Inside Ian & Sylvia's 'Nashville,' Country-Rock's Great Lost Album

Canadian folk duo beat both the Byrds and Dylan to the punch with the 1968 release of their LP, recorded in Music City

Duo Ian & Sylvia, who merged country and rock on 1968's 'Nashville' album, perform circa 1965. Credit: Frank Lennon/Toronto Star

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."

Arriving in Nashville, the couple was introduced to the players who'd be accompanying them — an A-list crew that included guitarists Jerry Reed and Fred Carter Jr., bassist Norbert Putnam, drummer Kenny Buttrey (later known to rock fans for his work on Neil Young's Harvest) and steel guitarist Pete Drake. "Everyone was so helpful," Sylvia says. "The caliber of great players was extraordinary. It was extremely organized. The minute you went in, everyone was right there and ready to play. There was no negative attitude." As Ian recalls, "They loved it — they told us that all the time. We had some long instrumental breaks, and I guess our stuff kinda freed them up."

The fact that Ian & Sylvia weren't longhairs or stoned rockers (like the Byrds' Gram Parsons) may have helped as well. "They were dopers and had that California lifestyle," says Ian of those who followed. "We weren't stoned or drunk. Well, we’d get drunk later." Adds Sylvia, "We were Canadian, so we were pretty clean cut."

Listening to it today, Nashville still sounds striking. Since they shared a manager in Albert Grossman with Dylan, Ian & Sylvia were among the first to record some of Dylan's Basement Tapes songs — both "This Wheel's on Fire" and "The Mighty Quinn" (also known as "Quinn the Eskimo") are on the album. The couple's harmonies blend effortlessly with pedal steel and banjo on "Farewell to the North," "London Life" and "Taking Care of Business," all written by either Ian or Sylvia. With its loping rhythm, swirling steel and Native American rebel tale, "The Renegade" is a precursor to Ian's later solo career, and the blend of Appalachia and Nashville on "Southern Comfort" still sounds groundbreaking.

At the time, though, Nashville (whose cover featured a painting of the couple on horses) landed with minimal impact. It didn't make the pop or country charts and didn't spawn any crossover hits, and subsequent albums like Sweetheart of the Rodeo and Dylan's 1969 Nashville Skyline received the bulk of the credit for merging rock and country. "You think about the Dylan and Cohen stuff and Harvest, all the albums that are significant now, and that album [Nashville] is more obscure," says McCall. "It's not of the same stature, but it's a cult favorite." Even Ian has trouble recalling some of its songs: "All big chart numbers," he chortles when some of them are rattled off.

The couple, who continued recording and touring before breaking up (personally and professionally) in 1975, remain active. Ian, a longtime rancher and keeper of the cowboy-music flame, still lives on the same south-of-Calgary ranch he bought with royalties from Young's cover of "Four Strong Winds." After injuring his voice "playing at some dumb-ass redneck festival" in Ontario in 2007, he had throat surgery for polyps and couldn't speak or sing for five weeks. After therapy, he returned to singing and recently released his latest album, Carnero Vaquero, which merges cowboy tales and melodies with folk and rock guitar. "It's a miracle," Tyson, 81, says of his voice. "I can hit notes I never hit before. I'm not going to fuck it up this time." Sylvia, based in Toronto, has been a longtime member of Quartette, an all-woman folk band, and published her first novel, Joyner's Dream, in 2011.

Although Nashville remains a footnote, the album nonetheless played a vital role in bridging the gap between rock and country. By the end of 1968, other singer-songwriter types — Gordon Lightfoot, Tim Hardin, Leonard Cohen — had ventured to Music City for sessions. Ian & Sylvia themselves returned to make another album, Full Circle and, in 1969, a record with their short-lived band, Great Speckled Bird. (Sylvia says the music community was much more puzzled that time thanks to the album's producer, Todd Rundgren — who came with his girlfriend, a member of the GTO's, the groupie collective/band from L.A.) And Ian & Sylvia's Music City work is acknowledged in the current Dylan, Cash and the Nashville Cats exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. As Sylvia says, with a fond laugh, "It was an experiment. We had an unfortunate habit of being a little ahead of our time."