He wore a cowboy hat and banged his heavy-heeled cowboy boot on a piece of plywood while singing his twangy songs in small-town bars, but Stompin' Tom Connors was more than just another lanky country-and-western act. The beloved East Coast singer and songwriter, who died on Wednesday at age 77, was an outspoken Canadian nationalist long before that became a cool thing to be. Stompin' Tom was a pioneer, and he will be missed.
These days, Canada isn't scared to be a little loud and proud. Politicians push patriotic buttons and endlessly recite their devotion to "hard-working Canadians." Advertisers shamelessly (and successfully) plug our country and its natural beauty, and play up Canadians' adventuresome and ribald sides. But Stompin' Tom was doing that a long time ago, celebrating the end of a hard week's work with famous lyrics like, "The girls are out to bingo and the boys are getting' stinko/ And we'll think no more of Inco on a Sudbury Saturday night."
Nationalistic to the point of being a curmudgeon, Connors fought with the Junos for nominating Canadian performers who made their name and sold most of their music outside Canada, and he battled with the CBC over its refusal to broadcast a concert he'd taped for that purpose. He wanted Canadian institutions to recognize artists who stayed at home, a sentiment he made clear in Believe in Your Country when he sang, "If you don't believe your country, should come before yourself/ You can better serve your country, by living somewhere else." (It was a sentiment he directed at politicians who "divide our precious land" as much as anyone else.)
He wrote about snowmobile races and truckers whose potato-laden rigs tore up the Trans-Canada Highway, of workers who got fed up being served bread and gravy at every meal in their boarding house, and of Canadians being suckered into deals they don't need. "We'll buy it while it's hot/ And save a lot of money spending money we don't got," he sang in The Consumer.
There was a wise sense of humour in his John Wayne eyes, and a strong sense of place in his songs. Born in New Brunswick to a teenage mother at the height of the Depression and raised by adoptive parents, he travelled the country as a teenager and young man, working and singing as he went, a northern Woody Guthrie. By the time be began to find fame in the 1960s, he perhaps knew the country and its people better than any other English-Canadian wordsmith. He spent the rest of his life celebrating and defending his home with unfailing humour and uncompromising pride. Thank you, Stompin' Tom Connors. We needed you.