It was a long cold drive, and one that often didn't get completed. Snow packed into draws, filling them feet deep and impassible even to four-wheel drive. Rain washed the gullies across the road, and filled the lows with engine choking water, which soaked into foot deep mud. And in a big rain, the Rio Salado would rise from a thin salty creek to a raging demon, sixty feet across, of muddy water racing for the Rio Grande miles to the east, completely obliterating either of the small fords on the old county road. But, success or not, it was almost always a good drive, and truth be told, I rarely lamented those days I didn't get to go to school.
My dad, he was the one who usually drove, would always play music or sing old cowboy songs on the drive. I don't remember a lot of the cassettes he played, but I do remember one. It was in a scuffed case, scratches partially obscuring the liner photo of a cowboy in a vest and a big black hat sitting with his guitar in front of a sunset sky. The album was Ian Tyson's I Outgrew the Wagon. I really don't remember taking a lot of note of the songs on it then - The song I liked the best, then, of Tysons was The Coyote and the Cowboy, which was on another record - But I remember liking the music, and the liking continued.
I grew up different. I've said it before, and will continue to say it. Growing up on a working cattle ranch in the 90's is far from the common experience. More kids, I imagine, grew up in Volkswagens driving around the country with their pot smoking parents. Driving 45 miles to reach the paved road just outside town that lead to school, depending on wood fired heat in a half century old adobe, actually knowing the meaning of words like riatta, tapaderos, hackamore, morral, these were not part of the common experience of my generation. Nor was listening to Ian Tyson, because no one who didn't understand those things, would understand that music.
Tyson got his start as a folky. He wrote what has been one of the most prolific folk songs of all time, Four Strong Winds, which has been covered by damn near everybody, and was part of one of the most successful folk duo's of the era, Ian and Sylvia (with Sylvia Tyson [nee Fricker], his now ex-wife). According to some, he was even the man who introduced Bob Dylan to marijuana. And when his marriage fell apart, and the folk thing didn't work anymore, he made good on a long-standing threat and bought a ranch not far from Alberta, turning to what he had always dreamed of - Cowboying. Pretty soon in addition to running the T-Bar-Y, he was playing in a few local joints, some of his old standbys, but more old cowboy songs, and a few new ones.
Now, there is a difference between cowboy music and country music - Always has been, and always will be. Most country, despite use of the word on occasion, has little to do with cowboyography, or the cowboy way of life. More to do with farming than ranching, and far more to do with honky-tonks, fast women, fast cars, and southern rural life, than either. Cowboy music is different - It is the music of a unique group of people, doing a unique thing, in a unique place. And in the 20th century, and its successor, more rare than unique. And very very few voices ever captured it. Even fewer captured it in a way that identified not just with the classic cowboy, but the cowboy of today, that rare, and frankly flighty, individual hell bent on eking a living out of being a'horse and chasing the wild bovine. Ian Tyson has been one of those rare voices.
Tyson released two solo albums in the seventies, Ol' Eon, a far more folk sounding album, and 1978's One Jump Ahead of the Devil, leaning more to cowboy music trends, and featuring his hit Half Mile of Hell, from the sountrack to the film of the same name (about the infamous chuckwagon race at the annual Calgary Stampede). Other than that, and some TV work, he was mostly quiet, and spent his time ranching and playing the occasional live show.
In 1983 he recorded an album, in his living room, called Old Corrals and Sagebrush, that was intended mostly for friends and family. It wasn't long before someone heard it, and Tyson was staring down the barrel of a contract again. The album wasn't a big seller, but it started something. In the intervening years Tyson has released nine more albums. My favorite of these would have to be 1996's All The Good'Uns, although they all have a fairly strong place in my heart.
Tyson is, like most of the best, and truest, artists, not a man without demons. He has been almost unhesitating to be self-critical in his work, and many of his best songs reflect his depressions, entanglements with alcohol and women, and what its cost him. There are few truly happy Ian Tyson songs. He lives in a world filled with ghosts, and for good reason - His world, the world of those who understand what he sings, is desolate, and only sparsely populated with the living.
I met Ian Tyson once, when I was a kid, after a live show. He was drunk, quite literally stinking drunk, and extremely obnoxious. I am pretty sure his behavior that night, towards me particularly, cost him a manager (an author who'd become friends of my family while researching a cowboy cookbook). And to tell the truth? It never really bothered me. I've been around drunks, and obnoxious ones, often enough, and had been even by then, that beyond that evening it didn't really phase me. I am still quite fond of my autographed copy of All The Good'uns.
Tyson's last two albums haven't done as much for me as his older work, but they are still good, and speak truth (and a few entertaining lies) about a lifestyle most will only encounter through fictions of far greater proportions. His voice now, in his mid seventies, sounds weaker and reedier than ever before, but only as might be expected. If anything, he's earned it. Carrying a rare truth, about a hard and harsh world, is never easy work, and anyone who makes it to be an old man has earned his weariness. A unfair, and painfully incomplete, payment for a job well done, but nothing less than such a man might expect, and certainly nothing he's not used to.
Someday, in the not too far future, we'll lose Ian to that great unknown, when his circle is through, and he'll be another ghost on a great range already so full of them. And eventually his music will probably be forgotten. But for now, for those of us who still understand, at least a little bit, there is none better, and none other.
"We will ride to the end, on the wings of the wind, until we're home, and our circle is through. May the children read, may they understand, what is of true value, so the truth may be known. The glory of god, and the dark side of man. The one thing, they must ride on alone. And may they stay, where the river runs through, the range and the sky, buckskin and blue. May they ride to the end, on the winds of the wind, till their home and their circle is through..." 'Til the Circle is Through, Ian Tyson