He was 13 when he managed to evade the police waiting at the ferry dock and escape back to Tormentine on the mainland in one of many attempts to run away from his adoptive parents and reunite with his mother. The two did reconnect, eventually, but it never worked well or for long. “She couldn’t treat me as a son, and I couldn’t treat her as a mother, because you’ve lost all that touch and contact and warmth that the average person would have with their mother,” he told Robert Everett-Green in a profile in The Globe in 2008.
He wrote his first song, Reversing Falls Darling, when he was 11, and bought a cheap guitar three years later with money he earned shovelling snow and setting up pins in a bowling alley.
From then on the self-taught musician found solace and companionship in his music. He made his own success, hitchhiking and riding freight trains from place to place and digging graves and picking tobacco among other bone crushing jobs to earn his keep. “Tillsonburg, Tillsonburg/My back still aches when I hear that word,” he wrote about this period of his life.
His real professional career began in the mid-1960s at the Maple Leaf Hotel in Timmins, Ont., according to Mr. Connors’s autobiography, Before the Fame. He was five cents short of the price of a glass of beer, and the bartender pointed to his guitar case and said, “Do you play the guitar, or is that just where you carry your clothes?” Standing in the corner of the bar, singing to slake his prodigious thirst, was the beginning of a longstanding gig that put him on the musical map in Canada.
More than 40 years and nearly 300 songs later, he was still recording and touring. The performances hardly varied, nor did his routines. With a cigarette in one hand and a drink in the other, the irredeemably nocturnal Mr. Connors quizzed potential bandmates on their own diurnal rhythms before signing them on. Canadian singer/songwriter Dave Gunning, who was his bassist during a seven-week tour in 2002, remembered the following exchange with Mr. Connors.
“Do ya drink?”
“Yes, I do.”
“Good. Because we’re not a bunch of preachers out on the road. But before you get the gig: Can you handle your liquor?”
“Yeah, pretty good,” Mr. Gunning said, promising he wouldn’t miss a show.
“That’s what I wanted to hear, boy. I just wanted to make sure you’re not one of those fallsy-downsies.”
Besides requiring a hollow leg, Mr. Gunning willingly promised to stay up late – sometimes until 5 a.m. – every second day on the road. “He liked the company and he was so incredible to talk to in those late-night chats.”
Mr. Hus agreed to the same routine after he began playing with Mr. Connors in 2009. At 34, the same age as one of Mr. Connors’s sons, Mr. Hus began as a fan, never dreaming he would one day play with his idol. The phone call inviting him to go on tour with Mr. Connors was “the most thrilling” conversation of his life. In retrospect, “the veteran singer from the East Coast and the young singer from the West Coast” made a good pair, said Mr. Hus, because they were both “proud” to write songs about this country.
He “really liked hanging out with the band,” said Mr. Hus, a non-smoker. He never minded sitting “in the haze” and “exercising the elbow,” while listening to tales of his mentor’s rugged life, ferocious patriotism and unwillingness to compromise. “He was the ultimate indie artist before that term even existed.”
Mr. Connors was never part of the musical establishment – not a poet like Leonard Cohen or a lyrical balladeer like Gordon Lightfoot – but he held true to the patriotic values he had honed on the road. He sent back his Juno awards in 1978 along with a letter deriding the organizers for honouring minstrels who found their audiences, their material and their incomes abroad. For the next decade he sulked in a self-imposed exile and later refused to be inducted into the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame.