Ian Tyson’s 1983 groundbreaking album set the stage for a renaissance in authentic cowboy culture.
In the winter of 1982, photographer Jay Dusard packed up his view camera and film holders and flew to Calgary, Alberta. He was headed to shoot an album cover for Canadian singer songwriter Ian Tyson at the request of Tyson’s producer, Neil MacGonigill.
Both MacGonigill and Tyson thought Dusard was the best person to shoot Tyson’s new album of Western songs. Tyson had been known throughout the folk counter-culture of the 1960s as half of folk and country music duo Ian & Sylvia, and by his songs, “Four Strong Winds,” “Someday Soon” and Sylvia’s “You Were on My Mind.”
But in the early 1980s, Tyson felt the time was right to record new Western—not country—music. During the shoot, Dusard sensed something as well.
“When Ian picked me up at the airport, we drove 40 miles or so to his ranch, and he impressed me that here was someone immersed in the West and its people,” Dusard recalls. “And on top of that, he was as crazy about cutting horses and horsemanship as I was. He called it the ‘disease for which there is no cure.’ “Ian told me stories about the many cuttings he went to in eastern Canada while he was still performing with Sylvia in the New York folk scene. And the thing he was most proud of was making it into the top 20 non-pro cutters at a [National Cutting Horse Association] Futurity.” The two hit it off and had the same thinking about what the album should look like, as well as how they hoped it would be received. After all, this was the first new Western music written since the era of television themes back in the 1950s and early ’60s.
Dusard’s liner notes for the album reflect their hope for the album’s success.
“While this album is dedicated to Ian’s close friend, Alan Young, the foreman down at Pincher Creek, in a larger sense it honors the working cowboys of North America,” Dusard wrote. “They have an impressive past, a viable present and maybe with luck, even a future. The members of this ‘vanishing breed’ have been busy vanishing for the past three-quarters of a century and they haven’t finished the job yet. Friend Ian and I hope they last forever.”
Little did either of them know at the time that the March 1983 release of Old Corrals and Sagebrush would help ignite a slow-burning, almost forgotten fascination with the authentic cowboy West.
The Anti-Urban Cowboy
Old Corrals and Sagebrush was filled with old ballads and cowboy songs and seemed to appear just at the right time. The album came out three years after Urban Cowboy, a culture-altering film based on the 1978 Esquire article, “The Ballad of the Urban Cowboy: America’s Search for True Grit,” by Aaron Latham.
While the movie celebrated the cowboy as a mythic remembrance of Texas oil field types and the after-hours fashion of country-western honky-tonks, Tyson’s album instead paid tribute to authentic working cowboys. Tyson says Old Corrals and Sagebrush was produced at the urging of his ex-wife, Twylla.
“Twylla was the one who got me into recording Western music again,” Tyson wrote in his memoir, The Long Trail, My Life in the West. “She believed in my songs when no one else did, and in 1983 I put out Old Corrals and Sagebrush for Columbia, singing about horses, Ponderosa pines and the Old Double Diamond Ranch in Wyoming. “My friend Jay Dusard shot the cover photograph—a fine black-and-white picture of me sitting on Smoky, my circle horse, in front of the Diamond V weigh scales,” Tyson continues “Old Corrals was a cowboy record through and through, recorded in the basement of my ranch house.”
MacGonigill recalls the recording session.
“I was Ian’s manager at the time and the executive producer of the album,” MacGonigill says. “I had seen some of Jay’s cowboy portraits in a gallery in Calgary and reached out to him about doing the photography for the cover of Old Corrals. I also convinced the engineer, Richard Harrow, to dismantle his studio in Calgary and set it up in Ian’s living room, with the snake cable running out the door upstairs and through the basement window to facilitate the recording.
“I am very proud of the short-term and long-term results of the album, as we approach its 40th anniversary.”
Tyson felt that Urban Cowboy contributed to what was going on at the time.
“Something strange was happening in the 1980s,” Tyson wrote in his memoir. “Cowboys became increasingly fashionable, thanks in part to John Travolta’s Urban Cowboy. “But there was little reality in the urban cowboy trend,” he wrote “Those guys in the bars in Houston and Galveston weren’t cowmen, but day workers in the oil industry, working in processing and compressor plants during the day and putting on their cowboy hats at night before heading to the dancehall. It was all about dressing up. I think that’s why I started emphasizing authenticity so much in my music.” Dave Wilkie played mandolin in Tyson’s band on the album. The founder of the Western band Cowboy Celtic, Wilkie says the record had an incredible effect on the cowboy West.
“I think Ian’s Old Corrals & Sagebrush was the start of a cowboy music, poetry and literature renaissance,” he says. “Besides being a great singer and guitarist, Ian is first of all, an incredible songwriter. His song ‘Four Strong Winds’ was voted the best Canadian song ever. That’s pretty amazing for a country with writers like Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Gordon Lightfoot and Leonard Cohen.
“Before Old Corrals, cowboy music was mostly romantic tales about the good old days—nothing wrong with that,” Wilkie continues. “But Ian brought something new: more personal songs and stories about the West, with a twist. Songs about Will James, Casey Tibbs, Jerry Ambler, Claude Dallas and real, working cowboys he rode with.
“When Ian performed at the first [National Cowboy Poetry Gathering] in Elko, Nevada, in 1985, I was in his band, and I can tell you there were few people in the crowd. The next year, and in the gatherings that followed, they lined up to see him every night.
“Ian was the spark that lit the cowboy fuse—the ‘Western Big Bang.’ Jay Dusard’s images, liner notes and artwork on that record really set the stage for what was to come. And thanks to Ian, Jay, and [former Western Horseman photographer] Kurt Markus, the folks at the Western Folklife Center in Elko, and all the musicians, poets and writers, the authentic West exploded. Ian is the real deal, and I don’t know where we’d all be if he hadn’t come along.”
The album cover image came about because Tyson and MacGonigill saw in Dusard’s work the same authenticity that Tyson was writing and singing about. MacGonigill took Tyson to a gallery in Calgary to see Dusard’s work. The gallery owner, Peter Duthie, was enthusiastic about Dusard’s work, and he and Neil contacted the photographer about coming to Canada for the shoot.
“I knew Peter from his Folio Gallery in Calgary,” Dusard recalls. “This was before I got the call from Neil about coming to Alberta for the album shoot. Peter was at the shoot to memorialize the moment.”
Duthie remembers the day well and what ultimately resulted in the iconic shot.
“The shoot went pretty well,” Duthie says, “except that Tyson was sore and stiff from a bit of a fight he’d gotten into the night before at Ranchman’s [bar].”
Tyson played regularly at the legendary watering hole synonymous with Calgary cowboy culture for nearly 50 years after it opened its doors in 1972. It closed in March of 2020, another casualty of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The money was good at Ranchman’s,” Tyson remembered in his book, I Never Sold My Saddle, “and I had to make a living, but I’d be a wreck at the end of the week. I’d get out on the ranch, get my health back, then a couple of months later I’d be back at the Ranchman’s. I did six, seven, eight weeks a year.”
In creating the image for the cover, Dusard says he wanted his subject to simply “fall into his own posture.” In this case, he was working with a musician who was a cowboy, and shots were taken with Tyson straight in the saddle but still stiff from the incident the night before. Then Tyson stretched to loosen up a bit, twisting toward the camera, right hand resting on Smoky’s hip—and there was the shot.
“Sometimes things just happen,” Dusard says.
The shot for the back of the album only appears on the United States version of the album and is a classic band shot on Tyson’s back porch. Dusard wrote about the photo session that day in his liner notes.
“In the album cover photograph, Ian is astride Brant’s Last, a Hollywood Gold-bred cutting horse,” he wrote. “ ‘Smoky’ enjoys semi-retirement now because of the presence on the outfit of the stallion Doc’s Summer Wages, Tyson’s principal competition horse, named for Ian’s hit song ‘Summer Wages.’ [Smoky] is an own son of the great Mr San Peppy and out of a Doc Bar mare—a definitive merger of fine cutting horse bloodlines.
“The short chaps Ian is wearing are called chinks and are the kind of leggings worn by the buckaroos of the Great Basin region of North America. Connoisseurs will note that Ian’s catch-rope is coiled backwards—he’s a southpaw—but of course it’s carried on the right, out of the way for mounting and dismounting.
“The pole corral photograph was taken at the cutting pens. The band was shot hanging around Ian’s back door. All photographs were made with a 17-inch photo-engraving lens on an 8-by-10-inch Kodak Master camera.”
MacGonigill was then tasked to head to the States and find a label.
“As far as shopping Old Corrals and Sagebrush and the follow-up, Ian Tyson, to record labels in America, it was quite funny,” MacGonigill remembers. “I got thrown out of just about every big label. They all kept saying, ‘But, he is riding a horse’—like that was the strangest thing in the world. The Columbia connection came through Ian’s old industry friend, Bonnie Garner, who was working in the A&R [artists and repertoire] department at Columbia, and she took it upon herself to champion the record. It was through the efforts of Bonnie that the deal came to fruition.
“When we brought them the follow-up, we wanted to call that record Cowboyography, but the marketing team at Columbia said, quote, ‘Mr. and Mrs. Joe Six-Pack will not know what that means.’ They suggested we call the album Oklahoma Hills, but I reminded them Ian lives in Longview, Alberta, Canada, and he is not going to call the album Oklahoma Hills. The compromise was to just call the record Ian Tyson.”
The first album took on a life of its own, as Tyson’s marketing plan was to get a cassette in every pickup truck in the West. It got him invited to the first National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada, in 1985 by its then-director and folklorist, Hal Cannon.
Poet and writer Paul Zarzyski, a regular at the Elko gathering through the years, remembers the tribute to Ian Tyson held at the 35th annual gathering in 2019.
“The Ian Tyson tribute show was as emotionally potent as any Elko has known,” Zarzyski says. “A friend, listening skyward from the orchestra pit, said afterward how our muchas gracias y adios to Ian felt to her like the gathering’s very essence riding off into the proverbial sunset.
“In retrospect, what the stage that evening dearly missed, however, was Jay Dusard’s cover image for Old Corrals and Sagebrush, projected on the backdrop curtain, as well as Jay, his jigger-boss-throwback-looking self, reading from his liner notes quilled for Ian’s venerable cavvy of songs.
“We’re talking horsemen sentiments gaited with lyrical cadence, with lingo-n-lilt,” Zarzyski continues. “We’re talking reverently meant words cut with word savvy from the great herds of reverently meant words. And we’re especially talking a Tyson-Dusard cowboy-West collaboration second to none.”
Dusard says Tyson helped pull back the curtain on the authentic cowboy life because he was able to observe it firsthand.
“Tyson is a prodigious talent, not just as songwriter/singer/performer, but as a trainer/competitor in the rarefied milieu of the cutting horse,” Dusard says. “It was my pleasure back then to introduce Ian to my respected photographer friend Kurt Markus.”
Together they prowled many of the renowned big-country buckaroo outfits, from where they made musical and photographic history. Tyson was the first musician to understand and chronicle the cowboy of the late 20th century.
“The Western Folklife Center was onto this as well when they launched the first [National] Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada, in 1985. Tyson and the gathering have been on a fabulous symbiotic ascendancy ever since.” Singer and storyteller Andy Hedges sheds more light on how Tyson’s album skillfully captured the authentic cowboy lifestyle.
“Old Corrals & Sagebrush was released in 1983 when I was only 3 years old,” Hedges says. “Looking back, it seems that Ian had his ear to the ground of the working cowboy culture, as his album predates the beginning of the cowboy music and poetry renaissance that flowed out of the Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko by two years.
“We all think of Ian as a songwriter, but only four of the 11 songs are originals,” he continues. “Four of the songs are old traditionals that harken back to Ian’s previous career as a folksinger with Sylvia Fricker.
“I heard Ian play one of these songs, ‘Windy Bill,’ backstage in Elko one year. He remarked that he had learned his version from Harry Jackson. A Western artist and an old-time cowboy singer, Harry Jackson had learned songs straight off the range in Wyoming in the 1920s. He was also one of the four cowboys hanging out in 1960s Greenwich Village [New York], along with Ian, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and Peter LaFarge. One of the other traditional tunes, ‘Diamond Joe,’ Ian learned from Ramblin’ Jack.”
Hedges lists two additional cuts on the album that came from other songwriters: “Night Rider’s Lament” by Mike Burton and “The Old Double Diamond,” by Gary McMahan.
“Ian must have known how great these songs are because in the last 40 years they have become the two most famous modern-day cowboy songs,” he says. “The remaining cut is Tom Russell’s ‘Gallo de Cielo,’ a corrido about a fighting rooster. Tom and Ian had never met at this point, but the inclusion of ‘Gallo’ foreshadowed their co-writing efforts that would produce classics like ‘Navajo Rug’ and ‘Claude Dallas.’”
The song list from the album is legendary, but so is another aspect of the album that MacGonigill recalls.
“The coyotes that you hear on the end of ‘Old Double Diamond’ on the album were local,” he says. “When we made the album, we took a reel-to-reel tape recorder out behind Ian’s barn. We bought, borrowed and stole as many extension cords as we could muster and ran them out to the tape recorder.
“We hooked up a microphone and late at night I would go out and turn on the recorder and let it run with a two-hour tape. In the morning I would collect the tape and listen to see what we could hear. That’s where the coyotes and the wind came from.”
Tyson turned 88 last September; Dusard is 84—and both are still a part of the West they continue to celebrate.
Even after almost 40 years, the album “still sounds fresh due to Ian’s brilliant arrangements and David Wilkie’s mandolin,” Hedges says. It’s firmly set “within the context of the cowhand tribe,” he says, thanks to Dusard’s cover photo and liner notes.
“You can’t think of modern-day cowboy music without thinking of Ian Tyson,” Hedges adds. “Old Corrals and Sagebrush was the record that started it all.”