'The Older Brother I Never Had': Gordon Lightfoot, others remember Ian Tyson

TORONTO — Gordon Lightfoot says late country-folk singer Ian Tyson was a friend, mentor and one of the reasons he found early success in the music business.

"He was like the older brother I never had," Lightfoot said by phone from his home on Friday.

Tyson, who died Thursday at his ranch near Longview, Alta., leaves a legacy as one of Canada's foremost singer-songwriters. But for Lightfoot, the man contained multitudes that he says not everyone had a chance to recognize.

The two were contemporaries in Toronto's burgeoning 1960s folk scene, and since Lightfoot was five years Tyson's junior, he looked up to him as an artist.

He says he first saw Tyson playing at Yorkville's First Floor Club around 1963 and was struck by his live performance.

"I remember how impressed I was with his guitar playing, first of all, because he was a brilliant guitar player," Lightfoot said.

"I always tried to learn from what I heard him doing, but was never able to perfect it."

They would become close friends, however, with Tyson helping Lightfoot sign to the same management and recording Lightfoot's song "Early Morning Rain" as part of Ian & Sylvia.

"Ian really was responsible for getting me started in the music business," Lightfoot added.

But they were also fierce competitors at times, he acknowledged, as Lightfoot's career caught fire and Ian & Sylvia found their name as pioneers of the movement starting to be eclipsed by a growing folk scene that included Lightfoot, Neil Young and Joni Mitchell.

"At one point I felt very badly because I felt that I was drawing ahead of Ian a little bit," he said.

"People were very competitive in those days — they had to be. I mean, the folk music revival had its own chart in the trade magazines at that time."

Despite their professional sparring, Lightfoot says their friendship endured through the years. They attended each other's weddings, performed one another's songs and ran in Toronto social circles together with Ronnie Hawkins.

"He was just remarkable, generous, fun," Lightfoot said.

"He had his ups and downs. He rode life's roller-coaster, like some of the rest of us."

Tyson's early work included penning "Four Strong Winds" as part of Ian & Sylvia, a song that in 2005 was voted the most essential Canadian song of all time in a CBC Radio listener poll.

After the dissolution of Ian & Sylvia, Tyson turned to writing traditional country music, building his name as a chronicler of western Canadian cowboy culture through his songwriting.

Tributes to the musician have rolled in from Jann Arden, Ron Sexsmith, Randy Bachman, Paul Brandt and Brett Kissel, who said Tyson put Canadian music on the map.

Kissel added: "The world lost a great artist, songwriter, and most of all — a great cowboy."

Country performer Corb Lund grew up with Tyson's songs, which he said captured the ranching experience better than anyone else's.

"If you're a western rural kid in Alberta growing up, he's sort of the patriarch," Lund said in a phone interview from Lethbridge, Alta. "He looms pretty large over everyone's musical life."

Lund said he first met Tyson roughly 15 years ago, and they went on to build a friendship that transcended their age difference.

Though Tyson had something of a prickly reputation "in some circles," Lund said the older musician was never anything but kind to him.

"He was 30 years older than me and it felt like hanging out with any of my musician buddies, so I would sometimes forget about his stature just because of our friendship," Lund said.

"Then I would look over and see a picture of Neil Young on the wall and remember who he was."

Beyond their personal relationship, Lund said, the pair also became frequent collaborators, performing and recording music together — including a cover of AC/DC's "Ride On."

"Some artists get into a rut and stuff starts to sound the same after a while, but he was always trying different stuff," Lund said.

"Every record sounded a little different and sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn't, but he was always pushing for new sounds and experimenting until the end.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 30, 2022.

David Friend, The Canadian Press