The recent passing of Canadian folk hero Stompin’ Tom Connors has touched the hearts of music fans across the nation, including people associated with Confederation Centre of the Arts in Charlottetown.
While choosing to hang his black Stetson in the Halton Hills area near Toronto for years, the Skinner’s Pond-raised songwriter forever called P.E.I. his home.
Connors graced the mainstage at Confederation Centre on several occasions and was the subject of one of the most popular Charlottetown Festival shows in recent memory – 2008’s The Ballad of Stompin’ Tom.
“The Island was Tom’s favourite place on earth,” says Wade Lynch, the centre’s associate artistic director, “and that show was a smash hit for P.E.I. – we had 99% attendance. It was a great piece of theatre and of Canadiana. Here is a man who went across the country discovering Canadians and our geography, and crafting songs about them. He was so fiercely patriotic and his songs were so stirring.”
“Working in the music business, Tom didn’t trust just anyone,” laughs Lynch. “So to get his blessing for the show, our producers had to go through a specific process: a late night ceremony of tobacco and alcohol.”
Mike Cochrane, now chief operating officer, was one of two staff members charged with this task. Arriving at Connors’ quaint Ontario home and sitting down in the kitchen, he soon realized that this would not be a brief procedure.
“We were there to gain his trust and explain who we were. We knew that people would really want to see this story, so we had a few beer, chatted about the show...had a few more.”
After several hours, the country star said he wanted to move downstairs to his ‘trophy room’. Cochrane was surprised not to be led into a room full of awards, but into Connors’ own garage and workshop.
“Then it was no longer Tom the icon, but Tom at home, stripped down,” recalls Cochrane. “He began sharing stories with us of his childhood and of growing up. He was a vivid storyteller and it was all very touching. We went up there for an hour and ended up staying for eight – he was the most street-smart person I’ve ever met.”
Connors performed to packed houses at Confederation Centre several times over his decorated career, including once for HRM Queen Elizabeth II in 1973 during P.E.I.’s centennial celebrations. His last performance at the Centre came during a national tour in the early 2000s. Crew member Dutch Thompson remembers the troubadour as being well-read and found him approachable and talkative backstage.
“The audience always got their money’s worth too; sometimes a show with his band but other times just Tom, a black stool and a microphone at centre stage. Plus the square of plywood - his stompin’ board - and a tall glass of clear liquid which he drank between songs. Water probably,” Thompson chuckles.
“He always sang the favourites and told me once that is what people were paying to hear, and that he always obliged.” Fond memories abound for a true Canadian icon.