Canadian legend Tyson has mastered folk, country, and country-rock. Now, over 40 years after his career started, he throws jazz into the mix. The results are often stunning.
"Everything's fast forward now / The years are flyin' by / Kinda tends to mess up a 1950s guy " These lyrics come from the first verse of "This Is My Sky", the opening track from Ian Tyson's latest album, Songs from the Gravel Road. For a man who has been releasing albums for over forty years, the words are appropriate, particularly when your sound is steeped in tradition. Tyson began his career as one-half of the legendary Canadian folk duo Ian and Sylvia, who were -- in part -- the real life inspiration for Mitch and Mickey, the annoyingly affectionate and twee couple in A Mighty Wind. Together, Ian and Sylvia released a string of albums that captured the folk revival of the '60s and saw folk's merger with both rock and country that formed the country-rock movement of the early '70s. The duo eventually went on to form the country-rock band Great Speckled Bird, whose self-titled 1970 release is considered an obscure country-rock gem, the largely unknown counterpart to the Byrds' Sweetheart of the Rodeo. The group, however, was plagued by constant lineup changes and eventually disbanded in 1976. Tyson, never one to cower from change, embarked on a solo career that would become legendary on its own merits. Over the last two decades, he has released a solid collection of albums that continue to blend folk, country, and subtle shades of rock.
Songs from the Gravel Road sees Tyson forging yet another new path in his career. At the heart of the twelve songs on this collection is still the folk song; underneath the spacious instrumentation of most of these songs is a foundation of nimble, graceful fingerpicking. On top of this foundation, however, is a sound that often veers closer to jazz than folk or country. This change was a deliberate artistic choice by Tyson, who decided to assemble a band of younger musicians who specialize in pop and jazz. In the end, Tyson choose some of the most respected players from the Toronto music scene: guitarist Kevin Breit, drummer Mark Kelso, and horn players Phil Dwyer, Steve McDade, and Guido Basso. The result is an album that is reflective and airy. Listening to Songs from the Gravel Road is like taking that first walk through the house after a lover has moved out -- open, expansive, melancholy.
Indeed, most of the songs on Gravel Road deal with adjusting to being alone after a loved one is no longer around. "Love Without End", for example, is a soft jazz tune that simultaneously laments and longs: "Love without end / Once I had love without end / Then I rode away / Left it behind me". In the background, soft drums, hushed piano, and a muted trumpet interplay, giving the song a lounge feel. This is the type of song one requests with a mixed drink during last call, the haunting specter of inescapable loneliness waiting just outside the doors. "So No More" also addresses lost love, and displays Tyson's gift of capturing tremendous feeling in few words by focusing on powerful images: "Empty hallways, dried up lawns / Stripped down beds / That no one lies upon". Like Bruce Springsteen's devastating "You're Missing", this song is a masterpiece of observation that conveys loss through describing the sudden absence of comforting surroundings. Likewise, "Silver Bell" describes separation, but not from a lover. Rather, the song depicts a man who cannot make it home for Christmas, but sends a silver bell to hang from the Christmas tree as a reminder of his love: "It's the giving, not the taking / Though we're far apart / The best that I can bring / My little bell will ring / All the love that's in my heart". Unlike some of the other tracks, this one is pure country, replete with swelling steel guitar, crooned choruses, and soothing harmonies.
Not all of the songs on Gravel Road, however, are successful. Unfortunately, Tyson sometimes strays from singing, and opts to deliver the lyrics in speech. In the aforementioned "This Is My Sky", for example, Tyson speaks the lyrics, and the result is both awkward and embarrassing. The clumsy delivery is highlighted by the music, which sounds as faux-mysterious and dramatic as background music from Miami Vice. Likewise, in "The Amber Saddle", Tyson simply talks some of the lyrics, this time telling the tale of a saddle. Yes, the narrator in this song is a piece of leather, and he (it?) lovingly recalls previous owners and boasts about being in the hall of fame. Nothing more should be said about this -- ever.
Overall, though, Songs from the Gravel Road is a carefully-crafted collection of country-jazz. By mixing up his sound, Tyson has proven that his career -- even after four decades -- has not grown predictable or tired. Like his '60s contemporaries Neil Young and Bob Dylan, Ian Tyson is growing old gracefully; moreover, his music, like theirs, shows that authenticity never passes with trends, but remains after fads -- and lovers -- fade into memory.