Ottawa’s CityFolk Festival got a musical treat Saturday night on the City Stage. Quite a crowd gathered around to hear two Canadian cowboy troubadours sing and tell stories about the great Canadian West.
One, a roots-country singer-songwriter from Alberta who formed his band, Corb Lund and the Hurtin’ Albertans in 1995, has released nine albums to critical acclaim; the other, a folk-turned-country singer-songwriter legend who began performing in 1959 and released 17 albums during his career, 13 of as a duo with former wife and musical partner, Sylvia Tyson.
Both have won multiple awards for their music, which shares common themes of life and times in the west… or “cowboyography,” as Tyson would later describe it. Songs about horses and buffalo, cattle rustlers and drivers, drifters, bootleggers, ranchers and rodeo riders.
The two decided to pair up, back in 2012, to share each other’s songs and stories. Corb Lund and Ian Tyson were joined by Canadian producer, engineer, songwriter and guitarist, Russell Broom, who added some great electric guitar lead work to all the material. Lund and Tyson were armed with their acoustic guitars and the three created some instrumental magic onstage.
Sitting on stools aboard the giant City Stage, the scene looked very much like a songwriting circle, and in essence, that’s exactly what it was. A large crowd gathered to witness this very special union of artists. “We’re gonna play some cowboy songs for ya,” said 83-year old Ian Tyson, who was seated in the middle, decked out in his black cowboy hat and blue jeans.
Tyson began with an early tale about cattle drivers like Charlie Goodnight, then swept into another traditional two-stepping country tune about the selling off of the M.C. horses. Lund and Tyson took turns singing many of the songs’ verses and Lund added some nice vocal harmonies during the choruses where Tyson would always take the higher part.
Broom picked out some haunting pedal steel-flavoured progressions that added to the song’s melancholy vibe.
Lund contributed some of his own song material, such as “S Lazy H”, a simple country melody written about a man who loses his ranch. Others Lund shared would be his quick-paced witty wild west song, “Everything is Better With Some Cows Around,” and one he said was his mother’s favourite, “The Truth Comes Out,” a piece he wrote for “all my native brothers and sisters.” I was moved by the song’s mournful melody, touched with a Blue Rodeo charm, and more of Bloom’s wistful-sounding guitar leads.
He later got the crowd going with the foot-stomping energy of “Five Dollar Bill,” that told the tale of his grandfather’s whiskey bootlegging days out west.
Some of Tyson’s material included “You Should Have Known,” about the hard living, drinking, and loving cowboy life. Tyson demonstrated his very intact yodelling skills in this song. Then came one of my favourites, “Someday Soon,” which became a hit not just for Tyson, but for many other artists including Judy Collins and Suzy Bogguss. Its pretty flowing melody tells the tale of a woman who falls in love with a drifter. “This song’s been very good to me,” Tyson recalled with a twinkle in his eye, “got me some good horses, and paid a lot of alimony.”
The crowd swayed to its gentle rhythm, and Lund stepped in to sing a couple of verses. Another entitled, “The Gift (Charlie Russell),” spoke of the legendary American in a vibrant two-stepping beat. Tyson became visibly energized during this song, and invited folks to sing along. There was a look on his face of pure enjoyment in revisiting and sharing these songs with the audience, who reciprocated warmly.
The two then shared a song they recorded together 13 years ago, “The Rodeo’s Over,” which has a traditional country waltz charm. After that, there was time for one more, and the audience heartily welcomed the three back to the stage. “Here’s one that was written before any of you were born. It‘s almost public domain!” said Tyson as he began his iconic piece saved for the end, “Four Strong Winds.”
Written in the early sixties, the song is a piece of Canadian legacy that has been recorded by dozens of artists including Neil Young. The crowd chanted along and finished in a rousing show of applause. Tyson was genuinely moved by the response and was the last to leave the stage. Many of us were also moved, as we realized we had all shared in a little bit of historical Canadiana magic that had just been made onstage.