Ian Tyson OC, D Litt (hon), LLD (hon)
Ian Tyson is an internationally acclaimed western music singer and songwriter who has created some of Alberta’s and Canada’s most enduring standards. His career has spanned five decades and his music has inspired such renowned artists as Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Gordon Lightfoot. Over the years, Tyson has continued to create music that encapsulates life in the west. Through vivid descriptions of Alberta and cowboy culture, Ian Tyson has become a leading spokesman for western pride and helped establish a unique soundtrack to capture the Alberta experience.
Born in Victoria, British Columbia in 1933, the second child of George and Margaret Tyson, Ian learned to ride horses on a small farm owned by his father, an insurance salesman who had emigrated from England in 1906. As a teenager, he left home for southern Alberta and competed in the rodeo circuit until a foot injury put him in the hospital. It was during his recovery in a Calgary hospital that Tyson first learned to play the guitar.
Soon after, at the age of 24, Tyson continued east to Toronto to pursue a music career. It was during the folk music revival of the 1960s that he met singer/songwriter Sylvia Fricker. Together, they formed the eponymous duo “Ian and Sylvia” and enjoyed great success, receiving rave reviews and playing to sold-out crowds in such prestigious venues as New York’s Carnegie Hall.
It was during this time that Four Strong Winds was released. The title track became an instant hit; over 50 versions were recorded in the first five years after its release and it has remained a folk standard. Neil Young recorded Four Strong Winds in 1979 and called the song “the most beautiful record I ever heard in my life.” Johnny Cash recorded the song shortly before his death and it was included on his posthumous album released in 2006. The song has also become an Alberta standard. A 2005 radio listener’s poll named Four Strong Winds the greatest Canadian song of the 20th century.
After forming the iconic country rock band “Great Speckled Bird” with Sylvia, Tyson hosted the national Canadian television music show, “Nashville North,” (which was later renamed “The Ian Tyson Show”) from 1970 to 1975. Soon after, he once again made Alberta his home, settling in Pincher Creek where he began ranching and living the life about which he was so proud to write and sing.
After three years of working his ranch, he recorded the album Old Corrals & Sagebrush, a mixture of traditional cowboy songs and new western music. His breakthrough album, 1986's Cowboyography, earned platinum status in Canada. As the popularity of Tyson’s music resurged, he began traveling and performing at concerts across North America. Even during this busy time, Tyson stayed true to his roots, maintaining Alberta as his home and working on a ranch in Pincher Creek. In fact, it is the gravel road that runs from his present ranch in the foothills of the Rockies that inspired Tyson’s 2005 album, Songs from the Gravel Road. Releasing this album at the age of 71, Tyson has shown that an active cowboy life keeps his creative pulse beating as strongly as ever. His discography remains an enduring collection of Canadian classics.
Tyson has said he made it a point to try to reach as many people as possible through his music, including people not directly from the ranch culture. His goal has been to write songs to which different people could all relate. The popularity and longevity of his many albums, along with the awards and recognition that followed, are proof that Tyson has been able to achieve that goal.
Through his music, Ian Tyson tells the story of rural Alberta and today’s West. He depicts the challenges of a rancher’s life, the beauty of the Rockies and the cowboy’s strong work ethic.
Tyson’s authentic career path serves as a model for Canadian musicians starting out in the industry today. His dedication to music and the genre is firmly recognized. By always focusing on his home and his passions, Tyson has served as a mentor for new artists, such as Albertan Corb Lund.
Tyson has used his skill and passion for music to benefit the community. He has performed at fundraising concerts across Alberta, Canada and internationally to raise awareness of and support for many causes, including child safety and education. As a compassionate rancher and environmentalist, Tyson has also joined his fellow Southern Albertans in work to preserve the natural landscape of rural Alberta.
He was inducted into the Canadian Country Music Association Hall of Honor and Hall of Fame in 1989, to the Juno Hall of Fame in 1992, the Canadian Broadcast Hall of Fame in 2000, and the Prairie Music Hall of Fame the following year. He holds honourary doctorate degrees from the University of Calgary and Athabasca University and became a member of the Order of Canada in 1994.
Tyson’s long list of honours speaks to his impact in Alberta, in Canada and abroad. Yet, despite his international acclaim, Tyson’s heart lies in Alberta; he states simply, “I’ll always be a Westerner and I’ll always be a cowboy.”