It’s nearing the end of an interview with Sylvia Tyson when the singer-songwriter offers some clarification on a snippet of rock and roll history.
To be more specific, it’s a snippet of country-rock history. This is now an ubiquitous subgenre, but at one time the merger was fairly rare. While Ian & Sylvia, the husband-and-wife duo made up of Sylvia and Ian Tyson, tend to be associated with folk music, they dabbled with various genres during their 16-year run.
In 1968, the two travelled to Nashville to record an album with Music City’s expert session players. It was largely unchartered territory at the time for a folk act, although both The Byrds and the Tysons’ pal Bob Dylan would soon follow to record albums that are now considered pioneering works in country-rock. (Sweetheart of the Rodeo and Nashville Skyline, respectively.)
But, as Sylvia Tyson is keen to point out on this particular afternoon, Ian & Sylvia were first.
“I think it’s interesting that Ian & Sylvia recorded in Nashville with Nashville musicians a full month before The Byrds did Sweetheart of the Rodeo,” she says, in an interview from her home in Toronto.
So Sylvia hopes the release of Ian & Sylvia The Lost Tapes on Sept. 6 will reclaim some of the duo’s legacy. It certainly shows that they were comfortable incorporating various strains of roots music during their career, which ran from 1959 until the couple’s personal and professional split in 1975.
Sylvia acted as executive producer for the double album, which features live versions of some of the duo’s most revered hits such as Four Strong Winds and Summer Wages. But Disc 2 offers an eclectic selection of cover songs that offer ample evidence that they were well-versed in a wide variety of genres. It includes everything from Ricky Nelson’s How Long, to Robert Johnson’s Come On In My Kitchen, to Mel & Tim’s 1972 R&B classic Starting All Over Again and a version of the salty country duet After the Fire Is Gone, which Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn turned into a hit in 1971.
“It’s been a long time since any new Ian & Sylvia material has been available,” Sylvia says. “And I think one thing this collection does is cements our place in the history of not just folk music but country-rock music. Because we were involved in that before just about anybody.”
The album is set for release the day after both Sylvia and Ian Tyson are separately inducted into the now Calgary-based Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame. A private induction ceremony will take place at the National Music Centre, which also houses the Canadian Music Hall of Fame, Quebec’s ADISQ Hall of Fame and the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame, on Sept. 5. Both are expected to perform a few songs separately.
On Sept. 6, Sylvia will join veteran music journalist Larry LeBlanc for a conversation at the National Music Centre, which will follow her career as a singer-songwriter from her early days with Ian, to her solo career and work with the country-folk supergroup Quartette.
Inducting Ian and Sylvia separately is an appropriate move by the Songwriters Hall of Fame. While the duo had a productive career, they almost never wrote songs together. They also had very different tastes in music, which probably helps explain the somewhat divergent paths they took as solo artists.
“There was a period of time when Ian was performing on his own when I was at home being a single mom,” says Sylvia. “So there was a period when I wasn’t on the road at all. When I started performing on my own, Ian had a head start on me there. So I worked with (Larry LeBlanc) and we specifically set about telling people what I did, because I don’t think people had any idea of what I did outside of Ian & Sylvia.”
Ian Tyson, of course, would quickly establish himself as one of the country’s great purveyors of cowboy music, moving to an ranch in Alberta. Sylvia’s records were more closely associated with contemporary folk and country folk, the latter particularly evident in the work she has produced alongside songwriters Cindy Church, Caitlin Hanford and Gwen Swick as part of Quartette, which formed in the early 1990s and is still active today.
But while Sylvia and Ian may have taken different paths as songwriters, they both had a similar start and, arguably, the same muse. The story of how Ian Tyson came to write his first major song, the classic Four Strong Winds, is fairly well-known at this point. He bashed it out on his Martin D-28 acoustic guitar in a half-hour burst of inspiration back in 1962 one afternoon in the Greenwich Village apartment of his manager. He was inspired by hearing his friend Bob Dylan, who was a part of the same scene at the time, play a song at the Kettle of Fish.
Sylvia also began writing her own songs in 1962 and was also spurred on by Dylan. Like her ex-husband, her first song was a classic. You Were on My Mind would become a massive hit for We Five in 1965. At the time she wrote it, Sylvia was still a few years away from marrying Ian, but they were working together and hobnobbing with fellow folkies in Greenwich Village.
“We were hanging out with Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs and people like that,” she says. “Bob Dylan was just this kid that was part of the group we were hanging out with in the village and he was writing these songs. We thought ‘Well, if he can write songs, we can write songs.’ Little did we know that nobody was going to match his output.”
Inducting both Ian and Sylvia into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame may seem long overdue. But part of the delay is due to Sylvia’s involvement in the institution, which was founded in 1998.
“I didn’t know this specifically was coming,” she says about the induction. “I’ve been associated with the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame since its inception. I was one of the founding board members and I was president for 10 years. Although the subject had come up before, I didn’t feel it was right for me to accept it as long as I was in that position.”
Sylvia said the Hall of Fame was established because many in the industry felt the country’s best songsmiths were not being properly recognized. She was also the co-editor, alongside Tom Russell, of 1995’s And Then I Wrote: The Songwriter Speaks. It collected anecdotes from a wide variety of songwriters, from Irving Berlin to Nirvana.
But Sylvia said her own approach to songwriting has never been particularly academic.
“I always think of myself as a songwriter first rather than a performer, or a musician,” she says. “And I tend to write whatever comes into my head at time. I tend to give each song the treatment it requires rather than fit it into an overall sound.”
In Conversation with Sylvia Tyson, featuring Larry LeBlanc, at the Performance Hall in Studio Bell, home of the National Music Centre on Sept. 6. at 7:30 p.m.
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