When your music has been covered by the likes of Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, and Judy Collins—and when your legacy is so vast that the folk, country, and Western worlds all vociferously claim you for their own—you know you have forged a legacy that will withstand the rigors of time, and the battering of the four strong winds, especially when you’ve done it all from the vast regions of Canada as opposed to the self-absorbed coasts of the United States.
Ian Tyson wasn’t just a musician, he was a musical institution. Wildly influential, he was the man that many other artists from both sides of the border and over in Europe studied astutely due to his importance to roots music. Considered a Canadian music legend of the highest order, his influence on country music in the States was also quite vast and prolonged. From the folk and country legends of the 60s, to present-day performers such as Corb Lund and Colter Wall, Ian Tyson’s peers and students not only sang his praises, they sang his songs specifically to multiple generations as performers will continue to do well into the future.
It was through his legendary partnership with fellow Canadian folk singer Sylvia Fricker where Ian Tyson got his start in music, fronting the group The Great Speckled Bird, along with releasing 13 separate albums, starting mostly within the folk discipline, but venturing into the country space as well, especially later on. Ian & Sylvia as they were called started in clubs in the late 50s, and by the early 60s, they were performing full-time, eventually marrying in 1964.
The first song Ian Tyson ever wrote was “Four Strong Winds,” and it became a signature song for Ian & Sylvia, then for the nation of Canada, and eventually, all of folk and country music. Along with the scores of recordings by folk musicians, Canadian country star Hank Snow recorded the song, so did Waylon Jennings and Bobby Bare, The Browns, Tony Rice, Johnny Cash and The Carter Family, and many others. Ian Tyson and Sylvia Fricker would divorce in 1975, but both with the strength to launch solo careers, and they would reunite as singing partners upon occasion in future years.
Performance is primarily how Ian Tyson’s solo career started, becoming a mainstay of Canadian television on The Ian Tyson Show that ran between 1970 and 1975. It really wasn’t until the early 80s and his partnership with producer Neil MacGonigill when Tyson launched a recording career. And once he did, it was in country & Western music.
Born in Victoria, British Columbia on September 25th, 1933, Ian Tyson was very much forged by the rugged Canadian West. In his teens and early 20s, Tyson was a rodeo rider, and only took up guitar as a way to keep himself busy while recovering from injury. He first started playing in a rock and roll band called The Sensational Stripes, and attended the Vancouver School of Art where he graduated in 1958 right in the midst of the folk revival.
But after his divorce from Sylvia Fricker, Ian Tyson sought solace back in the Canadian West. Somewhat disillusioned with the music industry at the time, he took to training horses on the ranches of Southern Alberta, and that’s where and when the bug to start recording country and Western music bit him. Tyson recorded the album Old Corrals and Sagebrush for Columbia Records released in 1983, and a self-titled album the next year.
By 1989, Ian Tyson was inducted into the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame, but far from at the tail end of his career, he released a succession of Top 20 Canadian albums between ’89 and ’96, earning two Gold records, and the most commercial success of his career, including charting 11 Top 25 singles over that time, and four Top 10’s in Canada.
Ian Tyson was considered a music legend across Canada, and across genres, and continued to perform well into the 2000s. But in 2006, Tyson suffered severe scarring on his vocal cords, significantly hampering his singing ability. But undeterred, he embraced the new gravel-like sound of his voice as an asset of a hard-fought career, and continued to record and perform, including multiple shows in 2018 before the pandemic.
Ian Tyson was heavily decorated throughout his career. Along with the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame, Tyson was named as a member of the Order of Canada in 1994, which is the nation’s 2nd highest honor, and the song “Four Strong Winds” was named the greatest Canadian song by the CBC in 2005.
In September of 2020, Canadian cowboy and Western artist Colter Wall covered Ian Tyson’s “Summer Wages” for the YouTube channel Western AF, and he also recorded Ian’s song “Bob Fudge” in 2019. Alberta singer Corb Lund covered Tyson’s “Montana Waltz” on his 2022 record Songs My Friends Wrote, speaking to Tyson’s lasting influence.
Ian Tyson’s family has confirmed that he passed away on December 29th, 2022 from ongoing health complications at his ranch in southern Alberta. He way 89 years old.