I don't know if this book was 10 years in the making. I do know the relationship that spawned the book was at least that.
To understand why a Layton publishing house is doing a book about an Alberta, Canada, cowboy crooner, you need to go back to the first Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nev., a decade ago. Hal Cannon, who now runs the Western Folklife Center there, had put that first event together, thinking he might be throwing a party nobody would attend.But the drovers came out in droves. As did the Gibbs-Smith people, looking for fresh material. Ian Tyson didn't have to show up, he was already there working as the semi-official "house singer" at the Frontier Casino. From the beginning of the gathering, Tyson and Gibbs-Smith became a menage a trois made in heaven.
Gibbs-Smith discovered Waddie Mitchell and brought out the little cowboy poetry pocket anthology that introduced wrangler rhyme to the world. And Tyson, who seemed to be the world's last true cowboy singer, soon joined the vanguard of a Western music rebirth. "No one else was doing what Ian Tyson was doing when we started the Elko Cowboy Poetry Gathering," Cannon says.
And the result of all that is "I Never Sold My Saddle," a melodic autobiography/biography that shows us Tyson's life and times.
Many people will remember Tyson as the male half of Ian & Sylvia, the '60s folk couple. Others will only recall his songs ("Four Strong Winds," "Navajo Rug," "Someday Soon"). To the credit of both Tyson and the publisher, neither Tyson's personal life nor his music gets glossed here - as happens in many authorized biographies. We get the details of life with Sylvia as well as complete lead sheets to 11 Tyson tunes.
On the upside, the publisher has been generous with photographs (several in color). There is a complete discography, some interesting sidebars and more than a few boxed asides from Sylvia herself.
The prose moves along in a kind of straight-foreward trot, trading on narrative - a kind of "this happened, then that happened" approach. Colin Escott, the journalist who helped midwife Tyson's thoughts into print, has kept things clear and chronological. His approach is to quote Tyson at length (between quotation marks), then cobble those thoughts together with little transitional paragraphs of his own. The result is often harmonious, but at times a double voice takes over - one of the dangers of collaboration.
On the downside, one feels many peripheral details might have been foregone for some more poetic evocation of landscape and people (any man man who writes "Four Strong Winds" is obviously up to the task). And more warts on Tyson would have helped give us a better sense of the man.
Still, whether Tyson fans see this book as an "illustrated narrative" or a "photo book with a running text," they'll feel they got their money's worth. Gibbs-Smith refuses to release a second-rate product. And Ian Tyson, true to his roots and his cowboy integrity, is a first-rate subject.