Part happenstance, part good luck, and a very large portion of talent found Canadian folk singers Ian & Sylvia at the forefront of the folk-rock movement.

26 November 2022 | James Porteous | Clipper Media News

22 July 2015 | DAVID BROWNE | Rolling Stone

SYLVIA TYSON, HALF of the Canadian folk duo Ian & Sylvia, was in the midst of recording at RCA’s Nashville studio when she noticed something odd.

Glancing into the control room, she saw a bunch of strangers — many of them local musicians — intently watching her and her then-husband at work.

“They heard there was something new in town and they were having a look,” Sylvia recalls. “They were curious about it.”

These days, it’s natural for pop, rock or folk types to make the pilgrimage to Nashville to record a country album.

But in February 1968, when Ian & Sylvia were cutting Nashville, the sight, as Sylvia observed firsthand, was truly conspicuous. The Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo, released the same year as Nashville, is widely considered the first convergence of rock and Nashville players.

But the historic Ian & Sylvia sessions, which commenced one month before the Byrds’ project, make the largely forgotten album possibly the first pop-country crossover cut in Nashville — and one worth a second look now.

Pinpointing the first time a non-Nashville act ventured to Music City to go country is admittedly tricky. Bob Dylan recorded most of Blonde on Blonde there in 1966 (and John Wesley Harding the following year), but no one would call either of those records country. (Ray Charles’ pioneering Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, released in 1962, predated them all but was cut in New York and L.A.)

“There was such a surge of people after Dylan, so it’s hard to say who was first,” says Michael McCall, museum editor at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.

Known for their straight-backed harmonies and for writing and recording the original versions of “Someday Soon,” “Four Strong Winds” and “You Were on My Mind” — all soon-to-be folk standards — Ian & Sylvia had already recorded seven albums by 1968, six for Vanguard and one for their new label, MGM.

When Vanguard suddenly informed them they had one album left on their contract, the couple decided to fulfill their commitment with a change of musical pace and locale.

“In those days, record companies just threw money around,” Ian says. “If you wanted to cut an album somewhere, fine. You want to spend three days on one song or something stupid? That was okay.”

“Dylan was planning to go down to Nashville, so we thought, ‘Shit, let’s go there.’”

Nashville’s growing reputation as home to first-rate studios beckoned.

“Vanguard used to record in New York at an old ballroom,” Ian recalls. “It had a gorgeous sound. But as soon as they put drums into that room — for that country-rock or rock & roll — it was fucked. Dylan or whomever was planning to go down to Nashville, so we thought, ‘Shit, let’s go there.’ I wanted to go to Nashville anyway. I was more country oriented than Sylvia, being a cowboy.”

The move also made artistic sense, says Sylvia: “We sang a lot of traditional stuff and Appalachian music, so it was a natural transition from those styles to country.”



Ian & Sylvia – Live At The Hollywood Bowl – 1965 – Past Daily Soundbooth

Duo Ian & Sylvia, who merged country and rock on 1968’s ‘Nashville’ album, perform circa 1965. FRANK LENNON/TORONTO STAR

CLICK HERE TO PLAY A RECORDING OF THIS SHOW

Ian & Sylvia in concert at the Hollywood Bowl tonight. Another one of the acts from the 1965 Folk Night At The Bowl. This one, as is announced by Bowl announcer Carl Princi, is their first-ever Bowl appearance.

The two started performing together in Toronto in 1959. By 1962, they were living in New York City where they caught the attention of manager Albert Grossman, who managed Peter, Paul and Mary and would soon become Bob Dylan’s manager. Grossman secured them a contract with Vanguard Records and they released their first album late in the year.

Their first album, self-titled Ian & Sylvia, on Vanguard Records consists mainly of traditional songs. There were British and Canadian folk songs, spiritual music, and a few blues songs thrown into the mix. The album was moderately successful and they made the list of performers for the 1963 Newport Folk Festival.

Four Strong Winds, their second album, was similar to the first, with the exception of the inclusion of the early Dylan composition, “Tomorrow is a Long Time”, and the title song “Four Strong Winds”, which was written by Ian Tyson. “Four Strong Winds” was a major hit in Canada and ensured their stardom. Years later, the song was named as the greatest Canadian song of all time by the CBC-Radio program 50 Tracks: The Canadian Version.

The two married in June 1964; they also released their third album, Northern Journey, that year. It included a blues song written by her, “You Were on My Mind”, which was subsequently recorded by both the California group We Five (a 1965 #1 on the Cashbox chart, #3 on the Billboard Hot 100) and British folk rock singer Crispian St. Peters (#36 in 1967). A recording of “Four Strong Winds” by Bobby Bare made it to #3 on the country charts around that time.

On the Northern Journey album was the song “Someday Soon”, a composition by Ian Tyson that would rival “Four Strong Winds” in its popularity. (Both songs would eventually be recorded by dozens of singers.)

Their fourth album, Early Morning Rain, consisted in large part of new songs. They introduced the work of the couple’s fellow Canadian songwriter and performer Gordon Lightfoot through the title song and “(That’s What You Get) For Lovin’ Me”. They also recorded songs “Darcy Farrow” by Steve Gillette and Tom Campbell, being the first artists to record these three songs. Additionally, they recorded a number of their own compositions.

They performed at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. Play One More, their offering of 1965, showed a move toward the electrified folk-like music that was becoming popular with groups like the Byrds and the Lovin’ Spoonful. The title tune used horns to evoke the mariachi style.

They relocated to Nashville, Tennessee, where they recorded two albums; one to fulfill the terms of their Vanguard contract, the other to supply MGM with a second (and last) album for that label.

The albums can be defined as early country rock music; Nashville for Vanguard was cut in February 1968, one month before The Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo, widely considered the first collaboration of rock and Nashville players. Three of Bob Dylan’sBasement Tapes songs are included on their Nashville albums; most of the rest were written by Ian or Sylvia.

By 1975, Ian & Sylvia had stopped performing together and soon afterwards were divorced. Their final appearance as a duo was in May 1975 at the Horseshoe Tavern in Toronto.

As a refresher course in artists you may have missed the first time around, or as a reminder – here is Ian & Sylvia at their first Hollywood Bowl appearance in 1965.


Nashville Review

by Richie Unterberger  [-]

Like all of Ian & Sylvia’s post-1965 albums from the ’60s, on first hearing, this is disappointing in comparison to their early folk albums, though it tends to grow on one and offer some satisfactions upon closer inspection.

The duo recorded this in Nashville in early 1968, just as making albums in the city started to become in vogue among rock musicians.

Some of the cuts have an early country-rock feel that did show them moving ahead artistically, though the pair were not among the most distinguished country-rockers.

A couple of covers of songs from Bob Dylan‘s basement tapes, “Wheel’s on Fire” and “The Mighty Quinn,” got the most attention, and were the most country-rock-oriented of the tunes.

Sometimes, though, it was devoted to originals that leaned more toward the dual harmonizing that was their forte, with mild rock arrangements.

While such efforts in this vein as “Taking Care of Business,” “Ballad of the Ugly Man,” and “She’ll Be Gone” were not among their most outstanding efforts, they were characteristically pleasing. 

Ian Tyson‘s “House of Cards” had an earnest foreboding not far in mood lyrically from “Wheel’s on Fire,” and like the cover of guitarist David Rea’s “90 Degrees by 90 Degrees,” had some subtle orchestration.


Ian and Sylvia- Nashville

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This album was recorded in 1967, in , well, Nashville with some of the best session musicians in the town. 

It would mark a departure from their early work in folk into an early country rock style.  It would also lean more on session musicians than previous work.  It would appear that their work was headed in this direction and would continue to go down this route. 

Also, from what I could piece together, folk purists were not 100% receptive to this progression.  However, in a bigger sense, it would seem they were at the forefront or dare I say Pioneers of the country-rock movement, .

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The album is pretty good. The session players make their mark on this album.  Jerry Reed plays guitar on a few of the tracks. 

Pete Drake plays steel guitar on many tracks as well. It has two Dylan tunes from his Basement Tapes sessions, “Wheels on Fire” and “Quinn the Eskimo”. 

The rest are mostly originals and they are all pretty good. This whole album is pretty good.  “Farewell to the North”, “Taking Care of Business” “Ugly Man”, “London Life” and “House of Cards” are among my highlights. 

Again this is a really good example of the beginning of country rock.  I don’t think the powers that be really knew how to market this trend so I don’t think the later albums sold really well, which is a shame, a travesty I say.

I picked Dylan’s “This Wheel’s on Fire” as the sample as it is one of my favorite songs.  This song was written by Dylan and Rick Danko during the Basement Tapes sessions between 1965 and 1967. 

Fourteen of these songs were put on a demo and copyrighted by a production company owned by Dylan and Albert Grossman, Dylan’s manager. 

These songs were then shopped around to interested artists.  As Grossman also managed Ian and Sylvia, it would make sense they would release a version.  I also believe this came out before the version on the Band’s Big Pink Album.

At the same time, across the ocean, a version recorded by Julie Driscoll, Brian Auger and Trinity became a Top 5 hit in the UK.  Which would lead to Julie Driscoll recording a version in the 1990’s with Adrian Edmondson for the TV show Absolutely Fabulous, which is why I bought this album.  It all comes back together eventually.  None of this should take away that Ian and Sylvia’s version is quite excellent.

This is a top rated album for me and I will definitely be on the look out for the albums that came out after this one.