Stompin’ Tom speaks up for patriotism
HALTON HILLS, Ont. – Country-folk legend Stompin’ Tom Connors has established himself as one of Canada’s biggest cultural icons, but as he prepares to release his 50th album he says he is still yearning to be embraced by radio.
The 72-year-old musician lashed out at traditional radio in a recent interview that also touched on his ongoing beef with the Junos, his disappointment with a U.S.-dominated music industry and the lack of a strong successor to continue his patriotic musical campaign.
“I’ve never had a hit song on any hit parade,” Connors declares while seated at a table in his kitchen, his eyes shaded by a signature black cowboy hat.
“Out of 50 albums, it’s amazing. They tell me I don’t fit the format or I’m too Canadian or I’m too country or I’m too this or I’m too that – I’m too something. Whatever it is, I don’t fit the format. So I don’t understand.”
“I’m a man of the land, I go out into the country and I talk to people. … And I would think that people in the media would kind of catch on and go, ‘Hey, this guy knows a little bit about the country, maybe we should play one of his songs or two and maybe somebody might like it out there.”‘
It was a rare flash of bitterness from the jovial and friendly Connors, who earlier had spent much of the day entertaining record company staff and reporters with “Newfie jokes,” a silly dance he had invented and stories about his upcoming album, “The Ballad of Stompin’ Tom,” in his wood-panelled rec room.
With his son Tom Jr. working the bar and his wife Lena shaking hands, Connors introduced some of his favourite tracks for several dozen people invited to his home in rural Halton Hills, an hour’s drive west of Toronto, for a casual listening party.
Chain-smoking and with a bottle of beer in hand, Connors stomped his left boot to keep time as music blasted from a stereo, and at other moments silently mouthed the lyrics. The disc includes a live version of “Take Me Back to Old Alberta” and reworked versions of “The Hockey Song,” “My Hockey Mom” and “The Olympic Song.”
“Maybe they’ll get a little patriotism or something on that last song and . . . play a little bit (on the radio) – who knows,” he said of “The Olympic Song,” which includes a new verse about the 2010 Winter Games slated for Vancouver.
Although wide commercial appeal has escaped Connors for much of his four-decade career, he has earned a devoted following for straight-ahead country-folk tunes.
Heritage-soaked songs like “Canada Day, Up Canada Way,” “Bud the Spud” and “Sudbury Saturday Night” have come to be regarded as veritable national anthems thanks to their unabashed embrace of all things Canadiana. The fact he remains a towering figure in this genre appeared to be another sore point.
“I don’t know why I seem to be the only one, or almost the only one, writing about this country,” Connors says later in his kitchen, slipping into another rant.
“It just amazes me, I’ve been going so long I would think that somebody else (would have) picked up the torch a long time ago and started writing tons of songs about this country. This country is the most underwritten country in the world as far as songs are concerned. We starve – the people in this country are starving for songs about their homeland.”
In the past, Connors’s fervent patriotism has put him at loggerheads with the Canadian music industry.
In 1978 he famously returned six Juno Awards he had amassed in previous years, complaining that some artists were being recognized in categories outside their genre while other winners had done most of their work outside the country. He derided musicians who moved to the United States as “border jumpers.”
Connors says his feelings have not changed since then.
“It’s worse today, I would say, then it was then. Nothing’s changed,” he says.
If he were to qualify for a nomination for “The Ballad of Stompin’ Tom,” he dismissed outright the possibility of a reconciliation with the Juno Awards.
“No,” he says decisively. “No, to hell with them. I wouldn’t even go there.”
From Connors’s earliest days, life was a battle.
He was born in Saint John, N.B., on Feb. 9, 1936, to an unwed teenage mother. From the age of three he lived hand-to-mouth, begging on the street with his mom until he was placed in the care of child welfare officials. At age nine he was adopted by a family in Skinners Pond, P.E.I., running away four years later to hitchhike across the country. He picked up a guitar as his constant companion.
Connors sings about those tumultuous years on the new disc’s title track, “The Ballad of Stompin’ Tom.” He says he was inspired after seeing the success of the play of the same name, mounted in Blyth, Ont., two years ago. Based on his two autobiographies, “Before the Fame” and “The Connors Tone,” the play has gone on to successful runs in Charlottetown and the Ontario communities of Penetanguishene, Drayton and Gananoque.
Connors says it was difficult for him to put those painful experiences into a song. Even during the listening session, the rugged troubadour appeared choked up as he listened quietly to lyrics such as: “When the long road took us back to Saint John, momma cried / That night the strong arm of the law tore me from her side.”
“It’s a hard song to write,” he said afterwards, his voice faltering slightly.
Connors says he was able to reconnect with his mother as an adult, but by then relations were strained irreparably. He says she died “at a ripe old age.”
“When you don’t know somebody, even your own mother, it’s awful hard to relate,” he says.
And although she was proud of his immense musical success, Connors says his mother rejected repeated offers of assistance.
“She was one of these people that if she ever got the idea that you were giving her something she’d pick up the frying pan and throw it at you,” he says.
As for the incredible journey his life has taken, Connors refuses to revel in his accomplishments.
“You can’t pat yourself on the back,” he says. “If you’re liked by the people, let them do it. Don’t go about saying, ‘Hey, I am somebody, I am this, I am that…’ No, you’ll never get that out of me.
“Whatever I do, in my writing, I do it for others. I do it for my country and I do it for my countrymen and that’s the only value that I really have.”
“The Ballad of Stompin’ Tom” comes out Tuesday.
He gets regular radio play on my show!!
Stompin’ Tom speaks up for patriotism