Psst! Can you keep a secret? Promise?
Dr. Stompin' Tom Connors deserves a shrine. Not because the Doctor of Country Music's devoted most of his 60 years on this planet to preserving what he calls "identifiably" Canadian soundscapes; not because he loudly and proudly practises what he preaches; and, not because his prodigious output these past three decades contains hundreds of memorable cut-above compositions the calibre of "Sudbury Saturday Night," "Believe In Your Country," "Bud The Spud," and "Song Bird Valley."
Nope. Doc Stompin' deserves a shrine for transforming himself into "the axe-grinding lunatic of fanatic proportions" *they* say he is, especially when *they* also say he makes the kind of music *they* ain't ever gonna play.
Well, you say, who in the hell are *they?* More to the point, why should we give a fuck what *they* say, anyway? After all, you argue, a country's living music (motivated by the human need to make a joyful noiseful) rarely equals a country's recorded music (motivated by profit) in any country.
From our earliest rural recordings, identifiably Canadian country music inevitably finds itself ghettoised as an inferior part of our heritage – from Wilf Carter, Marg Osborne, and Stan Rogers to Eddie Poirier, 1775, and Edith Butler – that cannot, in any way, shape, nor milieu, actually consider itself something akin to a respectable contribution to this country's culture.
Doc Stompin' brags to differ. And, in inimitable fashion, he puts his money where his heart lives. In his country – this country – not some foreign country puppeteered and commandeered by that amorphous grey *they.*
With venom that will never equal Connors's passionate beliefs and convictions, Canadian country radio adamantly refuses to programme The Icon's music because The Icon resolutely refuses to legitimise foreign-interested industrial-strength bizicianists who give 70 percent of our airwaves away. Never could. Never would. Never should.
In 1978, for example, Connors's vehement protest against the practice of awarding Junos to out-of-country musicians culminated in his heart-breaking decision to return six Junos, to turn down a seventh nomination, and to refrain from public performances for 11 long years. Legions of like-minded Canadian fans applauded the uncharacteristically direct approach; detractors – particularly radio programmers – attempted something akin to a smear campaign in a last-ditch effort to defend Nashville clone-drone dynamics; and, a mare usque ad mari, the good doctor's colourful characters, vibrant vignettes, and signature songs of familiar faces in everyday places posted record sales figures.
Perseverance? Guts? Spirit? All of the time.
That mindset, coupled with one highly polished current, Long Gone To The Yukon (EMI), guarantees Dr. Stompin' Tom Connors a prominent address on Hall-of-Fame Lane complete with walkway to enshrined immortal acclaim (whether *they* like it or not).
"Well," drawls Doc Stompin' laconically, "I'm still pissed off at radio: I've been in the business over 30 years; and, I still don't fit the format? I'd like to see and hear more Canadians on our airwaves; and, yes, I'm starting to sound like a broken record . . . But, I don't think the Americans ever gave up their manifest-destiny philosophy; I think they intend, by the turn of the century, to fly their flag from the North Pole to Panama. Right now, they're trying to break us down fast and furiously with Free Trade and all that. Mulroney, of course, was definitely their biggest pawn."
The self-taught philosopher sees hope for our country; however, he fervently believes we must hunker down and smarten up: "We need to work together as a nation and speak with a unified voice. I know most Canadians are definitely patriotic; but, media are confused with this idea that everything the United States says is good for us and our governments. Our wimpy prime ministers – including the present one – just go over there, get patted on the head, and told to go back home and do what they've been told to do. So, I don't see anything happening as long as media are on the side of government . . . Everything starts from grassroots here; but, when a few people get going with something, they're not allowed to tack signs on posts, etc., etc. The odds are against our nationalists... ."
In remarkable defiance of precisely those odds, most of the black-hat man's 39 albums (including compilations) have achieved gold status while the much-anticipated first of two volumes of his autobiography, Before the Fame (Penguin), currently nestles comfortably atop the Canadian-bestseller crop (with over 20,000 copies sold before the Christmas rush). Not surprisingly, considering the lanky fellow's incredible creative energy, the publication of Before the Fame coincided with the release of Long Gone To The Yukon, a collection of 17 new tunes he penned with Gaet Lepine, the legendary bartender who gave Connors his first "break" (when he came up short a nickel on a brew at the Timmins Maple Leaf Hotel in 1964).
Exactly three years later, on 1 July 1967, Connors's famous moniker graced the marquee of Peterborough's King George Hotel for the first time: "You know," he says reflectively, "I didn't really give it a lot of thought then; but, it was actually Canada Day when I got named Stompin' Tom."
Names figure prominently in Connors's autobiography, a searing testimony to a life lived on the periphery and driven by a dream. The portrait that emerges in the work's 500-plus pages defies a deftly neat synopsis of the first 31 years of Connors's existence, partially because the man's photographic memory serves the book so well, mostly because to relay the horror, the hilarity, and the sheer hell of these before-the-fame years would rob readers of the pleasure, pain, and catharsis always attendant when one's hero triumphs over impossible odds. The page-turning, barn-burning, heart-churning achievement reveals a thick skin, tempered spirit, kind soul, and unswerving faith in this place we call home.
According to its author, writing Before the Fame in no way, shape, nor form compares with writing a song. "It's two different worlds altogether," says he, "mostly because, if you get discouraged writing a song, you can rip it up, throw it in the garbage, and start on another idea. The autobiography was always and forever present; but, you're reliving the past. I never took notes nor kept a diary; so, I kept reliving an awful lot of really sad and really happy things. It's not like writing songs. There were some very painful parts to it; but, I think it's good to do that, in a way, to face it all again. It put some things in better perspective. You never forget some things; but, you forgive them, you know?
"Initially, the publishers just wanted the 'Stompin' Tom' part in 250 pages; but, I told them to go to hell, eh? I told them I couldn't do that; I had to lay the groundwork for a lot of the stuff that happened later, especially for the stuff in the sequel."
Certainly, the stuff on Long Gone To The Yukon shimmers and shines, particularly in the context of the book. Connors says the co-write sessions proved especially inspiring for both parties: "We had our brews. We had our laughs. We stayed up all night, went to bed at seven in the morning, all that stuff."
p.s. The title of Part Two of the autobiography? During a visit with the maestro of the miraculous as well as his pillar of support (Dear Goddess Lena), we batted around a few ideas; but, Doc Stompin' hit the proverbial homer and wrote it on the back of a pack of Players where it still lives among the physical, invisible, and spiritual memories of those wonderful-weekend days in perpetuity
All that stuff includes the sophisticated simplicity of the Doctor of Country Music's elegant turn of phrase and illuminates the scholar of the street (and road) too smart by half cementing his contribution to this country's music (in the same way the oeuvres of Leonard Cohen, Glenn Gould, Oscar Peterson, et. al. do). Dr. Stompin' Tom Connors, the undisputed master of his media and messages, stands as The definitive Icon and iconoclast who makes alacrity of vision a celebration (and not, as *they* say, something like a crime).
"The Doctor of Country Music: Driven by a Dream" was originally the cover-story feature of Country Wave's May 1996 edition.
© 1996-2013 Judith Fitzgerald.
Family photograph of Tom, Jr., Doc Stompin', and Lena Stompin' © 2000-2013 Lisa Sakulensky Photography (with love and fair gratitude).
Stompin' Guitar photograph © 1996-2013 Judith Fitzgerald. All Rights Reserved.
(Special thanks to Lena and Tom for their cherished friendship and wonderful hospitality.)