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proudly. “They were surprised that we could play. ‘These long-haired assholes can really play!’”

Released in the spring of ’71, The Great Speckled Bird did not feature Ian & Sylvia’s name on the cover. “It was quite a gamble to not put our name up front and just call it The Great Speckled Bird,” admits Sylvia. “I can remember one of our very first concerts with the band, at Western University in Ontario. There were people in the audience who got up and walked out before the concert even started when they saw the steel guitar being set up on stage. We knew we had alienated the traditional Ian & Sylvia audience.”

The tone of the album was set from the get go with the opening track ‘Love What You’re Doing, Child’ with Smart pounding out a thunderous beat joined by the bass and Garrett’s screaming guitar before Ian and Sylvia’s rich harmonies kick in. Clearly this was country rock with an emphasis on rock: thumping drums, pounding bass, and soaring guitars. In contrast to their contemporaries on the country-rock frontier, The Great Speckled Bird placed far greater emphasis on a rock-solid rhythm as evidenced by Ian’s ‘Long Long Time to Get Old’ propelled by Smart’s thundering tom toms and cowbell. “‘Long Long Time’ is one of the best songs I ever wrote and the band played it great,” says Ian. “It all came together on that song.”

Ian’s cowboy roots emerge in tracks like ‘Calgary’, ‘This Dream’ and ‘Rio Grande’ while Sylvia holds her own in country style on the swinging Buckaroo-flavoured ‘Trucker’s Café’, ‘Smiling Wine’ and ‘Disappearing Woman’.

“With Great Speckled Bird we found our direction,” asserts Ian. “I think that album had an impact among musicians.” Sales however were disappointing but if the record buying public failed to notice, other players did not. “I’ve talked to people over the years in Nashville who recall that album as a signpost that things were changing, both in country and in folk,” says Sylvia. “It had an influence.”

Nonetheless, the band undertook a hectic schedule of engagements mainly on the East Coast college circuit where country-rock was

still something of a mystery. The group found some audiences reluctant to accept their new direction, confirms Ian. “It was the end of Ian & Sylvia. It put the nail in the coffin and probably all for the good. They were insulted, outraged – whatever. Shortly thereafter our manager Albert Grossman washed his hands of us.”

In June, The Great Speckled Bird made its Troubadour debut to a packed house of eager fans that had heard the album and the buzz surrounding the group. “Everybody associated with country-rock in Southern California was there to see us,” boasts new bass player Colegrove. “We got a great review in Cashbox.” Later that month the Speckled Bird went to

spotted Buddy Cage, on that trip.” Cage later replaced Garcia in The New Riders Of The Purple Sage. “We were the darlings of that tour,” Smart remembers. “We were the ones everybody stood on the sidelines and watched and they’d come out and jam with us.”

When CTV, an independent Canadian television network, offered Ian his own weekly television show, he jumped at the opportunity. Titled Nashville North, Ian hosted and performed while The Great Speckled Bird backed him and weekly guests passing through. In deference to her husband, Sylvia was signed on to appear occasionally throughout the first season. The following year, the program’s name was changed to The Ian Tyson Show and hovered at the top of the ratings until ’75 when Tyson walked out. By then many of the Bird members had been replaced. David Wilcox came in for Garrett while Neil Young sideman Ben Keith took over Cage’s pedal steel stool.

In ’72, Columbia Records released You Were On My Mind, billed as Ian & Sylvia With The Great Speckled Bird. But the album was a far cry from the incendiary sounds of their debut two years earlier. This time the sound was mainstream country. “The band became more generic, less distinctive,” notes Smart. “Due to

Spots befoe their eyes. The Bird in ’71, L-R: ND Smart, Buddy Cage, Ian Tyson,

Sylvia Tyson, David Wilcox, Jim Colgrove

Japan for two weeks, playing the Canadian Pavilion at Expo 70. “The Japanese love country music,” recalls Smart. “It was encores and standing-room-only every night.” On returning to Canada, the group joined the heavily hyped Festival Express tour –a rolling thunder revue of the hottest acts travelling across Canada on a specially outfitted chartered train. With a line-up boasting The Band, Janis Joplin & The Full Tilt Boogie Band, The Grateful Dead, Mountain, Delaney & Bonnie And Friends and Eric Andersen, the partying never let up. “There were jam sessions non-stop on the train,” recalls Sylvia. “The Grateful Dead ran out of substances around Winnipeg and started drinking. It was not a pretty sight,” adds Ian. “I recall getting into a drinking contest with Janis Joplin and I was seriously overmatched. She drank me under the table. At the end of the whole thing we had this wonderful concert in Calgary with a great jam session at the end. That’s where Jerry Garcia

the TV show, we

became a professional studio band. Ian was settling down and didn’t want to go on the road anymore.” After leaving the TV show Ian headed west to Alberta eventually reinventing himself as a chronicler of the bygone cowboy lifestyle and the old west. Divorced in the mid-70s, Sylvia released a number of solo albums, became a popular Canadian radio personality and formed the singing group Quartette. But for Ian Tyson, memories of The Great Speckled Bird remain bittersweet.

“It was a fork in the road that we explored like Lewis & Clark; a tributary that we travelled up with sincerity. It was a high- energy group, but we really didn’t know what we were doing. Amos didn’t know how to put his instrument out there in front of electric instruments. Buddy Cage definitely didn’t, ND Smart was a psychotic redneck drummer and Jim Colegrove was stoned all the time. And that’s who we were. It was just completely incompatible. But our karma was such that on the occasional night in the recording studio we made some music that’s a little bit timeless and of that era.”


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