There have been cowboys who sang and singers who claimed to be cowboys, but the fact is and was that there's a whole lot of pretend in between.
Ian Tyson, though, is close to the genuine article.
Two central narrative lines wind through his biography, as spun out in his just published memoir The Long Trail: My Life in the West. They are equal and inextricable and at key moments they intersect.
One is musical, a career that took him to Greenwich Village before Bob Dylan was Bob Dylan, that included the years as half of Ian & Sylvia, the composition of tunes for the ages such as Four Strong Winds, Someday Soon and Summer Wages, the brief country rock flowering of Great Speckled Bird, television hosting and a later-life incarnation as a cowboy troubadour.
The other is rodeo, the only sport that exists in contemporary, professional form that also has direct links to work, and to a distinctive way of life. Doctors and pipefitters and sportswriters don't spend their off hours indulging in a recreational, competitive version of what it is they do for a living. Rodeo cowboys, in their purest incarnation, do.
Tyson, who was born on Vancouver Island, began rodeo riding as a young man, before music became his central focus, and has continued to ride and compete almost until this day. In fact, he was lying in a Calgary hospital, his ankle held together with pins after a saddle bronc stepped on him, when what would become his other calling really took hold.
"After the surgery, I was put in a broken-leg ward for two weeks, along with a telephone lineman and a couple of other cowboys," he writes. "The kid in the bed next to me had a guitar, and I started to learn this song I kept hearing on the radio. The singer was an Arkansas-born guy, about my age, whose name was Johnny Cash. The song that kept playing on the radio started like this: I keep a close watch on this heart of mine…"
The book - and this probably comes as no surprise to those who know Tyson best - is short and straightforward and to the point. It contains what must be the most unique reference to Émile Zola's Nana in all of literature (won't wreck the surprise here), and it details Tyson's life and loves and his early infatuation with the world of cowboys, first through the books of Will James, who became the subject of one of Tyson's songs and whose own life on the range turned out to be largely fictional.
"Will James was mostly bull," Tyson, 77, says over lunch.
Yes, he is a man of strong, unadulterated opinions, definite politics (Steve Earle cursed Tyson's right-wing leanings in concert the other night before playing a beautiful version of Summer Wages), a rugged individualist of the old school, living on a ranch in southern Alberta. He still makes music, though his voice these days is a raspy ghost of the magnificent instrument of old, and he still keeps horses, still rides.
Tyson has little time for the modern, glitzy, cash-driven incarnation of rodeo. Professional bull riders, he says, are more akin to bikers than to cowboys.
"The new generation of those guys, those athletes, they want NBA money, which is ridiculous, I think," he says. "So the big rodeos like Calgary, which is a big oil-and-gas deal, it's not cowboy. … Calgary's just a [expletive]circus.
"The last few years I haven't followed it, because I don't want to follow it."
But pure, organic rodeo is still out there, he says, in the small-town competitions that survive, in the working cowboys who still ply their trade on some of the big ranches, in team-roping and cutting-horse competitions (Tyson was part of the latter until a couple of years ago, and made it all the way to a final in 1989), in the mystic relationship that can exist between man and horse. "The horse is really at the root of the cowboy thing," he says. "It's not at the root of the modern rodeo thing."
Still out there, in the imagination, in lore and literature and in song, and for those who know where to look, still out there for real, though try to catch it while you can.
"It's all part," Tyson says, "of the disappearing West."
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