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Believe In Your Country: RIP Stompin’ Tom

We were saddened to hear of the passing of Stompin’ Tom Connors, a true Canadian legend, yesterday. Tom was a pillar of the Canadian music scene for over 50 years, infusing hundreds of songs across dozens of country music LP releases with a fierce patriotism that connected with people in a way that his Canadian contemporaries like Hank Snow, Wilf Carter, Don Messer and even Ronnie Hawkins could not. But Tom also has a unique connection to Canadian film, having starred in the first concert film–made by the man who devised the character of Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS, no less–and playing a central role in developing common narratives that continue to be weaved through movies produced across the country.

These days, it may be tempting to dismiss Tom and his boot stompin’, city name droppin’ songbook as a novelty act, but know this–Tom was no joke, an honest to goodness country music shit kicker who saw every corner of this country. Getting his start as an itinerant performer who played small bars and venues across Canada (not unlike Donnelly Rhodes’ fictional country band in THE HARD PART BEGINS), it was surely these gigs that gave Tom the idea to pepper his setlist of traditional tunes with a series of songs devoted to the places he played, such as “Tilsonburg,” “Road To Thunder Bay,” “Movin’ On To Rouyn”, “Isle Of Newfoundland,” and “Okanagan Okee.” You may think “Sudbury Saturday Night” is a cute song, but imagine seeing Tom perform the song one Saturday in 1971, in a cramped, beer-soaked Sudbury watering hole crammed with rowdy miners.

But more than just offering his own musical panorama of Canada, Tom also gave maple leaf-waving audiences a nostalgia for home at a time when Canadians were leaving rural areas and heading off to seek their fortune in larger cities, as so heartwrenchingly rendered in films like GOIN’ DOWN THE ROAD. Songs including “My Home Town”, “My Home By The Fraser”, “Take Me Back To Old Alberta” and “To It and At It” were wistful reminders of the rural places that rapt listeners came from. Though Tom never got a much-deserved soundtrack spot in a dramatic feature (despite seeming to have a spiritual kin), it’s appropriate that SCTV’s GOIN’ DOWN THE ROAD parody prominently featured “To It and At It.” However, Tom did it one better–he managed to star in his own Canadian film.

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In the midst of trying to break into the Anglophone market, Montreal shlock studio Cinepix commissioned a film to capture Tom at perhaps the height of his musical talents. ACROSS THIS LAND WITH STOMPIN’ TOM CONNORS is a production with few frills. Aside from footage of Tom belting out his biggest hits at the time (later released on the live double-LP pictured above), there’s some shots of the audience and a few decidedly Canadian cutaways to give the proceedings some visual interest. But ACROSS THIS LAND is still essential for a few reasons, and not just that incredible poster artwork. For one, it was the only feature directed by John C.W. Saxton, a University of Toronto professor who hovered around the fringes of Canada’s exploitation film scene, having created the sadistic grindhouse queen Ilsa and later collaborating on the scripts for undeniable Canxuxploitation classics like CLASS OF 1984, BLACKOUT and HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME. And it’s also a wonderful time capsule of Stompin’ Tom and the real power of his music that may have been lost in recent years as he shifted from certified guitar plucker into a role as an unofficial ambassador and national icon. Finally, ACROSS THIS LAND features a great vintage look at Toronto’s legendary music venue The Horseshoe Tavern, complete with western decor on stage, which may surprise younger concert-goers more familiar with the bar’s current iteration.

Watch ACROSS THIS LAND WITH STOMPIN’ TOM CONNORS in its entirety:

So here’s to you Tom. I hope you finally got your pot of gold.