by Greg Quill. An even bigger piece in the Globe and Mail — on the sports pages, yet — by Stephen Brunt. Big coverage in the National Post. A Nick Patch story on the Canadian Press wire. A Sunday morning interview on CBC by Michael Enright. A shot on Canada AM.

It all marked the release of The Long Trail: My Life in the West, the iconic songwriter’s autobiography, and you gotta hand it to the Random House publicist, Scott Sellers.

This sort of thing doesn’t happen very often, and since everyone else has written about Tyson this past week, I’m adding a few words, if only because I go back a lot further than most. And although I’ve done press for Tyson on and off for the best part of 20 years — because he records for my client Stony Plain Records — it won’t be a puff piece.

Back in 1965, when I was considered — most inaccurately — as some sort of blues expert, I was invited to something called the Mariposa Folk Festival, held north of Toronto at a place called Innis Lake. I co-hosted a “blues workshop” featuring Son House, John Hammond, Sippie Wallace and the duo of Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, along with Mr. House’s manager Dick Waterman (starting a friendship that continues to this day).

And, in a life-changing experience over three days, I heard and met Gord Lightfoot, Leonard Cohen, Phil Ochs, Buffy Ste. Marie, a newcomer called Joni Anderson, the Staple Singers and the Rev. Gary Davis. And the incomparable duo of Ian and Sylvia.

Canada’s first international pop artists

When you discount Guy Lombardo and Percy Faith — Canadians who had gone off to the United States and rarely returned — you can make a case that Ian Tyson and his wife Sylvia Fricker were Canada’s first international pop stars. By the time they played Mariposa in 1965, they had already played the Newport Folk Festival twice, not to mention Carnegie Hall. They had an apartment in New York and were managed by mogul Albert Grossman, who also steered the careers of Dylan, Peter Paul _ Mary, Odetta, and later went on to handle Janis Joplin and The Band (It’s not widely known that Tyson was responsible for getting Grossman to sign a young kid from Toronto called Gordon Lightfoot).

Ian _ Sylvia were young and handsome and remarkably self-assured. Tyson wore shiny black cowboy boots, which I thought were incomparably cool (and I’ve worn cowboy boots ever since), and Sylvia’s regal grace — and long brunette hair — made her a memorable fantasy figure.

As we all know, true love — and success in the music business — doesn’t last for ever. Half a dozen albums on various labels (Vanguard, Ampex, MGM, Columbia) followed, with diminishing returns.

After a couple of years with a music show on CTV, Ian (now divorced from Sylvia) went out west, worked as a ranch hand, played with a pick up band on weekends in a Calgary bar, and worked towards building a ranch to raise quarter horses. With the income from Neil Young’s version of “Four Strong Winds” — the first song Tyson had ever written — he bought his first spread.

The call of music was too strong, and ever since Tyson has had two careers —  the ranch (which he’s now downsizing) and music. There are now a dozen CDs on Stony Plain (including reissues of earlier records on Bearsville, Boot, and A_M_ and a touring schedule that sees him playing between 40 and 60 concerts a year.

Along the way — and he’s certainly frank in his book — he’s had some pretty heavy affairs, a costly divorce that’s seriously damaged him financially, and some uncertain relationships with his two kids.. The passage of time, a crappy sound system at a country festival, and a virus all turned his once-smooth voice into a hoarse, grainy, croak. (Oddly enough, the broken voice helped the story-telling nature of most of his songs — and, in the last couple of years, has improved considerably.)

Why Ian Tyson doesn’t give a shit

Tyson is often his own worst enemy. He’s pissed off dozens of people who have supported him — music industry people, radio folk, journalists and fans alike. He’s moody, irascible, doesn’t suffer fools for a second, and has been known to throw a few punches in bar fights. His politics — save for a deep commitment to ecological issues — have often been to the right of Atilla the Hun, although he does seem to be mellowing these days.

Most times, Ian Tyson just doesn’t give a shit. When asked why he wrote the book, he just says that he needed the sizable advance Random House offered him. When asked how he wrote it, he responded, using a word you’ve not heard for 20 years, by saying “I hired a stenographer.”  He rarely misses an opportunity to grumble at the CBC, complains commercial radio won’t touch his records with a barge-pole, and hangs up on interviewers if they haven’t done their research or want to know about the Ian _ Sylvia days (“that was 50 years back” he grumbles).

But despite all that, the songs really tell Tyson’s story, and often better than this slim, sometimes self-serving, book does. He practices two hours each day to keep the arthritis in his hands at bay, he’s still writing (though he says he’s uncertain whether he’ll make another record), and he includes a couple of fine new songs in his live show.

Tyson walks proudly, although he’s had a couple of new knees and a hip replacement, and he’s broken way too many bones being thrown off horses. He’s a westerner, heart and soul, and he puts up with Toronto, dreads the Alberta winter, likes to travel (a recent trip to Morocco has yielded a wonderful new song), and he knows his Prairies history better than almost anyone alive. At 77, he’s still in it for the long haul, because he is aware of the alternative.

Flawed, flinty, funny, outspoken, charming when he wants to be, Ian Tyson is who he is, take it or leave it. And “legendary”, for once, is the perfect word to describe him.


Interesting factoid of the week:

Like all good writers, Ian Tyson reads. And he’s had a subscription to The New Yorker for years (“Don’t like their pop writer, though”). And he masturbated for the first time while reading Emile Zola. True – it’s in his book.

Quote of the week:

“The fact that I can still move people with my stories — I live for that. I get a couple of hours of real bliss on stage, until the pain in my hands gets bad. Old age is not for wimps.” — Ian Tyson.

Videos of the week:

There’s a dearth of Ian Tyson video — but this compilation of images that accompanies one of his very best Western songs, “MC Horses” is well worth watching. Nobody writes a story like Tyson can.

More than 20 years after he wrote “Four Strong Winds” Ian and Sylvia reprised the song on a 1986 “reunion” CBC TV show. Check the finale with (from left to right!) Murray McLauchlan, Judy Collins, Gordon Lightfoot and Emmylou Harris.

Richard Flohil is a Toronto writer, publicist, editor, promoter and a music addict with 10,000 records and CDs in his living room. This is a personal column about the music worlds he lives in — the stories he hears, the music he listens to, the artists and backstage people he meets. Declaration of interest: He’s handled publicity, on and off, for Ian Tyson for some 20-odd years.

Richard’s at: 416 351-1323  [email protected]

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