Cowboy legend Ian Tyson rediscovers his voice with latest album Carnero Vaquero

MIKE BELL, CALGARY HERALD

You never really know who you are until you lose that which made you who you were. And you’re never more alive than when you get it back.

Perhaps that’s why there’s a vitality, an air of freedom surrounding Ian Tyson these days — both on a personal level, and, more notably, on the musical legend’s latest album of cowboy folk songs Carnero Vaquero.

He acknowledges both, while explaining the loss and found that helped get him to this point.

“It just came out of regaining my voice. That was such an incredible thing,” the 81-year-old Tyson says.

On the personal level, it’s made abundantly clear, as the Longview legend sits, somewhat fittingly, in the Wild Rose Taproom, dressed in white, sipping on a beer, generous with his time and answers, and the perfect mix of affable and irascible.

On the song side of things, that can most certainly be heard on the 10 tracks that make up his recently released record — a lovely, lonesome and somewhat wistfully romantic trail ride that casually takes its time, shows its heart and, yes, finds Tyson and his voice at the top of their game.

You can understand his obvious pride in it, especially when you consider that but a few years ago, he thought he’d never sing again, when a cyst was discovered on those oaky vocal cords. The initial prognosis was not a good one, when delivered by the first local doctor he saw.

“He basically said, ‘You’re f — ked.’ That was his belief,” says Tyson, who, not surprisingly, wasn’t willing to let that be the last word.

“Somebody recommended Dr. Tom Gillis, so I went to him. And he said, ‘I can help you … Be here on Monday morning at 7:30 at the Foothills.’ I said, ‘Sure. I’ve got nothing to lose. It’s all f — ked up.’

“So I went, I was out of there by 10:30 in the morning … and it was cool.”

The procedure is one that he colourfully describes as having a “roto-rooter” shoved down his throat, and the surgical tool “fil(ing) off the whole mountain range down there.”

And then came the recuperation, which initially amounted to him being advised by the doctor to keep quiet for five weeks. “He said, ‘Don’t yell at cows,’ ” Tyson says and laughs. “I said, ‘That’s not a problem.’ I didn’t have any cows at the ranch at that time anyway.”

The singer then worked with noted local vocal coach Katherine Ardo, who helped him learn how to use it again, find a range that could help him re-master the instrument that has served him so very well these past 60 years.

The first time he took it out for a spin was a Festival Hall show with kindred spirit Corb Lund, which he notes, with several expletives, went over wonderfully and gave him a renewed excitement and focus on his music and his career.

“I think the album inherited that enthusiasm of a new beginning or a rebirth or whatever,” he says.

Well, there was also his decision to, as he says to “quit the horses,” in one of what he sees as a series of serendipitous events leading up to Carnero Vaquero’s recording.

“This young horse gave me a message,” he says before adding with a chuckle, “which really hurt actually. He’s never done it before, he’s never done it since, but, boy, did he buck me off. He almost put me in the hospital.

“And one of my lady friends said, ‘Do you think it’s a message?’ And I said, ‘You know what, I think it is. I’ve gotta choose.’

“For years and years I wanted to be not just a good singer-songwriter and entertainer, but I wanted to be a top rider, too, and you can’t do that.

“This horse — Buster his name is — he facilitated the deal.”

So Tyson turned all of his attention back to the love that made his name and set about recording what would be his first studio album since 2012’s Raven Singer. He admits he had some songs “kicking around,” and began writing more about “mostly women” — two of which, Shawnie and Chantell, are among the many highlights on the album.

He also, in the next instance of cowboy kismet, was listening to CBC one morning and heard an interview with Calgary artist Kris Demeanor, whom he thought sounded as if “he had his s — t together.”

Tyson reached out to the city’s former poet laureate and asked if he would collaborate with him and help him finish a pair of songs that he’d already begun work on The Flood and Jughound Ronnie. And while on paper the pair seems the unlikeliest of musical couplings, the results, Tyson feels and most would agree, speak for themselves.

“It’s almost like it was just meant to be, you know?” he says.

The next step in Carnero’s genesis, or what Tyson describes as an “artistic breakthrough,” was his discovery of Nashville musician Catherine Marx, whom he also attempted to contact, initially to no avail. Fatefully, he then discovered she was touring with Reba McEntire and in town with the grand American country dame last year for a Stampede show.

Tyson tracked her down at her hotel and extended an invitation for Marx to join him and his longtime band — Gord Maxwell, Lee Worden and Thom Moon — for a recording session helmed by Steve Loree at The Stone House on Tyson’s property south of the city.

“I tell you, she brought a whole sensibility and texture … She brought something to those sessions that’s amazing,” he says with almost reverence in his voice, noting that entire process of recording the predominantly live and off-the-floor album was one that amounted to instant gratification.

“It was so easy,” he says. “I wish they were all that easy.”

And, again, the album sounds as easy as the artist insists the process was, with the mix of Tyson originals, collaborations, traditional tunes and covers all fitting together and fitting with his voice and vision naturally. That even includes Tyson revisiting his past with a version of Darcy Farrow, which he and former wife and singing partner Sylvia recorded as a folk duo 50 years ago.

Tyson admits that going back to that past and going it alone was something he was tentative about, but when he heard the version his band had worked up for it, he got a little selfish.

“And I just, I just — I wanted to keep it for myself. You know, I really did.

“I’ll fess up to Sylvia. She’ll just say, ‘Aw, you a — hole,’ ” he says with a twinkle of the woman whom he still calls a close friend. “And again I got an emotional take — it was only the second take.”

Perhaps the fact that Tyson was even willing to go there, to revisit and invite others to focus on the ghosts of his past, shows how content he now is in these later years. Not that he’s entirely mellowed about it, noting that a recent trip to promote Carnero Vaquero down in New York included an interview with Rolling Stone, who, he says, previously would never have given Ian and Sylvia the time of day, but were now touting their career as if the magazine just discovered it, giving Tyson’s latest solo project but a footnote in the story.

“F — king a — holes,” he spits. “They really are. They are f — king a — holes …

“They won’t let Ian and Sylvia go.”

That, though, he says is indicative of both the Canadian, more specifically Eastern Canadian, and American music industries, which are only really comfortable viewing him and his work in the context of “Greenwich Village, socialistic, Newport Folk Festival, Washington Square … New York Jewish folk music” and have all but ignored the past half of his career, including what he views as his most successful album 1987’s Cowboyography.

“They don’t get the cowboy thing. They’re scared of it. They don’t get it,” he says before clarifying that he’s not talking about the fellows “that drive around with big huge trucks and big hats. They’re not cowboys, they’re oil and gas guys.”

He thinks for a moment.

“The cowboy is disappearing,” he says thoughtfully as an aside. “It’s complicated. I’m going to write some more about it.”

He continues. “They just can’t get their heads around it about what us last guys that are lifers that are hanging on, trying to hang on to. We know it’s damn near over.”

Which perhaps also gives Tyson an added sense of purpose of what he’s now doing, of the legacy he’ll leave behind but which he’s not quite ready to claim is completely written.

His voice, he understands, understands perhaps more so now than ever before, is an important one, one that is imperative in keeping a culture alive, and which it would be a shame to see silenced again.

“Yeah,” he says, “because Tom McGuane does it as a novelist and Kurt Markus does it as a photographer and I do it as a songwriter. There’s guys that are doing it.”

He pauses. “And hopefully we do it real well.”

Ian Tyson’s Carnero Vaquero is available now.

mbell@calgaryherald.com

Twitter.com/mrbell_23