Referring to music fans, Ian Tyson once told a reporter at the Globe and Mail, “If they stop coming, I’ll hang it up.” They never did, even after he lost his singing voice in 2015 due to open heart surgery.
Tyson died at his Longview ranch on December 2022 from several health issues. Although physically gone, his story songs still live in the hearts of many.
Stewart McDougall, who joined Tyson’s inner circle in 1988 as pianist and vocalist, spent 30-plus years writing, recording, touring and partying alongside the iconic country singer.
“He was complicated. He wasn’t a stereotypical cardboard figure. He was both proud and humble. He was ambitious and happy to strut his stuff. He was his own best and worst critic. He was also shrewd, but honest,” said McDougall.
McDougall, along with Tyson’s sidemen and collaborators kick off the Arden Theatre’s 40th season on Saturday, Sept. 23 with The Gift: The Words & Music of Ian Tyson. The band includes Tyson alumni Thom Moon (drums), Gord Matthews (guitar) and Julien Kerr (bass). Calvin Vollrath temporarily replaces fiddle master Myron Szott.
Additionally, for the last eight years, award-winning folk-roots singer John Wort Hannam has been part of the cast. The line-up also includes two special guests: One Horse Blue singer and guitarist Ian Oscar as well as vocalist Tracy Millar.
In a special salute to Tyson, they will sing big hits as well as some of the lesser known from his expansive catalogue spanning six decades.
“All types of music went into his songs. He liked modern western, Celtic, honky-tonk, western swing, reggae, jazz. He had his own way of putting all these influences together. All the songs we’re dealing with in the show are different. No two sound alike, but they all belong together,” McDougall said.
A self-taught guitar player, Tyson learned strictly by ear and enjoyed an international career. His golden voice, rich and deep with a slight nasal inflection, revitalized cowboy culture. Although the world was rapidly becoming urbanized, the Alberta-based singer-songwriter showed there were still songs to be written about cowboys.
He was a cowboy at heart living on his ranch near Longview. Affectionately known as Bard of the Buckaroos, he lived the life of a ranch hand. As a practicing cowboy, Tyson not only bred cutting horses. He also competed in rodeos and became a champion rider of the quick, agile quarter horses.
The legendary cowboy poet was also an enigma, a man so passionate about the fading western lifestyle, he wrote romantic ballads such as The Wonder of It All. Although the lyrics are densely packed with nature’s imagery, the song’s greatest power is the gentleness with which it’s sung.
From his folk music days with former wife and singing partner, Sylvia Tyson, to his honky-tonk years to his growth as a big sky country singer-songwriter, Tyson successfully recorded and celebrated Western narratives, Indigenous culture, grand landscapes and majestic wildlife. His songs had the gift of emotion, an essence that touched the core of his fans’ souls where love and loss, hardship and joy coexist. Although Tyson’s songs eulogized the West, their spirit was forever universal and timeless.
“Ian took performances very seriously. He knew how to present himself. He had the right amount of swagger and he always connected with audiences. He was a very good singer and could sing all the harmony parts. You didn’t realize how good a singer he was until you tried to sing his songs,” McDougall said.
Peter North, producer of The Gift, started the show 20 years ago as a tribute to Tyson’s illustrious career while the cowboy was still alive. “It’s authentic, but it's a show Ian never did. We cover all the chapters of his music. We go deeper and make a unique overview of his career,” said North.
The initial concerts, billed at Festival Place and Arden Theatre were sold out. They were expected to be a one-off with Tyson attending as a special guest. But a massive snowstorm closed roads and Tyson was unable to travel north.
Audience requests to reprise the concert came in and the following year another concert was planned in Calgary. This time, Tyson attended and played a few tunes with his band.
“He set the bar at a different place as an international star, and that changed a lot of things. He started hiring different musicians and put together different bands...He acted like a force of inspiration to different artists,” said North.
During the mid-1980s, Tyson hosted CTV Edmonton’s Sun Country and North booked the acts. Their first meeting started a lifelong professional friendship.
“When I booked the Salmon Arms Blues Festival, I booked him on the main stage. He knocked it out of the park. Ranchers as far away as Kamloops showed up to hear him sing.”
In looking back at Tyson, North describes the musician as a “taskmaster. I was fortunate. He could be a lot of fun. He liked being part of the scene. He could be intense. I don’t think he suffered fools gladly. But if you look at what he’s accomplished, he had enormous drive and talent.”
The Gift starts at 7:30 p.m. at St. Albert Place, 4 St. Anne Street. Tickets are $51.25 plus fees. Call 780-459-1542 or online at tickets.stalbert.ca