Joanna Carter The Boot rounds up today's country music news from around the…
- Posted on Mar 7th 2013 11:05AM by Aaron Brophy
The tray of sandwiches on the pool table. The old jukebox that was filled almost exclusively with records by Hank Williams or Connors himself. A hand twirled casually towards couches around the house. And even -- if I can recall correctly through the fog -- a pointed stab directed under the pool table. The implication being it would be good place to crash if needed.
Most importantly, though, was the beer. Moosehead. Green bottles stacked in those dull brown unbranded distributor cases that bars and restaurants receive their bulk orders in.
See, Stompin' Tom Connors, then a spry 72, dressed in all black and signature black cowboy hat was leaning off the edge of that horseshoe shaped bar and he wasn't pleased with me or my fellow writer Steve McLean. But mostly me. That's because we had just told him we were leaving his farm west of Toronto, taking the last hired car home back to the city.
It was around midnight and Tom, chain-smoking and consuming those Mooseheads, was just getting warm when we were bailing. The words "What? My beer's not good enough?" were definitely spoke. And it didn't feel like Tom was joking when he said them.
The two of us were the last two music writers still standing at a meet 'n' greet/playback session in November 2008 for about 30 people Tom's label EMI Canada hosted at his house to promote the album The Ballad of Stompin' Tom. We had been there almost eight hours already, steadily pounding back our own Mooseheads and systematically sussing out bits of Tom lore (Confirmed: Yes, if you wanted to be in his band you had to be able to stay up drinking with him).
And it was a variant of that cardinal rule we appeared to be breaking. See, Tom didn't care that we had already been drinking for half the day, that we had jobs to get back to, or that if we didn't take that car we'd be stranded somewhere in the Halton Hills. That's because there were lots of sandwiches and lots of beer.
Which was all Stompin' Tom Connors needed because Stompin' Tom Connors was punk as fuck.
"Punk" may seem like a peculiar designation for the hyper-patriotic traditional country singer who died yesterday at age 77, sending his Canadian homeland into cross-country mourning. But Connors, who earned his "Stompin'" moniker from six decades of enthusiastically kicking at the ubiquitous plywood sheet-as-percussion below his feet, lived a code more clear and steadfast than many an idealistic Fugazi fan could ever match.
He drank Moosehead because it was genuinely Canadian-brewed and owned beer. Likewise, all the liquor in his house had to be Canadian, too. (Except rum because rum -- his East Coast heritage showing -- is supposed to come from the islands.)
In his goodbye note to fans, written when he knew death was a-coming, Connors wrote, "It was a long hard bumpy road, but this great country kept me inspired with its beauty, character, and spirit, driving me to keep marching on and devoted to sing about its people and places that make Canada the greatest country in the world.''
He wasn't afraid to take a stand, either. Canadian musicians desperate to sell-out, er, "break," in the U.S. were sickening to him, to the point where he even returned a bunch of his Juno Awards in 1978 to protest Canadian artists who did most of their business in America getting awards.
At one point he even said fuck it and retired for a decade because he simply didn't want to deal with the music business.
Not that fancy awards were a Tom thing anyway. His touch was more personal. That rec room wasn't filled with lavish touches or Beyonce-style monuments to self. Instead it was filled with modest plaques and pool trophies, likely the bounty from his four children over the years.
You had to go down the stairs into the basement to see Tom's memorabilia. In that modest cellar space profiles clipped from podunk small-town newspapers got equal billing on walls beside the stacks of gold records and various keys to cities. Trinkets given to him from volunteer fire departments were treated with just as much reverence as anything he'd received from some politician.
These were the affectations of a man who practiced what he preached. Born to an unwed New Brunswick teenager back in the cold winter of 1936, he was hitchhiking across the country by three, begging on the street by four and became a ward of the state at age eight. He spent four years adopted by a family in Skinner's Pond, P.E.I. before running away at 13 to once again hitchhike Canada, working odd jobs from fisherman to grave digger to tobacco picker while teaching himself to play his treasured guitar.
No wonder regular folk were more important to Tom than the fat cats and the tokens he received from them from across Canada were clearly genuinely meaningful to him.
On one board in that basement were a series of keys hanging on hooks. They were apparently keys from all the hotels he went to on his honeymoon. Which would've meant that during said honeymoon he basically stole a bunch of room keys. Punk.
Then there was the music. Songs about potatoes, songs about hockey, songs about whatever gumboot cloggeroos are. Tom worked from a simple formula: pick a location in Canada then write a song around it all in the name of romanticizing some small sliver of the nation. A Globe&Mail feature on Tom tracked a few of those places -- Sudbury, Tuktoyaktuk, Wawa, Rouyn, Reesor Crossing, Tignish, Renfrew Valley, Skinner's Pond and Reversing Falls. Few people knew Canada like Tom.
"On every album I've put out, I've put diverse Canadian songs on it. They're not provincial albums, my albums are national albums. There'll be a song about Saskatchewan and Vancouver and Nova Scotia on there. I guess you could say that Stompin' Tom connects the nation through his albums and if I've accomplished that I'm proud," Connors said.
And when he actually played, watch out. My mother has stories of seeing him at the Elmvale Palace Tavern decades ago and watching as he literally made those plywood chips fly across the stage.
Of course, touring, particularly later in his career, was also done on Tom's own terms. A four-pack-a-day smoker, Tom felt hemmed in by a world where having a cigarette was increasingly illegal. So if you wanted to book Tom for a show you also had to arrange a place for him to smoke nearby. Some venues would go so far as to arrange for trailers by the backstage door so he could quickly slip out for puffs.
There were other considerations, too. When we asked Tom what his upcoming tour plan were he was quick to point out he had none. He had to stay on his farm to keep an eye on his neighbor, who was clearly up to something...
That last car was waiting in the driveway to take us back into Toronto and Steve, a little more free-spirited than I, was trying to negotiate the terms of sticking around with Tom. Did Tom know what the GO Transit schedules were? No. How would we get home in the morning? Hitchhike. Where would we sleep? Wherever.
Tom didn't really care about that stuff.
There was a crate of Moosehead and a stack of sandwiches and he was just getting warm. And when we slunk into that last car to make our way back to the city -- a decision I now realize was the entirely the wrong one for any number of symbolic reasons (choosing your own path, fucking convention and the button-down 9-to-5 world, the opportunity to hang with an icon...) -- there was Tom, still leaning against that horseshoe shaped bar, chain-smoking and telling stories. Basically doing exactly what he wanted, how he wanted to do it.
And that's why Stompin' Tom Connors was more punk than you, maybe more punk than anyone.