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Ian Tyson

Carnero Vaquero – 2015 (Stony Plain)

Reviewed by Dustin Blumhagen

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After injuring his voice in 2006, Canadian cowboy singer Ian Tyson considered retiring. But fellow Albertan Corb Lund talked him into continuing with his newfound sound, which resulted in two albums with a considerably more raspy voice than fans were used to. Despite being told that he may never sing again, Tyson sought a second opinion, which resulted in surgery and rehabilitation. Almost a decade after the initial injury, Tyson, now in his 80s, has returned with a delightfully rejuvenated voice.

Perhaps only outmatched by Willie Nelson in the ex-wife department, Tyson still sings some of the prettiest country love songs, although many of them are now colored with nostalgia. "Carnero Vaquero," recorded in a stone house on the edge of his ranch, kicks off with a reworking of traditional song "Doney Gal," which has roots in Scots-Irish folk. It's a smooth way to reintroduce the smooth voice that folk fans know well.

There are no big surprises on the album, as Tyson sticks to what he does best, singing heartfelt songs about life and love in the West. On "The Flood," he sings a letter to an ex-wife, where he compares a recent devastating flood to a fading relationship. There is a love song about an Aboriginal woman who escaped the residential school system. There is a reworking of Woody Guthrie's classic runaway wife tale "Gypsy Davy," here called "Jughound Ronnie," and adding an Albertan oil field touch.

Like his American counterpart Tom Russell, Tyson thrives on telling stories through song. Russell recently recorded "Wolves No Longer Sing" on his "Rose of Roscrae" album, but the faint cracking of the vocals on this version add emotional weight to the mournful lyrics. The reflective track is a high point as Tyson muses "the old songs are forgotten, gone with the Raven on the wing/ And love no longer matters, and the wolves no longer sing." The melancholy tune parallels his own life and one can easily imagine the 80-year-old divorcee wandering alone around his foothills ranch contemplating how he went from hanging with Bob Dylan in Greenwich Village to living in the isolation of a Rocky Mountain winter.

After three decades of solo albums devoted to cowboy culture, Ian Tyson is still going strong. While he has never managed to match the sales of his albums from the 1980s, he has aged gracefully as a capable and consistent songwriter. It is comforting to hear the smooth vocals return, although there remains a slight weathered edge that adds emotion to the songs.