Describing 78-year-old Ian Tyson as “legendary” isn’t mere hyperbole. If one face and voice is the embodiment of what “roots” is all about, it’s Tyson. His career kicked off in 1959 when he was half of the Toronto-based folk duo, Ian and Sylvia. In the late-’60s, the pair fronted the country band, The Great Speckled Bird, before Tyson hosted his own TV music show. For over 50 years, his compositions like “Four Strong Winds” were Canadian hits covered by folks like Bob Dylan with The Band, Neil Young, Johnny Cash, and Judy Collins.
In 2006, Tyson suffered irreversible scarring to his vocal cords, resulting in what he calls his “new voice.” While his old tones and low-range delivery are now gone, in 2008 he released Yellowhead to Yellowstone and Other Love Stories. This led to his being nominated for Best Solo Artist of the Year at the 2009 Canadian Folk Music Awards. Along the way, he wrote a best-selling memoir and still maintains two careers, as a touring musician and cattle rancher.
Now it’s 2012, and Raven Singer presents a Tyson apparently very comfortable with his “new voice,” as if that’s exactly the gravely, hoarse, world-wise instrument he should be using at age 78. The title is more than appropriate, as Tyson’s Nakoda First Nation name—“Ka-ree-a-hiatha”—translates to “Raven that Sings.” All the new songs seem to come from a figure who’d deserve such a title.
This “Raven Singer” sounds like he remembers the times and places where cowboys still rode and coyotes howled in the distance. After all, this is a singer who learned the guitar after recuperating from a rodeo fall. The new 12 songs were composed in a 100-year-old stone building a mile down the gravel road from his ranch house. Ian Tyson is walking, talking, singing Old West history.
If there’s a dominant theme in his new album, it’s infectious front-porch nostalgia sketched on a wide range of international canvases. Tyson’s stories are carried in catchy melodies and masculine acoustic guitar leads, as in the opener, “Charles Goodnight’s Grave.” We go south of the border in “Back To Baja,” and”Rio Colorado” is an upbeat wild ride in the “canyon of dreams.” Appropriately, Middle Eastern tunings and percussion are used for the Moroccan-set “Under African Skies.”
Every other songwriter has stories about bad girls and mean-hearted men, but Tyson knows some good people. For example, bagpipes provide the instrumental solo in “Blueberry Susan,” a story song remembering good musical friends and a good woman who knew how to play guitar and “who’ll stand beside you.” Likewise, the “Saddle Bronc Girl” is a warrior woman who rides in the rodeo. Her counterpart is another riding woman, but she mysteriously disappears in “Winterkill.” Despite any character flaws in these folks, clearly Tyson either likes or sympathizes with all these characters.
Raven Singer is yet another warm reminder that Americana isn’t the sole property of U.S. musicians. It’s also a reminder the roots of “roots music” are rural vistas populated by independent survivors with a lot of fondness for their experiences. With luck, that “new voice” has more such stories to share. I’d like to be one of his friends too.