In Washington's folk music glory days of the early '60s, a concert by Ian and Sylvia was hailed as a major cultural event. While all the formula folk bands of the day offered urbanized, watered-down campus sing-alongs, Ian Tyson and Sylvia Fricker combined elements of bluegrass, blues and country with a dynamic vocal delivery that was smooth yet raw in its power and authenticity. They were leaders in the first wave of Canadian folk singers whose ranks included Gordon Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell and Neil Young.
Today and tomorrow at the Birchmere, Ian -- without Sylvia -- performs in Washington for the first time in nearly 15 years. This time he's coming back as a singing cowboy.
When Washington's former folk mecca, the Shadows, opened at 34th and M streets in 1962, Ian and Sylvia were one of the club's first out-of-town acts. Washington audiences took an immediate liking to the young couple. Recalls folk music host Dick Cerri: "We felt we had discovered Ian and Sylvia, and we were going to support them and make them big, famous and popular." Cerri helped the cause by regularly playing Ian and Sylvia's first Vanguard album on his Music Americana show, which is still on the air.
Vanguard debuted the duo's second and third albums, "Four Strong Winds" and "Northern Journey," in 1964 in Washington. The title cut of the second album was an immediate folk hit and established Tyson as one of the era's more important songwriters. He confirmed this with "Someday Soon," a cut from the third album that Judy Collins remade into a country-flavored Top 40 smash in 1970. Also from the "Northern Journey" album came a Fricker composition, "You Were on My Mind," which the We Five modified to make the pop charts the next year. Ian and Sylvia topped off 1964 by getting married.
In 1965 they released their last all-acoustic album, titled after Gordon Lightfoot's then unknown tune "Early Morning Rain." Ian and Sylvia are credited with giving Lightfoot the exposure he needed to leave the Canadian coffeehouse scene for concert halls and record contracts. Soon after, they developed an electric, country-rock band, the Great Speckled Bird. It was a full 10 years before Waylon and Willie, cowboy bars and mechanical bulls and Ian and Sylvia found that audiences didn't quite know what to make of it all.
"The Great Speckled Bird was a very experimental and creative group but didn't get the kind of recognition the Byrds or Flying Burrito Brothers got, although those bands would come hear us play. Our music then was just not commercially successful at all and it just alienated Ian and Sylvia fans," Tyson says. "But to be fair, the band had absolutely no idea how to perform live electrically. Most of them were acoustic and folk players. At that time the technology of sound was changing completely and radically. We didn't even know what monitors were! It took me years to know what I was doing."
The Ian and Sylvia act disbanded in 1975. The marriage ended the following year. Tyson moved into a log cabin on the ranch of his best friend and "didn't do much of anything for a year and a half." Their son Clayton, born in 1966, stayed with Fricker in Toronto.
By the late 1970s Tyson regrouped, formed a country-western band and began performing weekends at local cowboy bars and honky-tonks. He also recorded his first solo albums, entitled "Ol' Eon" and "One Jump Ahead of the Devil," available only in Canada. He says he also considered moving to Nashville or Texas, but decided to stay in Alberta, Canada, where he bought his ranch in 1979. He raises quarter horses and describes himself as "a full-time cowboy and part-time entertainer." Once a week he hosts a half-hour TV music show, "Sun Country," which features country and folk performers.
Fricker still lives in Toronto, where she works for the Canadian Broadcasting Co. as a writer/producer and sometime radio host. Ian says there may be an Ian and Sylvia reunion this year and says Fricker's choice of location is Washington. Tyson, now 52, says he has mixed feelings about a reunion, but thinks it "could be good if it's thought out real well." He says the two performed "Four Strong Winds" together a couple of years ago on a TV special saluting Canada's folk singers of the past. Fricker has also joined Tyson on his TV show.
In 1983 Columbia released Tyson's first U.S. album in more than 10 years. Entitled "Old Corrals & Sagebrush," it provided the first glimpse of his current cowboy style. In 1984, another collection of cowboy songs -- many original -- was released in an album called "Ian Tyson."
Tyson's live performances these days take place on weekends within an easy drive from his Longview, Alberta, ranch. "We play at big honky-tonks, country dances, some concerts and festivals. But 80 percent of it is in big honky-tonks, like a place I work steadily in Calgary called the Ranchmen's Club. We do two styles of music: western, with the shuffles and waltzes, and the stuff that I'm writing. With the acceptance of the Columbia albums even the people in the honky-tonks want to hear quite a bit of it. But we try to make our music as danceable as we can."
While most of Tyson's current compositions are in the traditional cowboy vein, an occasional rock influence is still apparent. "When people ask me what I do I tell them my music is halfway between Dire Straits and George Strait," he says, laughing.