By Richie Unterberger
The Canadian duo Ian & Sylvia are best remembered as major performers in the early-to-mid-1960s folk revival, and as originators of the oft-covered classics "You Were on My Mind" and "Four Strong Winds." However, the pair did move with the times as the folk revival lost steam, expanding (along with many other folkies) into electric folk-rock in the last half of the 1960s, and into country-rock as the decade neared its close. Lovin' Sound, the first of two LPs they did for MGM, offered some of their strongest folk-rock material, whether penned by themselves or others. Whether performing their own songs or those by the likes of Tim Hardin or Bob Dylan, the backbone of their sound remained their strong, stirring close harmonies, rooted in folk but big (if overlooked) influences on numerous folk-rock performers.
Sylvia's first six albums had been on the Vanguard label, 1967's Lovin' Sound ended up on MGM due to
a contractual quirk. "Vanguard at that point had a very ambiguous
contract," explains Sylvia Tyson today. "Basically it said that either
we'd given them one album too many, or we owed them one album more. So
we bargained with them to release us to do an album for MGM. I think
they figured that if we did an album for [MGM], it would get a lot of
attention, and that they would [later] get one more album from us,
which would have the benefit of the publicity."
Guitarist Ian Tyson and autoharpist Sylvia Tyson had already started to move into folk-rock, and some orchestrated arrangements, on their 1966 albums Play One More and So Much for Dreaming. As to whether the bigger MGM label expected something yet more pop- and rock-friendly, Sylvia muses, "I think they probably did. But I think that we were ready to do that as well. It kind of was the pressure of the time. We had not come up through the whole pop music thing, so it was kind of new territory for us." Helping them out in the transition on Lovin' Sound were bassist Harvey Brooks, who played on Bob Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited and notable mid-1960s folk-rock albums by Eric Andersen, Richie Havens, Jim & Jean, and David Blue (and would later join the Electric Flag); keyboardist Paul Harris (who also handled the orchestral arrangements), another mainstay of mid-'60s folk-rock sessions, often playing alongside Brooks; drummer Bill LaVorna; and guitarist David Rea, who also played with Ian & Sylvia live. Producing was John Court, an associate of Ian & Sylvia's manager, Albert Grossman (who also managed Bob Dylan, Peter, Paul & Mary, and numerous other folk and folk-rock acts).
Still a teenager at the time of the sessions, Rea had first met Ian & Sylvia in 1962 at the Mariposa Folk Festival in Ontario. He'd already played on Gordon Lightfoot's 1966 John Court-produced Lightfoot album when Ian & Sylvia asked David to join them ("I don't know if Gordon's ever forgiven us for that," jokes Sylvia). Prior to Lovin' Sound, Rea had already recorded with Ian & Sylvia as a guitarist on So Much for Dreaming. "Ian & Sylvia were firmly based in traditional music, and this was at a time when the whole music was in flux," observes Rea when asked about the challenges the pair faced when moving into folk-rock. "And we kind of didn't know what to do. I remember very clearly Ian [Tyson] and I went to see Buck Owens at the old Kingsway, a huge barn of a place in Toronto. Ian and I were both rabid Buck Owens fans. We saw Buck and Don Rich playing two Telecasters out of a Fender Super Reverb amp, and the next day after the show, Ian called me up and said, 'Come on over and bring your guitar.' So I walked in, and he had two DeArmond pickups. Paleolithic! I could go on at length at the adventures we had trying to figure out those damn things. So we started experimenting with electric music. Ian and I were listening to [the Beatles'] Revolver, the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds, and we started exploring Burt Bacharach's arrangements." In fact Ian & Sylvia had covered a Burt Bacharach-Hal David-penned classic, "24 Hours from Tulsa," on their Play One More LP.
Adds Rea with a laugh, "I can't speak for Ian & Sylvia, but I didn't know what the hell I was doing. I was working on my first electric guitar. We were all experimenting, and the technology was changing day by day. Looking back on it, I think [Lovin' Sound is] an interesting album. I'm pleased with it."
More than their 1966 Vanguard albums, Lovin' Sound found Ian & Sylvia comfortably adapting to the folk-rock sound, occasionally embellishing their close harmonies and the bittersweet melodies of their original material with subtle orchestration. Certainly the brooding Ian Tyson-penned title track had almost as much pop appeal as anything they ever recorded, and was in fact issued as a single that Sylvia remembers being "extremely popular" in their native Canada, though it didn't catch on in the States. Sylvia composed "Trilogy," which as she recalls "struck me as an interesting idea, and a way to sort of put three stories into one song," as well as "Where Did All the Love Go," which "was kind of getting into the country stuff -- our early country stuff was definitely more Appalachian and traditional-based." Ian & Sylvia co-wrote the ebullient "Sunday," which was commissioned by the Canadian Broadcasting Company for use as the theme of a television series that Ian hosted.
It was a hallmark of Ian & Sylvia albums to combine original compositions with imaginative interpretations of quality material by other songwriters. Lovin' Sound was no exception, including well-done covers of "Reason to Believe" and "Hang on to a Dream," both the work of Tim Hardin (Sylvia: "Tragic figure, but a lovely writer"). Also on board was a version of Bob Dylan's "I Don't Believe You," first released by the songwriter as a solo acoustic performance; Ian & Sylvia had been among the first prominent artists to record Dylan songs when they put "Tomorrow Is a Long Time" on their second album, 1963's Four Strong Winds. There was also a version of Johnny Cash's "Big River," though this likewise did not mark their first Cash cover, as they'd done his "Come In, Stranger" on their 1965 Early Morning Rain LP.
Lovin' Sound also included the first recorded composition by David Rea, the haunting "Pilgrimage to Paradise." "It was the first real coherent piece of music that I composed, one of those four o'clock in the morning wonders," recalls Rea. "I was in love with this girl, and I saw her walking off into the night with another man. And I was depressed! So I went back to my little apartment, sat down, and wrote it in about the time it takes to sing it. It just came all spilling out. I played it for Eric Andersen, and he said, 'My god, man, that's like admitting you've got acne!' I was singing it in coffeehouses, and when I went to work for Ian & Sylvia, they said, 'Well, that's a really good song. We'd like to record it.' I've always been influenced by the poets Charles Baudelaire, Paul Verlaine, and Arthur Rimbaud, and I would probably think that was a lot of influence on it."
While Lovin' Sound actually sold about as well as the two Vanguard albums that had preceded it, reaching #148 in the charts, it likely wasn't the commercial breakthrough that either MGM or Vanguard were hoping for when it was arranged for Ian & Sylvia to release it on the bigger label. In a confusing sequence of events, Ian & Sylvia would go back to Vanguard for their next album, 1968's Nashville, on which they became among the first prominent folk-rockers to move into country-rock. Their contractual obligation to Vanguard fulfilled, they moved back to MGM for another interesting country-rock-informed album, Full Circle. Like Nashville, Full Circle
Producing the record was Elliot Mazer, perhaps most celebrated for producing several Neil Young albums (including the chart-topping Harvest), though he also produced sessions for noted folk-rockers such as Gordon Lightfoot, Richie Havens, and Jerry Jeff Walker. Among the musicians backing Ian Tyson and Sylvia Tyson were some of Nashville's top session players, including drummer Kenneth Buttrey, most noted for his work on several major 1960s Bob Dylan albums; bassist Norbert Putnam, who also worked on numerous country-rock recordings in the late 1960s and early 1970s; keyboardist Bill Pursell, who had a Top Ten single under his own name in 1963 with "Our Winter Love"; and pedal steel player Weldon Myrick, who'd played on a raft of LPs by country star Connie Smith. The most important of the several guitarists to play on the album was David Rea, who'd toured and recorded with Ian & Sylvia since 1966.
Full Circle was one of numerous late-1960s country-rock and folk-rock albums to be recorded in Nashville. Other folk-rockers such as Dylan, Joan Baez, Country Joe McDonald, Leonard Cohen, Gordon Lightfoot, Eric Andersen, Buffy Sainte-Marie, John Stewart, and the Beau Brummels also recorded in the city, valued both for its high-skilled session musicians and relatively low-pressure environment. "There were some wonderful players there," says Sylvia Tyson today. "They found not just us, but all of the people from outside, interesting. Because as far as those players were concerned, they'd been playing the same-old same-old forever. It kind of breathed a little new life into their whole studio scene."
Likewise, Rea affirms the experience as "one of the most rewarding sessions I worked on," adding that he'd rehearsed with Ian & Sylvia for about nine hours a day in their Toronto home before they went into the studio. "When we made Nashville, Fred Carter took over on most of the lead guitar, and that was okay with me, because one of my favorite things to do is play rhythm. That's a great way to learn how to play guitar; that way, you get to steal everybody else's licks! But for some reason or other, Carter bailed out of the [Full Circle] sessions. When we got to [the famed Nashville studio] Bradley's Barn, I was ready to play all the rhythm parts, but all of a sudden I had to make up all the lead stuff. Back in those days, I was young and agile."
Like most of Ian & Sylvia's 1960s albums, Full Circle mixed quality original material with an eclectic selection of material from outside sources. Of the original songs, perhaps the standout was Sylvia's somber "Woman's World" (one of several tracks to include a string choir by Charlie Fox), a composition she still performs almost forty years later. "It was not a song that was that accessible to that time and those players, and I thought they did a good job under those circumstances," she reflects. "I don't think they knew quite what it was." Elaborates Rea, "That's a beautiful song. As I recall, Sylvia at the time was writing a book about her childhood in Chatham, Ontario. That was one of the songs that came out [of it]. She never actually finished the book; most of it has migrated its way into other songs, like 'River Road.' I had a conversation with her a few months ago, and I said, 'Whatever happened to the book?' She said, 'It just went into the songs.'" Curiously, one of the other original songs on the record, Ian Tyson's "Mr. Spoons," had been released just the year before in a different version on Lovin' Sound; it was re-recorded (a chief difference being a prominent Bill Pursell organ part), according to Rea, because "the original recording wasn't up to snuff."
Of the non-originals, perhaps the one that stood out most in 1968 was Bob Dylan's "Tears of Rage," as Dylan had yet to release his own version, though he'd recorded it with the Band (who put their own version on their debut album) as part of his famous Basement Tapes. Sylvia believes that Dylan had the Basement Tapes sent to the Tysons, a logical connection given that Ian & Sylvia, like Dylan, were managed by Albert Grossman. Indeed, Ian & Sylvia had already covered a couple of other songs from the Basement Tapes, "The Mighty Quinn" and "Wheel's on Fire," on the Nashville album. "We liked 'Tears of Rage' because the song essentially is a commentary on the Vietnam War," offers Rea. "We thought it was a good comment to make on the social situation at the time, without howling and yelling and screaming, which a lot of people were doing at the time. I had a bad cold when we were doing it; if you listen in the guitar solo, you'll hear me trying to clear my nose out!"
Full Circle also featured a cover of Hamilton Camp's small 1968 chart single "Here's to You," Ian & Sylvia having known the singer-songwriter since he was part of a duo with Bob Gibson in the early 1960s. "Please Think" came from the pen of Keith McKie of the Canadian group Kensington Market, whom Rea had recommended to producer Felix Pappalardi. David also recommended "Please Think" to the Tysons, as "I thought it really fitted Ian & Sylvia. When we were rehearsing, I played them the song, and they liked it. So it went on the album, and I worked on kind of a weird open tuning on that. This is when they were starting to experiment with a lot of overdubbing; you can hear that in 'Please Think,' 'Woman's World,' 'Jinkson Johnson.' 'Jinkson Johnson,' Sylvia did eight overdubs; she did a whole chorus."
Rea had contributed a song apiece to Lovin' Sound ("Pilgrimage to Paradise") and Nashville ("90∞ X 90∞"), and did the same for Full Circle with "The Minstrel." "We were in rehearsal, we were just getting ready to go to Nashville, and I was playing the chord progression," recalls David with amusement. "I was just goofing around; I'd written it as sort of an instrumental exercise. Ian said, 'Man, that's really great. Have you got some words for it?' I said, 'Oh yeah, but they're at home.' Of course, I had no lyrics for it. Nothing. He said, 'Well, bring it to rehearsal tomorrow. We want to record it.' I woke up the next morning and said, 'I better show up with some lyrics.' 'Cause the one thing about Ian & Sylvia is you never lie to them. I mean, that's the kiss of death. Scratch-scratch-scratch on the yellow tablet, and that's how it got written. It's kind of my influence with the French poets. At my suggestion, we got Tommy Jackson, Vassar Clements, and Buddy Spicher on triple fiddles."
The one traditional song on Full Circle was "Jinkson Johnson," which as Sylvia discloses was a more menacing tune than it might seem at first hearing: "I'm not exactly sure where I found it from; It would have been from a traditional recording. It's an interesting storyline, if you go into the history of it, because it was an ancient scam. There was a period of time in England where if a woman in a rural area was an adulteress, her hair would be staked to the ground, and she'd be staked out naked for anyone to have her. But what this story was about was, this gang of thieves used a woman who was one of them in that way to lure [the song's Johnson character] so that they could rob him."
Despite the strength of its music, Full Circle did not reach the charts, and Ian & Sylvia would not record another album for MGM. Instead, they delved yet further into country-rock as the leaders of Great Speckled Bird, whose self-titled 1970 album has also been reissued on CD by Collectors' Choice Music. -- Richie Unterberger was cut in Nashville and exhibited definite country leanings, though not as prominently as Nashville itself had.
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