Talking About Ian Tyson: Singer, Songwriter, and Storyteller

Talking About Ian Tyson: Singer, Songwriter, and Storyteller

(Image of Ian and Sylvia at the 2010 Mariposa Folk Festival provided by Richard Flohil.)

Tonight at the Gladstone Hotel Ballroom (1214 Queen Street West) This Is Not a Reading Series presents a unique opportunity to hear Canadian music legend Ian Tyson live in conversation. Tyson will be talking about his long career in folk, rock, country-rock, and straight-up country music and his love of the Alberta landscape, where he spends most of his time when not touring. He’ll also be discussing his new autobiography, The Long Trail: My Life in the West, with veteran music journalist, editor, and promoter Richard Flohil. The event also features an interpretive reading from Tyson’s book by fellow singer-songwriter Murray McLauchlan and a musical prelude by Lickin’ Good Fried. The event is free and doors open at 7:30.

Torontoist spoke with Richard Flohil about his long association with Tyson and his approach to interviewing.

Torontoist: You must have interviewed a lot of musicians in your writing/journalism career. Are there any that particularly stand out for all the right or wrong reasons?

Richard Flohil: You have no idea! Between 1970 and 1990 I edited The Canadian Composer/Le Compositeur Canadien for CAPAC (one of the predecessors of the performing right organization SOCAN). I did at least 30 articles/interviews a year, for 20 years. I was a founding editor of The Record and was there for 17 years.

Interviews that stand out? Ben Kaye, who was a small-time agent when I met him, but later became very involved with Celine Dion’s career; Burton Cummings (for the cover of the first issue of Canadian Musician magazine); Kate and Anna McGarrigle for Performing Arts in Canada; Rush for the long-gone Canadian Magazine, back in the 1970s. I also did live interviews with winners of the Ontario Council of Folk Festivals Estelle Klein Award: guitar maker Grit Laskin, earlier today (Sunday) in Ottawa, in front of 200 people; Randy Newman at the Edmonton Folk Festival a few years back in front of a thousand people. He played a Beethoven sonata…

Torontoist: Can you say a few words about how you became involved with Ian Tyson’s music and career? Did you know his music before you knew him?

RF: I heard Ian and Sylvia at my very first folk festival, Mariposa, back in 1965. (That weekend I also hung out with Gordon Lightfoot, met Phil Ochs, the Staple Singers, Buffy Saint Marie, Leonard Cohen, and many more). I’ve worn cowboy boots all the time since then—I thought Ian made ‘em look really cool.  Some three decades ago I became associated with Stony Plain Records, and he’s one of the label’s most important signature artists—we’ve done more than a dozen albums so far, and I’ve done a lot of publicity work for Ian ever since he began with the label more than 20 years ago.

Torontoist: Do you think readers will be surprised by what they read in Ian’s book? Was there anything in it that surprised YOU?

RF: It’s VERY frank about his personal life. But what surprised me is how much he talks about his early music years, a subject he usually avoids in interviews, in part because he thinks his current music is different, better, more true. Ian and Sylvia? That was then; what he does now is, well, now. The meat of the book, however, is his love for Western Canada.

Torontoist: Are you coming into the interview armed with a lot of questions or are you keeping it casual?

RF: Well, I hope it’ll be casual. But I will have a bunch of questions. Ian, when he’s uncomfortable, can be pretty terse, and I guess I know, after all these years, what NOT to ask him! He taught me very early on, for instance, that you never ask a rancher the size of his spread, or the number of cattle…

Torontoist: What do you think of when you think of Ian (and Ian and Sylvia’s) music?

RF: Since Ian’s voice changed, he’s become a far better communicator of the songs he writes—we listen harder, because the “broken” voice charges the songs with more emotion, and because the tone is often almost conversational. Ian Tyson has always written STORIES, and now we can hear them without being lulled by the smooth voice Canadians had been used to since he and Sylvia made their first records in the early 1960s…