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Cattle calling: Ian Tyson and Corb Lund deliver audiences the history of cowboys through storytelling and song

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Show and tell: Corb Lund, left, and Ian Tyson tell cowboy stories with complementary takes on scuffed-boot roots music. Photo by: Grant Black / Postmedia News

From: National Post

Ian Tyson answers the phone with a slightly weary sort of warmth, that still surprisingly smooth voice of his creaking at the edges like a well-built old ranch house. Though he’s now safely in a Sarnia hotel room, it sounds like there’s just a bit of lingering lag from his journey, which brought him here from Albequerque, N.M., where he was indulging his main non-musical passions: “Some horse business and some hanky-panky,” as he puts it.

It’s the former that’s the most relevant to his latest slate of shows, a mixture of history and humble country with his friend and fellow hurtin’ Albertan Corb Lund, given the appropriately plainspoken name An Evening of Cowboy Stories and Song. Started last year to mark the centennial celebration of the Calgary Stampede, it features the duo following the trails and tales of that most mythical Western figure, abetted by their complementary takes on scuffed-boot roots music.

The topic hits close to home for Tyson and Lund, both descended from ranch hands and cowboys who found their way to Alberta just as the province was officially becoming such. As Lund tells it, it was kind of a natural outgrowth of their very easy rapport, which he first noticed while interviewing Tyson on a Calgary stage when the Four Strong Winds writer’s autobiography came out a few years ago.

“We were having so much fun, and the stories were so great, I just figured if we had a guitar right now, it would be fantastic,” Lund recalls over the phone from somewhere in rural Pennsylvania, where he’s touring before coming up to join Tyson. “So I convinced him — actually, I guess we kind of convinced each other to put together this show.”

That’s not exactly how Tyson remembers it.

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“Oh, I don’t remember anything anymore,” Tyson says with the aural equivalent of an grouchy grin, when he’s asked about the show’s origins. “I don’t remember last week.”

Problematic as that might seem for a show that’s all about oral storytelling, the joke is just a part of a Tyson’s woolly charm, the kind of earn-your-stripes friendliness typical of the sorts who spend most of their time on the edges of settlement. Tyson has been back on his Alberta ranch more or less since he left Sylvia and Toronto’s Yonge Street roots scene in the ’70s, but he still speaks about it with the reverence of the fresh convert.

Once talk turns to horses and history — “If I had to chose, in terms of importance in my life, between horses and music, I’d be hard-pressed,” he admits. “The magic and mystery is in the horse” — it is hard to slow Tyson down. He is a font of knowledge both practical and poetical: Just after relating how Calgary Stampede founder Guy Weadick had to convince the Canadian government to let the Blackfoot Indians off the reserve to participate in the first Stampede, he detours into a cul-de-sac about how the Western prairies’ draining aquifers are making ranch life harder — before spinning off again into a discussion of some of the Canadian rodeo greats of the ’20s, when “cowboy cool” was at its Albertan height.

“We couldn’t rope with the Southern Americans, because it’s so goddamn cold here — it’s hard to do it with your mitts on! But the Canadians did really well in the Bronc riding,” Tyson explains, noting that the custom of crossbreeding with wild broncos made for some formidable riding stock. “Folks like Pete Knight and Marty Wood — they were some real hockey-stature heroes up here. Now our bronc riders are kind of the Edmonton Oilers of rodeo these days, but these guys were stars.”

Lund has pretty obviously gotten used to that facility, and though he’s no slouch in the storytelling department — with his blend of deep-rooted musicianship and a decidedly modern sense of humour, he’s won Roots Artist of the Year at Canadian Country Music Awards six of the last eight times — he admits he is mostly happy to just trot alongside Tyson onstage, steering him through the plains and gullies of his impressive breadth of knowledge.

‘Tyson’s kind of a walking historian of the American West and cowboy culture. We could pull stories out of him for hours and hours and hours’
“I throw in the odd thing, but I’m happy just to be a catalyst — lob in some softballs and let him go at them,” Lund says with a chuckle. “He’s kind of a walking historian of the American West and cowboy culture. We could pull stories out of him for hours and hours and hours.”

It’s obvious from talking to him that Lund appreciates his front row seat for the history lesson. He only recently moved back to the Southern Alberta ranchland that serves as the setting for Canadian cowboy lore, after having spent close to a couple decades in Edmonton. (Despite both his family roots and country pedigree, Lund actually got his musical start playing punk-metal in cult Western Canadian act The Smalls.) He admits that that sometimes left him feeling a bit between worlds, something that has been calmed by some of Tyson’s connection with the past.

“A lot of the traditional stuff that my grandfathers taught me fits into the bigger picture now, and that’s kind of cool,” he says. “I think I’ve always had — kind of a deeper sense of sadness about me than the people around me. And I think that’s tied into nostalgia, that’s tied into history. It makes me feel rooted, a bit more stable in a crazy universe.”

Tyson, on the other hand, is so deeply rooted that his main concerns are about transplantation: He admits that when people first brought up the idea of taking his cowboy stories on the road, he wasn’t really sure it would travel outside Alberta. As he says himself, not everyone quite appreciates the mystery of the horse the way he does. Though he does figure, and he would know, that the fact the cowboy stories have been kicking around for more than a century is at least a good omen.

“That was how that whole cowboy renaissance started, with the guys with the rhymes and the poems and the tall tales,” he explains. “That culture hasn’t changed much in 100 years, so it’s got some life in it.”

An Evening of Cowboy Stories and Song plays Toronto’s Winter Garden Theatre Nov. 29 and Ottawa’s National Arts Centre Nov. 30. Tickets and more information can be found at masseyhall.com or nac-cna.ca.

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