Gary James' Interview With
Ian Tyson






Ian Tyson has long been recognized as one of Canada's most respected singer / songwriters. His songs have been covered by everyone from Neil Young to Judy Collins, to Suzy Bogguss to Gordon Lightfoot, to Ramblin' Jack Elliot. His awards include the Order Of Canada to a Juno Award. Ian Tyson's entry into the international music scene began in the 1960s as half of the Folk / Country duo, Ian and Sylvia. They recorded thirteen albums before they split in 1975 as both an act and a couple. The duo is perhaps best known for the songs "Four Strong Winds" and "You Were On My Mind".

These days you'll find Ian Tyson on his ranch in southern Alberta's Rocky Mountains, where he takes care of business...that is, when he's not touring and recording.

Q - Ian, according to Rolling Stone's Encyclopedia of Rock and Roll, you were seriously injured at nineteen years of age. What happened to you, a car accident?

A - I don't know what they're referring to, probably a rodeo accident, a rodeo wreck I guess. Are they saying that's what got me started on guitar?

Q - They didn't say.

A - Well, that's not accurate at all.

Q - Your father left Liverpool, England for Victoria British Columbia, Canada?

A - That's incorrect. He came to Alberta in 1906. The open range. It wasn't fenced until 1908. I don't know if you know the significance of that.

Q - I'm sorry, I don't.

A - Well, if you're a Westerner, there's a lot of significance there. But, let's see what else Rolling Stone is full of shit about.

Q - You played a show with Buddy Holly, Eddie Cochran, LaVern Baker and Paul Anka in 1957.

A - True. No, I would say '56.

Q - Where was that show?

A - Vancouver, B.C. They had big touring package shows back then. There was no reason for a local band to be on the show other than I think it was a local AF of M (American Federation of Musicians) stipulation, restriction. You had to have a band from the local musicians local on that show. I think that's the way it worked, but, I can't be sure.

Q - It wasn't a Dick Clark Show was it?

A - No.

Q - Did you get a chance to talk to Buddy Holly?

A - No, but I heard him. I saw their equipment. I heard what they were doing. There is no brown Fender amps, you know. They blew me away...totally blew me away.

Q - At one point, Albert Grossman managed you?

A - Well, yeah. He managed Sylvia and I for many years.

Q - What kind of a manager did you find him to be? Was he an easy-going guy? Was he overbearing? What exactly did he do for your career?

A - He was a genius in his own way. He had a radar for talent. He could spot talent. The talent wasn't always something the general public would embrace. He was ahead of his time, but he was a genius I think. I liked him a lot. He didn't suffer fools, but I've been accused of that too, so what the heck. At the time of his death, which is twenty years ago now or more, I'm not sure, he died in a plane in a mid-Atlantic, crossing. At the time of his death, he was not managing us, Sylvia and I had split up. It wasn't working. He had Peter, Paul and Mary and Bob Dylan. Eventually Dylan took over all of his time, his availability. But, he was great. I remember him very fondly. A very clever, a very intuitive guy. A very visceral guy. A real Chicago Jew, you know. A neat guy. I miss him. I hope since he's passed on, he's seen the success I've had because I know it would be very meaningful for him...success as a writer.

Q - You've said "That dumb television show Hootenanny made us ever bigger stars." Why was Hootenanny dumb?

A - Well, it was dumb. It was incredibly dumb. It's like television. It was phony. It was forced. It was imitation. It was very uncomfortable for everybody. Technically, very inferior. It was just at that period of time where tech was finally gonna get good. The rock groups had blown out all the terrible systems and it was starting to get good. Hootenanny was a dreadful show. Appalling.

Q - It was the only show of its type on TV at the time, as I recall.

A - Well, in the U.S. There were several of 'em in Canada.

Q - You were a member of a group called "The Sensational Stripes"?

A - Uh-Huh.

Q - What kind of a group was that? A Rockabilly group?

A - Yeah. Rockabilly knock-off stuff. We did Gene Vincent's style. It wasn't a huge thing. That's why we happened to be on that show with Buddy Holly. It was a beginning. I was very young. I played rhythm guitar in it. I eventually got fired because the girls liked me better than the front guy. So...I was a good looking kid.

Q - According to an interview with Sylvia, you never thought of writing your own material until Bob Dylan came along?

A - That's correct.

Q - You wanted to have a Pop sound, which Sylvia thought you weren't good at?

A - I didn't know what I wanted. We had a sound that was pretty unique. It was pretty vibrant for a couple of years, then it just kind of fell apart. It was based on our vocal blend. It wasn't like anybody. It was pretty unique. We made a couple of great albums. Then the albums got un-focused and the direction got strange and then pressure from the record companies to get a radio hit and pressure from ourselves. We wanted it too. Everybody was getting hits. We almost got one. You know, just couldn't stand the stress.

Q - You actually had Felix Pappalardi (Mountain) in the band?

A - Yes, for about a year.

Q - Have you had other musicians play in your band that went on to greater fame?

A - Gee, I don't know. I don't know where you're coming from with "famous". Certainly not in the Rolling Stone magazine point of view. I had a lot of musicians play for me. A lot of outstanding ones. Amos Garrett, a guitar player. David Wilcox, a guitar player. Pee Wee Charles, the steel player. It just goes on and on. There's dozens of 'em over thirty years. There's some great players and some not great players.

Q - "For a couple of years we were going good. We had all the college concerts we could handle. We were making a lot of money." What was considered good money for a college concert in those days?

A - $1,800.

Q - And out of that, you had to pay an agent, road manager, musicians, hotel and on and on.

A - Yeah.

Q - You were traveling by bus or plane in those days?

A - There was a strange airline in those days called Allegheny Airlines. They broke many of our instruments over those two or three years. They just wore us out. But, it was good. We were young and able to handle it.

Q - Do you share Sylvia's belief that had Vanguard Records promoted you more aggressively, you would've been even more popular?

A - I don't really know. I don't know what they did or didn't do. Who knows? It's a long time ago. I couldn't comment. I'm with Vanguard now and they're just doing an absolutely terrible job on my new album. And, you can certainly quote me on that. It's such a weird business, you know?

Q - I guess the internet has destroyed the record business as we once knew it.

A - What us cowboys do is, we sell our CDs right at the show. They sell like hotcakes. Everybody at the show buys a CD. That's how we do it. The record company does nothing. Absolutely nothing. Basically, if they've shipped you the boxes of CDs to Livingston, Montana on or before the date, they feel they're absolute heroes and should be given the Legion Of Honor or something. And that's what they do. I mean they do nothing. But, that's the reality of today. You sell 'em off the stage. It's a very good business and very profitable. My generation, my demographics aren't down loaders. They don't steal off the internet. They buy CDs.

Q - Did The Beatles and the British Invasion end the career of Ian and Sylvia?

A - It killed the Folk movement. I would say the California rock scene killed it just as potently. Jefferson Airplane, Country Joe and the Fish...all that San Francisco stuff. That shut down the Folk thing. Totally shut it down.

Q - Would Barry McGuire's "Eve Of Destruction" have been the last stand of the Folk era then?

A - I wouldn't over exaggerate that, but, yeah. Folk came back stronger than ever. And it is stronger. It has out-lasted San Francisco Rock, Acid Rock and all that shit. Folk will always be around. In those days we thought it was the Apocalypse. People didn't want to listen to what they thought was Folk. Who the hell knows what Folk is? But, they didn't want to listen to that stuff. That's fine. We all had to find something else to do.

Q - What is Sylvia doing these days?

A - She's in a group called Quartet. They're quite good. They're very good actually. They do what you would loosely call Folk. They tour a little bit. They're not as busy as I am. This is the busiest year (2005) I've ever had.

Q - How many dates?

A - Over seventy. When you're seventy-two years old, it's a little too much. But, I've got a lot of bills to pay and a divorce to go through, so I'm doing it. I'm enjoying it. People buy tickets. It's wonderful. You can't make people buy tickets. They either want to see you or they don't. I'm just very grateful. I'm very honored and flattered. So, it's great. But, I don't do nostalgia. I'm a writer and I keep writing. Some people get frustrated, they want to hear nothing but the old stuff, but I have never given them just the old stuff. Never. They gotta listen to new stuff at least half of the evening. If they don't want to listen to it, they don't have to come back again, but they do come back again. So, I guess in the final analysis, the approach I've taken has given me longevity.


© Gary James. All rights reserved.




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