Authors: Ian Tyson
Sylvia felt that protest music made for good protest but bad music. I felt similarly. I never went along with the Woody Guthrie socialism and union stuff. It just didn’t resonate with me. I couldn’t get my head around “This Land Is Your Land” because I knew loggers, cowboys and fishermen, and not many of them were socialists. When I worked on the pipeline with Jack Bruce after art school, I witnessed corrupt union politics firsthand and saw how the union tended to screw things up.
While American draft dodgers were fleeing north to Canada, I registered for the draft in the U.S. — my green card made it compulsory for me to do so. I would have gone to Vietnam, as some of my buddies did, but I was deemed 4-F (unfit for military service) because of my bum knee that I blew out in boarding school. I was goddamn lucky I didn’t end up there, because I’d probably have gotten my head blown off.
As time went on, anybody with half a brain — myself
included — realized the war was a terrible mistake. But the farm boys from Oklahoma didn’t know that, and when they got over there it was too late. A lot of them didn’t come back. The ones who did return were very changed. I remember seeing boys on leave when my band played Osaka, Japan, in 1970, and they looked like ghosts in their cheap civilian suits. That’s a haunting memory.
It’s the screwed-up American way: go marching in, guns blazing, and after three weeks not only is the conflict not over, it hasn’t even begun. It happens over and over. The U.S. is doing the same thing today — still hasn’t learned anything.
But in the 1960s there was no way I could jump on the protest bandwagon. People like Country Joe and the Fish wanted everything to be free, with no responsibility. They wanted bread and circuses like the Romans. They were totally full of shit and people went along with it. I couldn’t. I remember playing some kind of environment concert down in Philadelphia, where all these kids sat around congratulating themselves on how wonderful they were. They went on to trash the whole place. After the concert the park was absolutely filthy. Those kids shat on everything — and this was supposed to be about the environment. To me the popular politics of the day just didn’t add up.
People like to talk about the folk revival as an “era.” I don’t know if three years can be an era, but that’s basically what it was — at least, that’s what it was for Ian & Sylvia. We did three or maybe four very influential records, and that’s it. As
the decade wore on, the hipsters started to ignore us. We got no respect in the New York milieu anymore. We used to be California darlings, but now we couldn’t get arrested there if we wanted to. Many came to consider us a schlock act. We still had our faithful adherents, but the bloom was off the rose. Another tectonic shift in music and culture was underway, and we weren’t part of it.
By the late 1960s Vanguard had moved drums into the room in Manhattan Towers. You could not put drums in that room and keep its celestial vocal sound. But rock and roll was taking over, so eventually we had to have drums like everyone else. Then Albert landed us a deal with MGM, and we recorded our last few Ian & Sylvia albums in Nashville. In the late 1960s all the folkies, including Dylan and Joan Baez, were recording in Nashville.
Nashville had great session players but the city itself turned out to be a disappointment when we arrived there in 1967 to record
. We were staying at the Capitol Park Inn downtown, and we couldn’t find anyplace to eat dinner after seven o’clock at night. It’s a sophisticated place now, but back then Nashville was just a farm town where all the Baptist literature got published. The music scene was pretty underground.
Despite Nashville’s dullness we recorded some fine records there, experimenting with a more country-rock sound. In 1968 we recorded
at Bradley’s Barn, a legendary studio just outside the city, where we met great Nashville players such as Kenny Buttrey and Norbert Putnam. They formed the rhythm section on
. We encouraged our players to do long instrumental solos, and David Rea, our lead guitarist, was obviously very keen on that.
was a good record, one of Ian & Sylvia’s best, though it didn’t make the charts.
In 1969 we played the
Johnny Cash Show
at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium. It felt like 104 degrees in there and there was no air conditioning. John introduced us as a duo from “the land of the maple and the Douglas fir” and paid our songwriting a fine compliment: “When I like a piece of music that I hear, that’s when I say, ‘I wish I’d written that.’ In the case of the people you’re about to meet, I’ve said those words many, many times concerning their songs.” John’s genuineness really came through on that show. I admired him very much. We had recorded a couple of his songs — “Come in Stranger” and “Big River” — and John liked me and admired my work too. He thought “Red Velvet” was a huge song, though he never got around to cutting it. He eventually did a version of “Four Strong Winds” instead.
We didn’t play Woodstock in 1969. The common myth is that if you didn’t play Woodstock you weren’t happening, but a lot of us didn’t play it. Joni Mitchell didn’t play Woodstock — and she wrote the biggest song about it.
Still, it was undeniable: Ian & Sylvia had been a fad. Albert Grossman started focusing less on us and more on Dylan and new up-and-comers. He bought a place in Woodstock, which became the hub of his empire. The Band went there to work on their seminal self-titled album and became the focus of the Grossman organization, second only to Dylan—and of course he merged them. Throughout all of this we got short shrift.
It all hit my ego pretty hard. I didn’t like going from being a top-of-the-pile folk duo to a discredited schlock act, from prince and princess of the whole thing to nothing. I
got pretty angry about it. Around 1970 Sylvia and I went to see the Flying Burrito Brothers at a little joint in Manhattan. They were loud and out of tune, but we could see that they were going somewhere, and I was stewing because I thought we were much better than they were. I got drunk; I remember yelling at Sylvia as we left the club.
All this was hard on her too. Sylvia’s ego wasn’t as easily bruised as mine, and she was way more even-tempered than me. I don’t think she was upset about the Beatles or the Burritos or any of it. I was angry because we had fallen out of fashion — and I didn’t know what to do about it.
I kept drifting into country rock and getting to know more of the Nashville players. I really liked the Waylon-and-Willie movement and wanted to be part of that, but I never was. I was a bluegrass freak too. But the guitar playing was very demanding and difficult. Had I been able to play well enough, I probably would have ended up as a bluegrass musician.
Instead I formed a country-rock band called Great Speckled Bird, named after the Roy Acuff song of the same name. Sylvia, Amos Garrett (guitar), Buddy Cage (steel guitar), Jim Colegrove (bass), N.D. Smart (drums) and David Wilcox (guitar) were all part of the band at various times.
We recorded our only album in 1970.
Great Speckled Bird
is a very good record, and today it’s recognized as such, but we didn’t know how to reproduce that rock sound live. In the studio the engineers controlled the electronics, but onstage I didn’t have their help with my electric guitar. The other guys struggled with the tech too.
Great Speckled Bird, from left: N.D. Smart, Buddy Cage, me, Sylvia, David Wilcox and Jim Colegrove
In 1970 we played the Festival Express, the Canadian cross-country train tour, where we did a lot of jamming with Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead and The Band. Jerry was a real social guy who sure knew how to keep those jams going. There was a lot of dope smoking and drinking on the train — everyone had a cigarette hanging out of his or her mouth, and Janis Joplin drank everyone under the table — but the jams were really quite good.
The tour became a big political mess after the dopers and hippies tried to take over the event in Toronto and force us and the rest of the artists to do our concerts for free. I wasn’t interested in that at all. The press poured gasoline all
over the situation, aiding and abetting the hippies’ cause, and then sanctimoniously claimed they weren’t taking sides. Thankfully Kenny Walker, the promoter, never backed down. He told the hippies to eff off, which was the right thing to do.
I broke my hand on some knucklehead’s noggin when the train stopped in Calgary in July. My drummer, N.D. Smart, had started kibitzing with these farm boys who’d pulled up to a stop sign beside us. It escalated after we pulled over in front of the Cecil Hotel, on the east side of downtown. Both sides started throwing punches. The other guys backed down only when they realized who I was, but by then I had busted my left hand — a bit of a problem, since I had to play. I’ve always had a temper.
We kept touring the U.S. and Canada, but the colleges we’d played as Ian & Sylvia hated us when we showed up with Great Speckled Bird. There was one exception: Berkley. They loved the band. But the Ivy League schools we’d famously played as a duo couldn’t handle the change from acoustic folk to country rock. It was like Bob Dylan plugging in, albeit on a much lesser scale.
The sound systems weren’t very good in those days, which didn’t help. There was absolutely no balancing of monitors. Musicians live by monitors — without them, we can’t play good music — but we didn’t have the quality technology we have today. It was very primitive. The rock bands really did everyone a favour by blowing out all those crappy Shure sound systems. They’re all gone now, and good riddance. The Japanese saw the market potential and they started making quality equipment.
The real problem in Great Speckled Bird was that I didn’t
know how to be a bandleader. When I worked with Sylvia alone, since she loved me and was an old-fashioned girl, she pretty much did what I told her to do. But when I formed a band with four or five other guys, it was a completely different story.
This was an unruly bunch. Being on time didn’t mean anything to them. On the road you’ve got to be a road warrior, you’ve got to stand and be counted. If you’re supposed to be at the bus at a certain time, you be there at that time — not ten minutes late. These guys all thought otherwise. They looked at our tours as a laissez-faire communal dope-smoking party. You can’t run a band like that.
The guys were just immature and so was I. Since then I’ve learned some crucial life lessons about being a bandleader. You’ve got to be completely honest and consistent day in and day out. Your word has got to be law and your word has to be good, all the time. If you take the easy way out and bend the truth, even over a silly detail like scheduling on the road, it’ll come back to bite you on the ass. The band members expect you to be above reproach, even when they’re not.
If one of the band members tries it on with you, you call his bluff right away. By the time I caught on to all this, Great Speckled Bird was long gone. Bands are as good as their weakest link, but in the trio I play with now (Gord Maxwell on bass and Lee Worden on guitar), there is no weak link. Maybe I’m skewed in my opinion, but I think the western boys are more solid, more responsible — especially if they’re country boys.
All these lessons I learned about being a bandleader apply to riding horses too. You need consistency and you
can’t lose your temper. You need to be able to read things that are coming up. And with both musicians and horses, you lead by example.
Despite my failings as a bandleader, Great Speckled Bird broke up only when Jesse Winchester’s people rustled my guys. I don’t think Jesse himself could have engineered it, but his people came to the Montreal hotel where we were playing. A few days later the majority of my band was out the door.
Time heals and people eventually grow up. That’s where patience comes in. All of us Great Speckled Bird guys are pretty good friends after all these years.
y the time Great Speckled Bird broke up in the early 1970s, I was doing a weekly half-hour country music show out of Toronto. The show had originally been called
, but in the second year CFTO-TV changed the name to the
Ian Tyson Show
. I’d open each episode with a song with the band (the remnants of Great Speckled Bird) and then we’d bring on the guests, singers such as Willie Nelson, Faron Young, Johnny Rodriguez, Mel Tillis, Dolly Parton and Conway Twitty.
While Sylvia sang on some of the episodes, both the station and I were kind of squeezing her out. I wanted to learn how to sing solo country music. I wasn’t sure if I could handle it or not and I figured the show would be a test for that. My goal was to find a good generic country music style — a radio-friendly style — and there was no way I could do that in the context of our duo. The duet is a pretty restrictive format because you always have to blend and there’s little room for extemporaneous vocals. You’re always
throwing your voice up against the other voice to get that clean harmony sound. That’s true of all duos — not only Ian & Sylvia, but also Simon and Garfunkel, the Everly Brothers and so on.