Ian Tyson, Revered Canadian Folk Singer, Dies at 89

Before Canadian musicians like Neil Young, Gordon Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell or Leonard Cohen, there was Ian Tyson.

Mr. Tyson, who began his music career as half of the folk-era duo Ian and Sylvia and went on to become a revered figure in his home country, celebrated both for his music and for his commitment to the culture of Canada’s ranch country, died on Thursday at his ranch in southern Alberta. He was 89.

His family said in a statement that he died from “ongoing health complications” but did not specify further.

Mr. Tyson — whose song “Four Strong Winds” was voted the most essential Canadian piece of music by the listeners of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation public radio network in 2005 — lived most of his life as both a rancher and a musician.

Performances of his songs like “Four Strong Winds” by Mr. Young, Johnny Cash and others, and “Someday Soon,” particularly by Judy Collins, made his music, if not always his name, well known in the United States.

But his persona as a weathered rancher-musician made him emblematic in Canada, much as Mr. Cash was on the other side of the border. He performed and ran the Tyson ranch south of Calgary well into his 80s, stubbornly keeping on despite the ravages of time, changing tastes, economic hardship and, for a while, the loss of his voice.

Mr. Young, in the Jonathan Demme concert film “Heart of Gold” (2006), recalled being 16 or 17 and spending all his money playing the Ian and Sylvia version of “Four Strong Winds” over and over on the jukebox at a restaurant near Winnipeg. “It was the most beautiful record that I’ve heard in my life, and I just could not get enough of it,” he said.

Ian Dawson Tyson was born on Sept. 25, 1933, in Victoria, British Columbia, the second child of George and Margaret Tyson. He learned to ride horses on a small farm owned by his father, an insurance salesman and polo enthusiast who had emigrated from England in 1906, and grew up entranced by horses; beginning in his teens, he competed on the rodeo circuit. He learned to play guitar while in a Calgary hospital recovering from a broken ankle sustained in a fall.

He began performing folk and rock songs in the late 1950s. But after graduating from the Vancouver School of Art in 1958, he moved to Toronto to work as a commercial artist.

He performed in local clubs there, and in 1959 he began singing with a young woman named Sylvia Fricker. They became a full-time folk act in 1961, performing as Ian and Sylvia, and were married four years later.

In 1962, they moved to New York and became mainstays of the emergent American folk scene. They befriended Bob Dylan and his girlfriend, Suze Rotolo, who described Mr. Tyson as “movie-star handsome” and “the best looking of all the cowboy dudes in Greenwich Village” in her 2008 memoir, “A Freewheelin’ Time.”

Mr. Tyson and his wife, Sylvia, in an undated photo. They became a full-time folk act in 1961 and were married four years later.Credit…Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images

The high-powered manager Albert Grossman, whose clients included Mr. Dylan and Peter, Paul and Mary, got them a contract with Vanguard Records. Their first record, called simply “Ian & Sylvia,” mostly consisted of traditional British and Canadian folk songs.

Their second album, “Four Strong Winds,” was more eclectic. It included Mr. Dylan’s “Tomorrow Is a Long Time” and, most notably, the title track, Mr. Tyson’s first song, which he said he wrote in about a half-hour, spurred on by Mr. Dylan’s emergence as a songwriter.

The song, he said, was about “a lovely Greek girl I was always leaving and regretting it” in Vernon, British Columbia. (Her name was Evinia Pulos and, as it turned out they carried on an on-again-off-again love affair over six decades.) A tale of lost love and itinerant farm and ranch work set against the Canadian West and the implacable forces of nature (“Four strong winds that blow lonely/Seven seas that run high/All those things that don’t change come what may”), it set the tone for how Mr. Tyson’s work would evolve over time.

In 1968, before the Byrds’ seminal country-rock album, “Sweetheart of the Rodeo,” was released, the two relocated to Nashville, where they recorded two country-influenced albums and formed the country-rock group Great Speckled Bird. The couple recorded 13 albums before they stopped performing. They divorced in 1975.

Mr. Tyson returned to western Canada, where he resumed ranching and focused on his solo career. He hosted a show on Canada’s national television network between 1970 and 1975, but he had almost dropped out of music before he reinvented himself less as a folk act than as a Western one.

First came his well-received 1983 album, “Old Corrals and Sagebrush,” which combined traditional cowboy music and songs of the West he wrote himself. In 1986, his “Cowboyography” earned platinum status in Canada. Over time, he became a familiar Canadian presence in his trademark cowboy hat and stiff-legged gait, ranching, recording and performing at concerts and events like the annual National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nev.

And he recorded a series of evocative, stubbornly unfashionable albums like “Songs From the Gravel Road,” about the allure and frustrations of the lonely ranching life. His own life remained complicated, too, including both an endless array of honors and awards and marriage in 1986 to a teenager less than half his age, Twylla Biblow, That marriage ended in divorce in 2008.

A complete list of survivors was not immediately available.

Mr. Tyson badly strained his voice in 2006 at the Havelock Country Jamboree in Ontario, and a virus a year later caused further (and irreversible) damage.

He returned two years later, his smooth baritone reduced to a hoarse whisper, but his popularity remained intact with the album “Yellowhead to Yellowstone and Other Love Stories.”

Throughout, his music reflected the solitary ranching life, the lure of the outdoors, the pains of heartbreak and lost love.

A 2008 profile in The Globe and Mail when he was nearing 75 captured some of the details of it at his T-Bar-Y ranch: The 12-hour work schedule, starting at 6 a.m. The Monday washing (five pairs of Wranglers to get him through the week). The “mean, garlicky” buffalo he cooked. The place filled with cowboy hats and books — “To Kill a Mockingbird,” a Georgia O’Keeffe biography, a dictionary, “The Western Buckle: History, Art, Culture, Function,” Michael Ondaatje’s “Divisadero.” The magnet on his refrigerator reading: “Life is tough. Life is tougher if you’re stupid. — John Wayne.”

“I became a historian, a chronicler of this way of life,” he told the reporter Marsha Lederman, “and this way of life is just about over. The cowboys are all gone.”

It was a theme he often came back to. “People tell me, ‘Tyson, you’re always longing for the old days,’” he once said. “And they’re right, that’s true — I live in the past. And it was way better.”

Eduardo Medina contributed reporting.

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