Western music remembers Ian Tyson | TSLN.com

Western music remembers Ian Tyson

Four strong winds that blow lonely,
Seven seas that run high,
All those things that don’t change, Come what may
If the good times are all gone,
Then I’m bound for moving on.
I’ll look for you if I’m ever back this way

—Four Strong Winds, Ian Tyson

Generations can sing along with songs like “Navajo Rug,” and “MC Horses,” which characterize Ian Tyson’s contribution to Western music. But it was “Four Strong Winds” and “Someday Soon,” made famous by other peoples’ voices, which paid for his Alberta, Canada ranch and first allowed him to step into the music scene as a serious contributor.

Tyson learned to play guitar while he was recovering from a rodeo wreck. His father, an insurance salesman, was an avid polo player, so Tyson was around horses all his life, but his lack of a ranch background was evident when Gary McMahan, a longtime friend and fellow musician, spent some time on the ranch with Tyson.
“He had a real cowboy heart. He wasn’t a real cowboy because you didn’t have to hang around the ranch with him long and he’d make some real stupid mistakes. But he could sure ride a horse and look like a cowboy, and write a song that made it look like he could,” McMahan said.

Tyson’s music career went from Vancouver to Toronto to New York City to Nashville to Elko, Nevada. Tyson and Sylvia Fricker launched their music careers together as a folk duo in 1959, known simply as Ian and Sylvia. They were married and produced music together through the 1960s, and in the 1970s they started developing solo careers. They divorced in 1974.

Tyson continued producing solo albums, and Neal Young, Judy Collins, Bobby Bare, Moe Bandy and Suzy Boggus covered songs he had written. In 2010 “Someday Soon” was honored by the Western Writers of America as one of the “Top 100 Western Songs” of all time.

The first song Tyson wrote, in half an hour in a New York City apartment, many other artists recorded over the last 50 years. Even Swedish and Norwegian versions of “Four Strong Winds” were popular in those countries. In 2005 Radio Canada listeners voted it the greatest Canadian song. “Four Strong Winds” topped out at number three on the U.S. country singles chart in early 1965, recorded by Bobby Bare, and became a signature for Neal Young. Tyson and Gordon Lightfoot also performed it as part of the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary.

McMahan had met Tyson in Nashville in the 1970s, when they were both trying to make it as musicians and songwriters.

“He was an old sonofabitch,” McMahan said. “He was kind of famous for that, but I never really saw it because he was a friend of mine. We had these dreams of cowboy songs coming to the forefront, and we’d bring those songs there.”

One night when McMahan was getting off work as a bartender in Nashville at about 1 a.m., he, Tyson and another friend were headed back to McMahan’s “shack” on Music Row to play some music or write some songs. “We hopped in my van and were headed over to Music Row. We got stopped by Nashville police. Ian was Canadian. I’m not sure he knew you didn’t mess with Nashville police. They were used to seeing famous people and just didn’t care. He said, ‘I’ll take care of this,’ and hopped out of the van. It took me probably 20 seconds to grab my wallet, but by the time I got back there these two Nashville cops had him spread across the car with a shotgun pointed at his head, and he was begging them not to shoot him. I still don’t know what he said or did to make them do that. That night we went back to my house and drank some whiskey and played some songs.”

It was only natural that the only three “real” cowboys in Nashville would gravitate toward each other. “It was me and him and Chris LeDoux,” McMahan said. “Western music was dead. You couldn’t sell a cowboy song to anybody. They all had cowboy hats on, but none of them were cowboys and they couldn’t care less if Western music was dead. We all tried to revive it and we never did.”

In the early 1980s Tyson delved deeper into the idea of real cowboy music, representing not just rodeo cowboys, but working cowboys and ranchers. His messages and music resonated with a population that didn’t connect with the honky-tonk and rock and roll that was playing on the radio.

Dave Munsick, another Western musician and songwriter, says that when Tyson released “Old Corrals and Sagebrush,” “It started to spread through the cowboy nation that was starting to develop, an alternative western group of buckaroos and ranchers who weren’t as much into the rodeo life.”

It was a welcome addition to the music scene, Munsick said.

“Ian’s music was as country and Western and fresh as it comes. He influenced a whole generation of singer-songwriters. From campfire singers to stage recorders to traveling musicians, he kind of brought back a style of music that had been born in the 1950s and died with rock and roll in the ’60s. It was kind of a folk music. He put that folk into a fresh sound that was folk music with country Western clothes on.”

“Cowboyography” was Tyson’s second album, and it solidified Tyson’s role in the Western music scene. “It was one of those tightly-written concept albums that you can just feel the writing spark popping out of when you listen to it,” Munsick wrote in a tribute to Tyson. “He wrote most of those songs in a few days inside his writing cabin during a spring thaw when the North Country was waking up. Hell, I was waking up. In fact, it woke up the whole country and gave a cavvy of young buckaroos a better reason to be working their butts off for $400 a month.”

But Western music found its audience in the mid-1980s, when cowboy poetry gatherings got started. McMahan said he went to the first National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in 1985 and he recognized the music. “There were other people singing my songs. I don’t know how they were getting out, but they were singing my songs and Ian’s songs. There were ranchers out there–Ma and Pa and the kids all mouthing the words. That’s where we found our audience.”

Munsick said, “His songs put both a romance and a realistic shine, at the same time– which are kind of maybe opposite things–onto daily ranch life and his reverence of history put depth into his songs.”

Tyson and several other artists recorded the most famous song McMahon wrote,  “The Old Double Diamond.”

But McMahan didn’t see any royalties until Tyson got involved, McMahan said.

“Ian was very business-savvy. I could call him up and we could talk real serious about the business side of music, which you don’t see, and a lot of singers and songwriters don’t see. He knew where the money was going and how it worked.

“One time, several years after he recorded The Old Double Diamond, we met in the lobby of Stockmen’s Hotel in Elko, at the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering. We were having breakfast in this little cafe in Stockmen’s and he asked, ‘How much money have you made off of me?’
“I said, ‘I haven’t made any money off you.’

“He said, “What?!?.’

“I said, ‘I never got a check.’

“He said, ‘Why didn’t you say something?’

“He went over to this bank of phones and dialed a number and I’ve never heard such cussing. Well, I have, but it was in a corral. When I got home I had a check waiting for about $5,000. They’d never paid me and he never knew it. I’d seen him be an asshole to a lot of people, but he wasn’t that to me. He was my good buddy.”

Dave Munsick met Tyson’s fiddle player, Myron Szott, at the Holiday Inn in Sheridan, when Szott, who was also Canadian, tried to pay for a beer with Canadian money. “He was holding up the line and I just threw down a $10 to get the line moving,” Munsick said.

Szott ended up going to the ranch Munsick was managing at the time and playing fiddle with Munsick, and eventually Tyson heard Munsick playing with Szott and Tyson’s band in a hotel room. “He thought there was a whole room of fiddle players because we were playing double stops, and Ian got the impression I was a helluva fiddle player. We ended up going out to dinner and talking about things,” Munsick said.

Tyson later gave Munsick a quote for promotion: “Dave Munsick is a pretty good songwriter, a damned fine fiddle player, and he’s nice to his dog.”

The respect was mutual, for Munsick. “He could turn reality into fantasy and fantasy into reality with his lyrics. He wed them into melodies that were fresh. Nothing got old. All his melodies were fresh. He had a great sense of production on records. He knew the tempos and instrumentation he wanted. He had great taste and a helluva drive and work ethic.”

The Ambler Saddle

Two men made the Ambler saddle famous, and neither of their names is carved into the seat.

Bill Smith won three world championships in the saddle, and Ian Tyson wrote a song about it. But it was Jerry Ambler the saddle is named after.

The saddle’s story starts in 1941, when it was made–a gold seal Hamley. Hamley & Co. started producing harness and saddles in 1883, and was soon known as one of the best in the business.

Jerry Ambler bought the saddle in 1941 for $73.  Ambler was a Calgary, Alberta cowboy who won the saddle bronc riding in 1946, riding that saddle. He carved his name in the seat. Ambler was killed in a car accident, and his saddle floated around for years, until one day in 1964.

Jim Houston was the world champion bareback rider in 1964, and he and Bill Smith, “Cody Bill” were headed to the Cow Palace in San Francisco that fall, Smith said. “He come driving in there with his car to pick me up. He said, ‘I’ve got a saddle for you in the trunk of my car.’ Cowboys had told me if you want to ride bucking horses, you’ve gotta have a gold seal Hamley. He had this one, which he’d found in a pawn shop. They got it from Joe DePew, whose name is carved in the saddle.”

Nobody told him that gold seal Hamley needed to fit, and it didn’t.

“Nobody told me it was too little for me, or old-fashioned. The saddle was made the same year I was born. It was way too short. But I learned to ride it, and I rode it the rest of my career.”

Smith’s career spanned another 20 years, and included three world titles, all in a saddle that was too small, and out of date.

“I never was tempted to upgrade,” Smith said. “I had to ride different than other guys rode because the saddle was too small. The cantle was jacked back–no cantle hardly–the swells are low, it fits low on the horse. It’s not a form-fitter like they ride nowadays. I kind of rode on top of it. I didn’t know the difference. I thought I had the right thing and no one told me different.  I wouldn’t have known how to ride one of those other saddles. I got all I was supposed to win, and with my talent I did alright. I wasn’t as talented as half the guys I rode against.”

Smith estimates he won about $270,000, most of it in that saddle. He broke the saddle bronc winnings record in 1961 when he pocketed $26,000.  At the 2022 National Finals Rodeo, first place money for one night was $28,914. “If I had to ride against the guys riding now, I’d never win,” Smith said. “But people wouldn’t borrow my saddle. I loaned it to a couple people and they were mad forever.”

The saddle spent some time at the National ProRodeo Hall of Fame in Colorado Springs, but Smith brought it home, where he can enjoy his long-time traveling partner.

“It’s the same saddle it was when I got it. I rode it for 20 years. It got tore up sometimes. The rigging got jerked out of it, a horse reared over backward in the chute. I never put anything new in it, just patched up the old. Even broke the tree, and patched it up.”

Smith met Ian Tyson in Billings, when Bill and his wife went to a concert, and got to talking to a guy Bill knew, who started telling them about a new song Tyson was writing, about Jerry Ambler. “I said I’ve got his old saddle,” Smith said. “We get to Ian and he got all excited about that. He said he might want to write a song about that, and started researching it.”

Smith talked to Tyson a few times on the phone after the song came out. “I didn’t think much of it. It was kind of silly to me. It was alright. The subject wasn’t that catchy, but he had the facts on it. It’s more of a story. The song didn’t do much, but I doubt there’s another bronc riding saddle in the world that’s got a song written about it.”

The “Ambler saddle” inspired an Ian Tyson song. Courtesy photo
The “Ambler saddle” inspired an Ian Tyson song. Courtesy photo
Bill Smith with the famed “Ambler saddle” he rode to three world championships. Bill Smith | Courtesy photo