For Truckers, Stompin’ Tom was a Pal
Editor Carter, Tom and Trevor MacIntyre in Stompin’ Tom’s Rec Room
The fact that I was lucky enough to visit Stompin’ Tom Connors twice at his home in the tiny village of Ballinafad, ON, had nothing to do with me being a journalist. It was all thanks to my lifelong friend and fellow Sudburian Trevor MacIntyre.
About eight years ago, Trevor, who now lives in Oakville, invited me to — get this — a chess tournament. At Stompin’ Tom’s house. Turns out Trevor’s daughter Ainsley (what a great Cape Breton name that is) knew Connors’ accountant’s daughter. (You follow that?)
For several years running, Connors had been hosting a once-a-year all-night chess tournament, to which he invited a dozen guys for an evening of beer drinking, music listening, and chess-playing. (He took the game quite seriously and was pretty good at it. Connors had one of those oddly sharp mathematically adept brains.)
The year Trevor phoned me, some regulars had dropped out. Trevor, bless his heart, was asked if he knew anybody who would like to fill in.
I might be the biggest Stompin’ Tom fan ever. And Trevor knew it.
The tournament took place in Connors’ rec room: A wood-paneled area, the walls covered with posters, concert reviews, celebrity photos. There was a fabulous jukebox that played only Stompin’ Tom 45s. A pool table. Bar. Plaques and scrolls and citations. Connors’ honorary doctorate. And ashtrays.
It felt very much like 99 percent of the bars I visited growing up in different parts of Ontario.
The first time I attended I took along a shoe to get autographed. My daughter Ria, who at the time was in early high school, suggested I use one of her green Converse sneakers. It seemed apt.
I also bought Connors’ a gift. I had just discovered the Alberta singer Corb Lund’s beautiful “Hair in My Eyes like a Highland Steer” album and thought it would be a bond-builder. I handed it to Connors, who was sitting at his bar. He was very gracious.
“I hear Corb’s a fan,” he said between drags on his cigarette. (He was one of the world’s last big-time chain smokers.)
A year later, on my second visit, we arrived and there he was, once again, at the bar, smoking and sipping. I went over to shake his hand. I glanced over at the stack of CDs.
In the exact spot as he’d placed it a year earlier lay the Corb Lund album, unopened.
On that second visit, I also carried my own aging six-string, upon which I’ve played and sung more Connors songs than any member of my family cares to enumerate.
I asked him to sign the guitar. He obliged, and doing so, said: “Now don’t go selling that thing on eBay!”
So late last night, when another childhood and lifelong Sudbury-born pal Kevin MacLean emailed me with a two-word message saying that Connors had died at 77, the chances of my selling that guitar fell from immeasurably slim to less than zero.
In fact, it embarrasses me a tad to admit how strangely saddened I am by his death.
I didn’t know he was sick and I thought he had one of those crazy Celtic constitutions that would see him live to 100 despite his smoking, beer drinking and irregular eating habits. (I’m guessing at that last one, but Connors spent his life in the country music world. I’m thinking neither regular fitness nor a healthy diet were parts of it.)
As an indication of what sort of fan I was, when I first met him in Ballinafad, I asked him to elaborate on something he’d written in his memoirs. He had suffered a very unfortunate run-in with the late Peter Gzowski of the CBC, and I asked him to elaborate. He said, with a touch of amazement in his voice: “You actually read the book didn’t you Pete?”
Pete’s Guitar: “Don’t go selling that thing on ebay,” Connors warned.
Not only is there a six-string guitar in my house signed by Stompin’ Tom, but somewhere, in among our dusty family archives, sits a Stompin’ Tom comic book, again signed but this time dedicated to our twin daughters Ewa and Ria.
When my daughters were tiny, my associate and pal the late Jim Cormier was attending a Governor General’s Awards ceremony in Ottawa.
Jim was there as the editor of the respected science magazine Equinox — a magazine he had jazzed up and added unprecedented sparkle to, by the way.
According to how it was told to me, Jim was talking to Farley Mowat. In the middle of the conversation, Jim looked up, saw Connors enter the room and was like, “Oh. My. God.” Goodbye Farley, hello Stompin’ Tom.
Jim rushed over to meet Connors.
Then Jim somehow managed to get his hands on the comic book and have the singer sign and dedicate it to Ewa and Ria Carter. (Jim – a very talented musician of Nova Scotia stock, passed away at 39 before I got to attend Connor’s chess tournaments. He would have been very envious.)
Finally, somewhere in our family video collection, we have clips of my daughters and me, with them aged maybe two.
I’m sitting in a comfortable chair, with the same guitar in my lap. I’m fingering chords while the girls are standing facing me and their tiny hands are strumming. The three of us are singing “You’ve been workin’ on the coal-boats by, and you’re nothing but a dirty ole man.”
When I was a kid in Sudbury, I remember that my older brother Tom and cousin Joe MacDonald were the first to tell me about this guy who was playing at the Brockdan Hotel and Laurentian University, singing about Sudbury. I was too young to go but as soon as I heard some of his songs, I was hooked.
Many years later, when Stompin’ Tom came out of retirement and launched a tour in Sudbury, the local promoters offered a prize to the individual who composed the best new verse to “Sudbury Saturday Night.”
My brother Alex won.
Since Connors passed away, I’ve actually had people email me with condolences. Two colleagues have offered their sympathies, as if he were part of my family.
By week’s end, I’m thinking millions of Canadians will hear more about Stompin’ Tom more than: A) they’ve ever heard before; and B) they want to.
He’s also going to be one those guys who gets a lot more respect after his death than before.
And well he should. He was completely self-made; his life story verges on the unbelievable. And good or bad I’m sure he was the most patriotic Canadian in the country.
His single mom hitchhiked around Eastern Canada, carrying her tiny baby, in the 1940s. Imagine. In the ‘40s. A woman hitchhiking with a baby.
The authorities separated him from her and delivered Tom to a foster family. His song “Christmas in the Orphanage” pretty much sums up part of his early days.
And to my knowledge, he never hurt a soul.
Anyway, you’ll hear all about it in days to come.
And for all of that, I never took Connors too seriously. Many of his songs — maybe most — were kind of goofy. His voice? Well at least he had confidence, I’ll give him that. And he might have known more guitar chords than I do, but I doubt it.
Yet man was he fun to have around.
And because I was such a fan, he is also sort of like a traveling companion to me. Wherever I go, one of his songs follows.
I remember last year I was on the phone interviewing a human-resources consultant who was living in Sault Ste. Marie and as we were discussing demographics and the future of trucking, I kept thinking “She’s on a bar-hopping spree back in Sault Ste. Marie and because of me she’s now a fallen star.”
Again, last year, I was reporting on a trucking incident in a small Ontario town and as the policeman was telling me details of an accident, I was thinking, “Tillsonburg, Tillsonburg, my back still aches when I hear that word.”
And heck I’m from Sudbury. We Sudburians should get his birthday off as a stat holiday!
Finally, I edit a trucking magazine. I think it falls into my job description to get sentimental about the guy.
As one of my colleagues here, our video expert Dan Robinson, said this morning, “If ever there was a singer who was a friend of the trucker, it was Stompin’ Tom.”