By Richie Unterberger

When Great Speckled Bird's album appeared in 1970, its assured country-rock came as a surprise to some longtime fans of the band's founders, Ian & Sylvia Tyson. As Ian & Sylvia, they'd been a popular folk duo since the early 1960s, known as songwriters (Ian for "Four Strong Winds," Sylvia for "You Were on My Mind") as well as interpreters of both traditional tunes and compositions by emerging folk-based contemporary songwriters such as Gordon Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell, and Bob Dylan. Now they weren't even going under the Ian & Sylvia name, instead working as part of a band, Great Speckled Bird, whose name was taken from a song by country great Roy Acuff.

    However, Great Speckled Bird was not so much a radical departure for the Tysons as it was a natural continuation of directions that they and many other major players of the 1960s folk scene had been exploring for years. Country music had always been a part of Ian & Sylvia's varied, eclectic influences, and they'd occasionally covered pure country music on their mid-1960s albums, recording Johnny Cash's "Come In, Stranger" and Porter Wagoner's "Satisfied Mind." Like many other folkies who'd moved into folk-rock and the use of electric instruments, by the end of the 1960s they'd both started to explore country-rock and record in Nashville. Their late-'60s LPs Nashville and Full Circle were both cut in Music City with some of the country capital's top session players. With Great Speckled Bird, they took the next step of forming a country-rock-grounded band of their own.

    "Dylan went to Nashville first," Sylvia Tyson told me in a 2001 interview. "And it wasn't that we were copying Dylan, but just that we thought that was a really good idea. Because there were wonderful players down there. There were writers down there that we admired, producers. We got to record in the studio that Elvis Presley recorded in. How great is that, you know? I mean, we got to play with people like Jerry Reed. What a guitar player." Yet, she added, "We were on the road almost all the time, and when we did the two albums in Nashville, we took almost a year off after those albums were put out, and realized that part of what we were feeling was that we did not want to go out on the road with just a guitar player anymore. If we could not reproduce the material that was on those records, we didn't want to be performing. And that's when we put together the first version of the Great Speckled Bird."

    Elaborates Sylvia five years later, "When we did the Nashville album, we decided that we really wanted to be able to do that music onstage. Because we used some great pickers, and it was time to make a step. Certainly the whole kind of folkie era was petering out, and we were moving into a more contemporary form, not doing as much of the traditional stuff. We were just looking to stretch out. We had pretty well done what we could do in the previous format, and felt that we didn't have a lot to lose in making the full change to an avant-garde country thing, as opposed to avant-garde folk. And we had already made those connections with the great players. [When] we put together the band Great Speckled Bird, we pretty much knew who we wanted to have. Certainly, like most really good bands, it was kind of a movable feast; people came in and out of it."

    Also in the lineup that recorded Great Speckled Bird was steel guitarist Buddy Cage, later to join the New Riders of the Purple Sage; lead guitarist Amos Garrett, who developed a distinctive technique of bending two and three strings, in part from working in tandem with a steel player (and would later work with Maria Muldaur, playing the solo on her hit "Midnight at the Oasis"); and drummer N.D. Smart II, who'd played with the Remains and Mountain (and would later play alongside Emmylou Harris and Gram Parsons in the Fallen Angels). When they recorded the album in Nashville in late 1969, the producer was a young Todd Rundgren, then just starting his simultaneous careers as a producer and solo recording artist.

    "We were managed by Albert Grossman, and Albert managed Todd Rundgren as well," explains Sylvia. "Todd was interested in becoming more of a producer. It was a peculiar marriage, god knows. Todd Rundgren in Nashville turned a few heads. You have to understand that we were doing that at Jack Clement's studio, right in the heart of Nashville, with all of the old boys that we'd played with dropping by. And there was Todd, [who] dressed weird, and had long hair. Not only that, but he brought with him his girlfriend, of the GTOs. She was perfect—she just sat there and knitted a sweater the whole time, for Todd."

    The material on Great Speckled Bird was about evenly divided between songs written either by Ian Tyson or Sylvia Tyson, though the pair collaborated on "Calgary," and Garrett got a co-credit with Ian for "Rio Grande." The sole cover to find its way onto the LP was "Crazy Arms," a huge country hit for Ray Price in the mid-1950s, and subsequently covered by everyone from Jerry Lee Lewis, Willie Nelson, and Chuck Berry to Linda Ronstadt, Patsy Cline, and Waylon Jennings. "Ian and Sylvia's album was the first record of its kind cut in Nashville," N.D. Smart observed in John Einarson's Desperados: The Roots of Country Rock. "They couldn't get used to the longhairs. They all figured that you had to have the hit done before lunch or there was something wrong with you. But we weren't in there for two or three hours watching the clock. We were in the studio for eighteen hours at a stretch. And [Nashville session men] David Briggs [on piano] and Norbert Putnam [on bass] were loving this, because they were getting triple scale."

    Although Great Speckled Bird was admired by fellow musicians and adventurous listeners, the Tysons ran into some resistance when they performed the material onstage. "When we first put together the Great Speckled Bird, we had some very adverse reaction," Sylvia told me in our 2001 interview. "We had some situations where the minute people saw pedal steel on stage, they would get up and walk out. They thought of us as folk music, as the acoustic thing, and the idea of an electric instrument on stage was an anathema to certain people who, for whatever reason, just couldn't deal with it." The album didn't sell well, though Great Speckled Bird were part of the 1970 Festival Express tour, a sort of traveling rock festival that barnstormed Canada by train, also including Janis Joplin, the Band, the Grateful Dead, and Delaney & Bonnie. Great Speckled Bird can be seen, albeit briefly, in the Festival Express movie, though that footage didn't give them any publicity at the time, as the film didn't come out until 2003.

    Great Speckled Bird did continue for a while in the early 1970s with different lineups. Cage's replacement, Ben Keith (who would later gain recognition as a longtime sideman for Neil Young), is on the 1972 album You Were on My Mind, credited to Ian & Sylvia with Great Speckled Bird. Great Speckled Bird itself, however, would be the only LP the group recorded as the featured artist. "The Great Speckled Bird was kind of a changeable thing," notes Sylvia. "People moved in and out of it, and that was fine. That certainly kept things interesting. We always had great players, like Ben Keith, [who] left us to go with Neil Young. That sort of thing was constantly happening, and Buddy Cage went with the New Riders. I guess you could say that we were a farm team for the hot groups." By the mid-1970s, Ian and Sylvia Tyson had begun solo careers, ending their longtime partnership.

    "Not blowing our horn or anything, but that album was so far ahead of its time that it really took a long time for people to catch up with us and figure out what we were doing," feels Sylvia. "And we had some lean years there. I mean, it's only now that you pay $300 for a sealed copy of that album. It's considered to be a seminal album by a lot of people, but it wasn't then." Fortunately, you don't have to pay $300 now to hear the music, given a United States reissue on this CD from Collectors' Choice Music. -- Richie Unterberger

contents copyright Richie Unterberger, 2000-2010
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