The call came to Ian Tyson's ranch on a Monday morning as a huge, purple chinook cloud hung over his 640 acres near High River, Alta. It was the lawyer's office: Tyson's divorce, finally, was settled - five, or was it six, years after Twylla, his second wife, had left. Tyson hobbled back into the living room (one of his mares had stumbled onto his foot two days before), picked up his old Martin D-45 guitar, and started strumming Estrangement, a song he recently wrote about his grown daughter.
"How our horses couldn't wait to run/school-bus afternoons in the early fall/the races that you always won/through the fields of our dreams./Now I'm waiting out the flight delays/waiting for the storm to pass/waiting for the sky to clear."
Approaching his 75th birthday, Tyson is still ranching, still having trouble with women, and still writing music. Only his voice, as gravelly as the road outside, hints at his age. "I'm sort of on the verge of making a new album, but it's gonna be such a downer," he says. "But you've got to write about what you've got to write about."
Maybe it's the finalized divorce, maybe it's the drunken dinner party he hosted the previous night (he went to bed while his guests argued politics), maybe it's the 2 ½ hours he spent that morning cleaning the kitchen, but Tyson, known by some reporters to be on the reticent side, is beyond forthcoming on this day. It's almost as if he needs to talk.
Tyson is a Canadian music legend: One half of the 1960s folk phenomenon Ian and Sylvia (with his first wife, Sylvia Tyson); the host of his own television show in the 1970s; and finally a reinvented western-folk singer, where he found his true voice, recording his biggest-selling album, 1987's Cowboyography.
If there's any song with which Tyson is immediately identified, it's his seminal folk hit Four Strong Winds. Chosen in 2005 by CBC Radio's 50 Tracks as the best Canadian song of all time, it also bought his ranch (thanks to royalties from Neil Young's version) and is the song Tyson was asked to sing at the memorial service for four Mayerthorpe, Alta., RCMP officers killed in the line of duty in 2005. "It was probably the best performance of the song I've ever done. There was so much emotion."
Like Four Strong Winds, many of Tyson's best-known songs reflect the solitary life he leads on this big, dusty ranch. They are full of good-byes, heartbreak and reflection. Tyson is a storyteller, and his stories so often end in leaving and loneliness. His life has told that story repeatedly as well, and is currently playing out at the T-Bar-Y ranch, which he runs on his own ("I get up at 6 o'clock and I shut her down at 6 o'clock") - a heavy load for anyone even half his age, and about as far from a celebrity existence as one can imagine. He does his washing on Mondays (five pairs of Wranglers to get him through the week), cleans the hardwood floors, and cooks a mean, garlicky buffalo. The ranch is filled with cowboy hats and books - both too numerous to count. On his fridge, this mantra held up by a magnet: Life is tough. Life is tougher if you're stupid. - John Wayne.
The ranch lies east of the Rockies, with a stunning view of the mountains out the living-room window. From here, Tyson can keep an eye on his yearlings, which easily distract him. "There's my little sweetheart. Look at her," he says, pointing to one through the window. "That's her little brother. He just got castrated," he continues, getting up from his leather couch for a closer look.
Tyson would rather discuss ranch issues than just about anything else (with the exception, maybe, of politics). In nearby Longview, population 300, everyone seems to know him - not as Ian Tyson, singer-songwriter, but as Ian Tyson, rancher-neighbour. On the town's main strip, Tyson owns a coffee/gift shop called Ian Tyson's Navajo Mug. Dedicated fans will come all the way from Europe, he says, for his CDs, T-shirts and, yes, mugs.
He has won awards almost too numerous to mention, including a Juno and a Governor-General's. He has been named to the Order of Canada, the Canadian Music Hall of Fame, the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame, the Prairie Music Hall of Fame and the Canadian Association of Broadcasters Hall of Fame. Last month, he was honoured by the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers at the International Folk Alliance Conference in Memphis, Tenn. Next weekend, he'll drive the hour to Calgary to be a presenter at the Juno Awards. After each stint in the limelight, Tyson is happy - relieved, really - to return to the ranch. He is a cowboy not just at heart, but in practice. He's at home on the range.
The self-taught musician
Tyson did not start life as a cowboy. His parents, immigrants from England, lived a privileged life on Vancouver Island. Born in Victoria on Sept. 25, 1933, Tyson attended private school when he was young. His first stop on the way to the rodeo was the polo field, where his father loved to play. "He liked the sport very much," Tyson says. "I was interested in it, too, and as I got a little older, I was kind of his test pilot. And then the rodeo came to town and he took me ... and I was hooked."
It was a rodeo accident in Alberta in his early 20s that led Tyson to discover the guitar. One of the other patients in his hospital ward had one, but couldn't play it. Tyson picked it up and taught himself Johnny Cash's I Walk The Line.
When he returned to art school in Vancouver that fall, Tyson took some guitar lessons, but realized they weren't for him. Instead, he learned through "osmosis," he says. "My deal is strictly ear."
And so a self-taught cowboy became a self-taught musician.
After graduating from the Vancouver School of Art in 1958, Tyson hitched a ride to Toronto, where he worked as a commercial artist, designing peanut-butter jars, jam containers and shampoo bottles.
He wasn't alone for long - it was there that he met Sylvia Fricker, with whom he began to perform in 1959, as Ian and Sylvia. The pair moved to New York, signed with Vanguard Records and got married; they later had a son, Clay. But with the British invasion, folk music fell out of fashion, while such fellow folk icons as Bob Dylan turned to protest songs. Ian and Sylvia created a band, Great Speckled Bird, and moved toward the country genre. Ultimately, though, their popularity faded, and their musical and romantic partnership ended.
Craving the country life, Tyson moved out to Alberta in 1976, bought the ranch, began writing and recording cowboy songs, and met Twylla, who would become his second wife. Some were scandalized by the relationship: Twylla was just a teenager when they met, while Tyson was in his 40s. They had a daughter, Adelita, and later married. For years, they lived an idyllic ranch life with the cattle, a couple of longhorn steers and their beloved horses. Then things fell apart and Tyson has found himself alone on the land once again, just the livestock to keep him company.
Concerns about the future
When you walk in the front door of Tyson's ranch, you're greeted by a table stacked with books: To Kill A Mockingbird, a Georgia O'Keeffe biography, a dictionary, The Western Buckle: History, Art, Culture, Function. There's also a copy of Don Miguel Ruiz's The Four Agreements, recommended by friend and music colleague Tom Russell to help Tyson deal with the opposite sex. Copies of The New Yorker, to which he subscribes, are scattered everywhere. Recently, he's been reading Michael Ondaatje's Divisadero - for the second time. "I love that book. I don't understand it, but I love it," he says. "He's the Hemingway of today, I think."
He suffers frequent bouts of writer's block. The cure, he says, is in the writing of others: the poetry of Robert Frost, Ernest Hemingway on fishing, Jane Jacobs on urban life. He is a huge Cormac McCarthy fan, and says he relates strongly to the old sheriff in No Country For Old Men (played by Tommy Lee Jones in the Coen brothers' film) whose laments echo Tyson's melancholy about the disappearing cowboy life. "I became a historian, a chronicler of this way of life, and this way of life is just about over. ... The cowboys are all gone."
These days, Tyson is worried about finances and about the future - his own, his kids', the land's. The divorce settlement with Twylla has forced him to sell half his property. She now lives in the Bahamas, while he tries to keep things solvent on the ranch. He peppers conversations with constant references to being broke: The woman who cleans his house is his "expensive cleaning lady," one of his awards is made out of gold so he "might have to hock it." He wants to record another album (his last, Songs from the Gravel Road, came out in 2005), but doesn't know how he'll raise the $50,000 minimum required to finance it (Tyson now records independently). Selling the ranch isn't really an option; he's hoping to leave it to his children - the south half to his son; the north half to his daughter.
But his kids - Clay is 41, Adelita is 22 - are far away, from each other and from Tyson himself. The half-siblings do not have a relationship with each other. Clay customizes racing bikes in Toronto; a musical career didn't work out. Adelita goes to school in Texas, where she competes in the rodeo and has a calf-roper boyfriend. ("That's the lowest thing on the cowboy scale," Tyson grunts.) Both children have gone through extended periods of estrangement from their father. Tyson has no idea what they'll do with the ranch. Clay is an urbanite. And Adelita seems happy where she is. "She's a Texan," Tyson says. "She even talks like one."
It's not just the future of his own ranch Tyson worries about. He watches the urban sprawl creep out from High River with a mixture of outrage and sorrow. He abhors the local council, which he accuses of being pro-development, but has turned down offers to enter politics. "I've been approached a lot. But I [am]absolutely, totally ill-suited for it. I can't run my own life," he says, searching for a saucer to serve with a cup of tea.
He has, however, been active as a protester, most notably in his fight against oil and gas drilling in southwestern Alberta. "They don't like messing with me, because I've got such a high profile, you see."
Dinners with Sylvia
Tyson is content, quite, with his solitary ranch life - but that doesn't mean he's happy.
He has been consumed of late by heartbreak over, not either of his ex-wives, but another woman, code-named "Colorado." Married, with young children, and, yes, living in Colorado, she followed Tyson around on one of his tours and an affair began. They split in the fall, and Tyson is still nursing a broken heart. "She wasn't gonna take no for an answer, and Twylla had left. So I guess I was vulnerable," he says of how the relationship started. "We were very in love. It was very intense. Very, very intense. It was silly. Foolish."
Tyson himself admits to bouts of infidelity in his younger days, but says he didn't stray much. He and Sylvia are friends now; they have dinner together when he is in Toronto. Her song You Were On My Mind was used in a European coffee commercial, earning her "the best part of a million bucks," he says - half-proud, half-wistful. "That's how she lives in that big old brick house ... in Rosedale."
A world away, driving down the gravel road toward his ranch, on the way back from a grilled-cheese-and-soup lunch, he reveals a shocker: He still carries on a relationship with his first girlfriend, "the Greek girl" who inspired Four Strong Winds after she moved to California and broke his heart. He was a student then, in his 20s.
Now, at 74, he still sees her from time to time. She's 70, lives in Kelowna, B.C., is divorced a few times over and "has had so much work done, she looks terrific," he says. He's going to fly her out to his place soon for a visit, but he doesn't think the ranch life is for her. Besides, he's pretty happy living alone. "I like about 70 per cent of it," he says. "The other 30 per cent is the pits."
As he ages, the playing is getting more difficult. Tyson suffers from arthritis, and plays guitar an hour a day to keep it at bay.
Despite the bouts of arthritis, the bad foot, and his worry over leaving the ranch unattended, Tyson still tours fairly extensively. He's just finished a swing through the southwestern United States. He'll play later this year with both the Calgary Philharmonic and the National Arts Centre orchestras. It's lucrative, for one thing, and in front of an audience, he can forget the aches and pains, the unpaid bills, even the heartache.
"I tour because I can. A lot of guys would like to tour, but they can't fill those seats," he says. "If they stop coming, I'll hang it up."
After all the talking, Tyson needs to get outside, do some chores, visit with his horses. But when he tries to put on his boot, he winces in pain. It's the battered foot. "I'll get used to it," he says, waving off a visitor's concern. "It's the cowboy way."