Writing on The Long Trail

Ian Tyson autobiography traces his life from folk to country

It isn’t difficult to pick out Ian Tyson in the lobby of the Palliser Hotel. As it so often happens I’ve arrived unfashionably early and significantly underdressed for my surroundings. I bide my time trying to blend in with the furniture until he emerges from the elevator. When he does I know without a doubt that it’s him. In a room filled with pasty business men dressed in khaki pants and bland dress shirts the tall rancher stands out like a sore thumb in his Stetson and blue jeans.

The prolific Canadian singer-songwriter is in town to promote his new autobiography The Long Trail written with former Fast Forward Weekly staff writer Jeremy Klaszus. The slim tome traces Tyson’s path from his childhood on Vancouver Island in the ’30s and ’40s to his emergence out of the coffee houses of New York’s Greenwich Village and onto the international stage to eventually becoming the poet laureate of the cowboy renaissance of the mid-1980s. It’s a long trail indeed and it makes for a fascinating read.

When I ask him why he decided to write his memoirs at this point he is surprisingly candid for a celebrity autobiographer. “Money” he says flatly. “Random House approached me and made me a very nice offer. I thought they were out of their minds because I didn’t think anyone would want to read it but it’s going to be a success which is a real surprise to me.”

In true cowboy fashion he claims in the introduction that his earliest childhood memories have been lost to “too many miles and too many whiskey bottles.” But he paints a striking picture of his early days and of the fascination with horses he inherited from his father — a would-be cowboy from outside of Liverpool whose days on the range were cut short by the bitterly cold prairie winters.

“Some imagery is totally vivid” he says. “Other events are totally gone with no way of coming back. It’s all the truth though — the truth as I recalled it.”

Already a disciplined songwriter whose regime involves writing and practising guitar every morning Klaszus says Tyson applied the same work ethic to writing the book. “I drove up to the ranch every other day for quite a while. We were like a married couple.”

“First time I went up there I was pretty nervous” he says. “I mean this is a notoriously irascible guy by his own admission. But we got along great.”

I ask Tyson if he was ever tempted to bend the truth about himself like his childhood idol Will James. James was a prolific author and artist who claimed to be an authentic drifting cowboy from Montana despite being born in Quebec as Ernest Dufault.

“When I was a kid I used to tell people I was from I don’t know Wyoming some place like that” he admits. “I certainly didn’t tell them I was from Vancouver Island. But I wasn’t very old before I figured out that stuff caught up with you pretty quick. Will James was too old by the time he figured that out. He was a stone-cold alcoholic. And by then it was too late for him.”

Despite an abiding love for western culture Tyson’s earliest success came with the folk explosion of the mid-60s. At the same time he was attending art school in Vancouver he started performing in local coffee houses before hitting the road for Toronto where he hooked up with Sylvia Fricker. Soon Ian & Sylvia were taking New York by storm. Tyson may even have introduced Bob Dylan to smoking pot. His stories from this period will be of interest to even casual fans of folk music.

In a three-year period in the mid-1960s Ian & Sylvia released albums that are still considered classics including the song “Four Strong Winds” which was selected by CBC listeners in 2005 as the Greatest Canadian Song. But as folk music became increasingly politicized Ian & Sylvia became less relevant due to their refusal to sing protest songs.

“I didn’t get it” he says. “I wasn’t political then. I became political later in life.”

He’s certainly made up for lost time. In addition to his work preserving and promoting the fast-disappearing cowboy culture of the Old West Tyson has become a forceful advocate for the equally imperiled ranchlands of southern Alberta. When I ask him what motivated his political awakening he pauses for a moment.

“Being a rancher I guess” he says. “Living it doing it. You become a steward of the land or you don’t. You realize how fragile the environment is. It’s got to be taken care of full-time generation after generation.”

This generational perspective has given him a newfound optimism for the future of cowboy culture especially through his friendship with Corb Lund. “Old cowboys have always lamented the West’s passing and I’m no different” he writes. “My old man saw the last of the Old West in the 1900s. Ian Tyson saw the last of the Old West in the 1980s. And Corb is seeing the last of the West today. The West constantly reinvents itself like an organism that keeps dying out and being reborn in some new form.”