\”Way out West, on the lonesome trail, where a man and his horse seldom ever fail, they ride the range, from sun to sun, for a cowboy’s work is never done,\” sings cowboy music troubadour, Ian Tyson in Doney Gal, a traditional cowboy ballad, and sweet lead-in to Tyson’s newly released Carnero Vaquero.
If it rings of an ancient ballad, it is, with Irish-Scottish roots, he explains, during an interview for my feature about him and a cast of his favorite horses in the next issue of Western Horse Review.
“The great cowboy songs all are. You see, those people mainly came from Tennessee and Kentucky, after the Civil War, Scots-Irish mostly. And they adapted them. Doney Gal’s kind of a mystery, because it wasn’t from that Charles Goodnight cattle driving period. Those boys couldn’t have mares on the drives. So it was all geldings, no mares. Doney Gal is from the earliest of times, and usually refers to a woman. Maybe it somehow slipped over to be a horse.”
So, it’s a metaphor?
“Yes, a metaphoric thing. But it’s a beautiful song; I love that song. I asked Catherine Marx to come up from Tennessee and play on it, and she just totally smoked it. She’s superb; she just knows what to do.”
There aren’t many who can match Tyson for authenticity. Just as Charlie Russell – who Tyson admittedly still idolizes – more than a century earlier, painted and understood that his work would be essential depictions of the last of a way of life in the West, so Tyson understands that what he writes and sings about represents the last of his generation’s West, with another reinvented version, constructed by “downtown cowboys” in big hats and fancy trucks, just over the rise.
He points to Will James, the master of the phenomena, a Quebec wannabe who reinvented himself as a cowboy of the West. His 1984 tribute to James is included in this collection.
I love Tyson\’s approach to song writing, for it’s often a strange brew of old and new, such as in Jughound Ronnie, composed with Calgary writer and musician Kris Demeanor. He casts the character of an unfaithful wife who leaves her babies at home with the nanny, and returns her \”high heeled boots made of embroidered leather\” and \”white Escalade,” to her husband, in favour of running off with her lover, all an adaptation from Woodie Guthrie’s, Gypsy Davy, and can be trailed further back in time to Raggle Taggle Gypsy, a traditional Scottish folk song.
“There are many, many variants of it,” Tyson explains. “In all the versions, and they go back, way back, she never comes back to the babies, and none of them are his. You’d think there’d be variations of these old songs, but no, not with Gypsy Davy.”
Call it a few centuries old, but I love Ian’s “oil and gas” version of it.
Ballads such as the telling Wolves No Longer Sing, co-written with his longtime friend, Tom Russell show he has no interest in mellowing out his disappearing West message as he sets into his 80th decade on this earth.
Now the old man sold his horses, and his children sold the ranch,
And there’s roads all through that valley, where his ponies used to dance,
The dry wind sings a lonesome tune, a longing for the Spring,
And love no longer matters, and the wolves no longer sing.
The Old Man sold his kingdom for a song,
What’s happened to the music? Where have the wild ones gone?
Not that it\’s all parabolic fire and brimstone in this collection. There’s The Flood, also co-written with Demeanor, which speaks to the Alberta floods of 2013, but also feels metaphoric of other, perhaps all, things lost, as well as Cottonwood Canyon, which has been picked up as an environmental ode.
It’s fitting it all came together at the stone house, a mile or so up the road from his ranch, and it could be said, on the edge of the passing West, a spectacle he told me he never quite expected to see in his lifetime.
The other day I stepped into the truck and flicked on Outlaw Country radio, to hear Cottonwood Canyon playing. Neat. I couldn’t help thinking how Tyson, just like his West, has reinvented himself from his Ian and Sylvia days to an important canon of solo work. Lucky for us.
Be sure to check out my piece with Ian Tyson in Western Horse Review. You can’t miss the issue – he’s on the cover.