Inside Ian & Sylvia’s ‘Nashville,’ Country-Rock’s Great Lost Album
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.”