Ian Tyson is typically blunt when congratulated about his induction into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame.
Tyson, who will turn 86 a few weeks after his Sept. 5 induction, has been writing songs since 1962. That was when he famously cranked out the classic Four Strong Winds in a Greenwich Village apartment, not long after hearing friend and fellow folkie Bob Dylan perform original material at The Kettle of Fish. The song has consistently topped best-of lists when it comes to ranking the country’s most beloved tunes. But it was only the first in dozens of classics he would go on to write and perform, initially with then-wife Sylvia Tyson and later as a solo artist.
“It’s about time, I would say,” says Tyson, on the phone with Postmedia from his ranch near Longview.
Yes, it’s hard to argue that the honour is not long, long overdue. But Tyson also admits that the timing is appropriate in a way. On Sept. 6, Stony Plain Records will release Ian & Sylvia The Lost Tapes, a two-disc set of previously unreleased live tracks from the duo, who performed together from 1959 until their amicable divorce in 1975. Sylvia Tyson, in fact, will be inducted separately into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame at the same time as her ex-husband.
It was Sylvia who took the reins on the Lost Tapes, having found them when “downsizing” at her home in Toronto. The tracks revisit some of Ian & Sylvia’s most enduring classics, including Four Strong Winds, Summer Wages and When First Unto This Country. The second disc is made up of cover tunes and reveal the folk duo’s knack for genre-hopping, which was not all that common at the time. They wrap their distinctive harmonies around everything from Buck Owens’ Together Again, to Ricky Nelson’s How Long to Robert Johnson’s Come On in My Kitchen. It all suggests that the duo had more shades to their musical palate then they are often given credit for.
“I don’t remember the choices being made,” says Tyson about the eclectic songlist. “I guess I was involved. Although, I may have left that whole chore up to Sylvia and she might have complete it. I know that there are a couple of writers that she is pretty fond of that I’m not familiar with. But, yeah, it’s a pretty good cross-section. They’ve cleaned up the tapes, remarkably. I’m really impressed with the technology they brought to bear on them.”
Still, Tyson admits that he has no specific memories of the performances captured on tape.
“I don’t remember last week,” he says with a laugh.
Still, Tyson seems to have clear memories of his own introduction into songwriting. In the early 1960s, he was part of the Greenwich Village folk scene along with Sylvia and contemporaries such as Phil Ochs and Dylan. He wrote Four Strong Winds in the apartment of his then manager, Albert Grossman, who also managed Dylan. At roughly the same time, Sylvia wrote her first and arguably most famous composition, You Were On My Mind.
“Mr. Zimmerman was the one that kicked it all off,” Tyson says. “We had to go in some direction, because we had used up all the real roots music from the Delta on north. Bob blazed the trail into the wilderness, into unknown territory. I realized after I had written Four Strong Winds and a couple of others, I had all kinds of cowboy material back there from personal experience. I just never thought of it as folk material, which it was of course.”
While he says he personally prefers his classic Summer Wages, he says he knew he had something special when he finished Four Strong Winds.
“I knew it was pretty good,” he said. “Because I sang it for the gang at the Bitter End and the Kettle of Fish, all of us folkies. It blew everybody away. That surprised me.”
Last August, Tyson took a hiatus from performing after undergoing a medical procedure to address issues with his heart rhythm. He has since returned to the stage and says his only real complaint these days is that he is not busy enough as a performer. Injuries to his vocal cords in the past few years have given his voice a well-worn rasp, although Tyson says he is able to harmonize now better than ever before. Most recently, he applied his voice to an unlikely cover of AC/DC’s Ride On, a duet with friend Corb Lund from Lund’s upcoming EP Cover Your Tracks.
“His voice makes the song real heavy,” Lund has said.
These days, Tyson keeps up a daily routine of practising his guitar, which he says is necessary to keep in fighting shape for the stage. He also continues to write, although admits the songs don’t come as quickly or easily as they did when he was younger.
“Unless you’re jacked up on speed all the time, you can’t crank them out,” Tyson says with a laugh. “Personal experiences that have a lot of kick to them and intensity, you tend to use them up early in the game. After that, you don’t want to keep writing the same song over and over. But occasionally you get a little flash. Inspiration hits you a little bit with some originality. If you’ve got a brain in your head, you get it written down real quick.”
While Tyson and Sylvia had a productive career in music — “When we were on, it was an exciting blend,” he says — they tended to write separately and have different tastes in music. So it’s appropriate that they are being inducted separately into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame. Both have enjoyed successful solo careers.
“We’re good friends, good buddies,” he says. “We live a continent away from each other. She lives, I think happily, in the Rosedale environments of Toronto and I live out on this godforsaken ranch. So there you go.”
Ian & Sylvia The Lost Tapes will be available on Sept. 6. Ian Tyson and Sylvia Tyson will be inducted in the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame in Calgary on Sept. 5 at the National Music Centre in a private ceremony during Canadian Country Music Week.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019