Fifteen years ago a contingent of Alberta roots musicians came together for three concerts in the Edmonton area with the purpose of paying tribute to the enormous talents of Ian Tyson.
Some of those musicians were longtime associates of the acclaimed tunesmith and singer who lives in southern Alberta, and others were longtime admirers of the brilliant body of work Tyson had produced over what was at that time some 40 years.
Stewart MacDougall who has written, recorded and toured with Tyson took on the role of music director and the original cast included The McDades, Corb Lund, pedal steel guitarist Jeff Bradshaw, Shuyler Jansen of Old Reliable, and Doug Andrew from Vancouver’s Circus in Flames.
What was intended to be a quick salute to Tyson ended up being much more than that.
Promoters heard about the how the artists in The Gift presented unique and stirring renditions of Tyson’s material and in turn began booking the show at festivals, clubs and soft-seat theatres around the province.
Tyson himself turned up at a concert at the Jack Singer Concert Hall in Calgary and joined the cast on stage for a couple of tunes. After the performance he gave The Gift a ringing endorsement.
With MacDougall acting as the anchor in the show, a core band that featured additional Tyson alumni, drummer Thom Moon, guitarist Gord Matthews, and fiddle ace Myran Szott, was eventually backing a rotating set of guests who appeared with The Gift.
Appearances at the National Arts Centre produced Alberta Scene festival, where Tyson once again joined the ensemble, were followed by more festival dates and corporate shows.
The wind just never left the sails of this show that slices across the entire Tyson catalogue. The troupe confidently mines material from his days with wife Sylvia to Tyson’s country-rock chapter with the Great Speckled Bird to the hardcore honky-tonk tunes found on albums like Ol’ Eon. Of course, there are numerous nods to his cowboy culture catalogue via Navajo Rug, Alberta’s Child, 18 Inches of Rain, and Springtime In Alberta. No performance of The Gift would be complete without renditions of hits like Four Strong Winds, Some Kind of Fool and Someday Soon.
The response to the show was so strong Stony Plain Records entered the equation and with show producer Peter North, the two parties came up with a template for a recorded version of The Gift that would feature artists who had performed with the troupe along with a number of stars who also wanted to pay tribute to the man they so admired.
What a cast it is, as Blue Rodeo, Jennifer Warnes, The Good Brothers, Cindy Church, Amos Garrett, Gordon Lightfoot, country-rock legend Chris Hillman, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Doug Andrew, Tom Russell, The McDades, and Stewart MacDougall delivered fabulous interpretations of Tyson tunes.
The album was a critical success and the troupe continued playing rodeo shows, major folk festivals with a string of guests lending a hand.
It has been a while since The Gift has been on the road. Stewart MacDougall, who co-wrote the title track to Tyson’s album From Yellowhead to Yellowstone, and the ensemble are looking forward to giving Tyson fans a great musical ride.
“The show just gets better. I think our performance during Alberta’s 150 celebrations last summer was another high point,” says MacDougall who looks forward to taking the show to audiences across Canada.