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Range sage rides south

Ian Tyson, a real cowboy, comes singing from the north country

The Old West preoccupies Ian Tyson these days, much as it has the last 50 years, whether he's singing about it, living it on his T-Bar-Y cattle ranch in Alberta, Canada, or recording a live album at the grange hall down the road.

Tyson, 69, took time out from ranch work to talk on the phone about a tour that brings him to Portland this weekend.

Never mind music. What Tyson really wants to talk about is old cowboys and cow towns and cutting horses Ñ which he raises Ñ and rodeos and renegades like Claude Dallas. It's the context of his work and can be traced to his musical origins in the early 1960s.

Busting up riding broncs on the rodeo circuit, he learned the guitar, hooked up with Sylvia Fricker in Toronto and wrote the classics 'Four Strong Winds' and 'Someday Soon' as Fricker herself penned 'You Were on My Mind.'

After more than a decade of folk hits with their band Great Speckled Bird and a Canadian national television show, Tyson and Fricker divorced and Tyson returned to Calgary, where his father had emigrated from Wales in 1906.

'It was still open range for another year and a half,' he reminisces. 'My father saw the final closing of the frontier. In those days, itinerant photographers found that cowboys were very vain and would spend $15 on a portrait. I guess my father was as vain as any, and the pictures still exist today.'

But his return to his cowboy roots and buying his ranch in 1977 led to an extraordinarily productive musical turn. Tyson started writing about the way the old days and the new were dissimilar and the same.

He was remarkably productive while also working his spread. 'Old Corrals and Sagebrush' (1983) was followed by 'Cowboyography' (1986), which went platinum. Then there were 'I Outgrew the Wagon' (1989), 'Eighteen Inches of Rain' (1994), 'All the Good 'Uns' (1996) and 'Lost Herd' (1999).

This time around, he's touring behind the live album 'Live at Longview,' which has 17 songs recorded in four nights at a grange hall 10 minutes from his ranch. The word went out, 'and there were license plates in the parking lot from as far as California, New Mexico, Texas and Colorado,' he recounts.

Tyson had some misgivings about a live album. 'It's really performing without a net Ñ who sings and plays on the same recorded tracks anymore?' But backed by guitarist Gord Matthews, bassist Gord Maxwell, fiddler Myran Scott, trumpeter Al Muirhead and drummer Thom Moon, he's happy with the result. 'I guess we 'cowboyed' up,' he says.

Tyson speaks fondly of old cow towns he doesn't think have been yuppified yet, including Pendleton; Dillon ('still pretty good in a hard-ass, Montana way'); Sheridan, Wyo.; and Alpine, Texas.

He's particularly proud of being invited to Fort Worth, Texas, for the National Cutting Horse Futurity.

'They asked me to come down and sing for this wonderful old stallion, Smart Little Lena, which was the first winner of cutting's triple crown 20 years ago. For somebody to be asked to sing in Texas who's not a Texan is quite remarkable.'

Tyson still works on horseback Ñ 'it's still the best way to move stock around' Ñ but he's more careful now than in his youth.

'We weed the wild ones out now,' he says. 'I can't afford to get laid up. In the old days, it never crossed my mind. I've got a lot of great memories from riding pro rodeos as a hometown entry. I never made money, but they gave me a lot of good songs.'