Ian Tyson's Brave New CD

Ian TYSON is on the phone, and his voice sounds as ragged as a tumbleweed rattling over a dusty plain. It's 8 a.m. in High River, Alta., and a fierce gale is whipping across Tyson's ranch. "The wind is blowing like there's no tomorrow," he says. "It's going to be a hundred clicks today. You gotta tie things down. When I first came here they had these asphalt shingles on the barns, and when a storm took them off you'd see what looked like a huge, immeasurable flock of vultures in the sky." Tyson, the cowboy poet reaching for an early morning metaphor, knows a thing or two about wind. His classic ballad, Four Strong Winds - recorded with Ian & Sylvia and adopted by Neil Young - was voted the best Canadian song of all time by CBC Radio three years ago.

But one of the most beautiful voices ever to sing of women and horses and heartbreak is now broken. Its smooth, clear depths are drained and its timbre is cracked like a dry riverbed. The damage was done two years ago at the Havelock Jamboree, a country music festival in Ontario. "The sound was set up for Nashville rock 'n' roll, all heavy bass," Tyson explains. "I stupidly tried to outmuscle the sound with my voice, which I'd gotten away with all those years. When I got offstage, I knew I'd done something strange and terrible. Then it was too late." His voice partially recovered, but last year he caught a nasty virus on a flight from Denver and it hasn't been the same since. "There's a lot of scarring down there," he says.

That, however, didn't stop Tyson from recording a new album with what was left of his vocal cords. Last week, the singer-songwriter, who turned 75 this year, released Yellowhead to Yellowstone and Other Love Songs, his 14th album. Most of the songs are sad ballads - made even sadder by a voice that's painfully torn and frayed. The difference in Tyson's singing is so radical that it amounts to a whole new style: and his Edmonton-based label, Stony Plains Records, is promoting his "dramatically 'new' voice" as a selling point. It's a half-talking delivery that sounds not unlike Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits. "I didn't realize I was doing it," says Tyson, "but when I listened to the album, I heard a lot of Knopfler. And he's a huge influence, especially on the songwriting."

Though the bass has dropped out of Tyson's voice, he has discovered some strange new frontiers in the upper shallows that give it a sense of fragility. "The bottom end is gone completely," he says, "but the top end seems to be lengthening. There's all sorts of funny avenues you can take in the upper register. I don't know what's going on."

Tyson says he was reluctant to record at first. But Alberta country singer Corb Lund, a close friend, urged him to forge ahead, saying, "I like your voice better the way it is now." Lund connected him with his Nashville producer, Harry Stinson, who has worked with everyone from George Jones to Steve Earle. Tyson laid down most of the album's tracks in Nashville in just four days, for a fraction of what he'd spent in Toronto on his previous record, Songs From the Gravel Road, which bombed. This album is attracting a lot of curiosity and some favourable reviews.

Most of the songs are tender laments for a lost love or a vanished frontier. Some verge on the maudlin, but Tyson is not content to sit back in the saddle of country and western cliché - who else would rhyme "some damn bureaucrat" with "abrogate a cowboy hat"? The title tune, Yellowhead to Yellowstone, is sung from the viewpoint of a pack of wolves transplanted from the Canadian Rockies to Wyoming - the kind of epic narrative Gordon Lightfoot used to write. And My Cherry Coloured Rose, about Don Cherry mourning his wife, was sent to him on a homemade CD by Toronto songwriter Jay Aymar.

The breakup ballads on the new album were inspired by "a deep, serious love affair that went south," says Tyson. "It's been a tough couple of years." But he's not referring to his divorce from his second wife, which finally came through last spring. "The divorce songs were on the previous album."

Living alone on his ranch, Tyson still works on a horse most days. And next month he's off to Oklahoma to ride in a major cutting horse championship. He will continue to tour with the "new" voice, and inevitably there are requests for Four Strong Winds. "I don't like doing it all the time," he says. "I wrote that thing in 20 minutes and I was just a kid. It's like someone else wrote it." Now it will sound like someone else is singing it.

Maclean's December 1, 2008