Stompin' Tom Connors put his foot down.
In 2007, three board members of the Canadian Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (CARAS) visited the spud-obsessed songster at his home outside Toronto. They were Deane Cameron (then president of EMI ), Jim Cuddy (the Blue Rodeo crooner) and CARAS head Melanie Berry. It was a peace mission of sorts – one more attempt to convince Connors to rejoin the Juno family and accept induction into the body's hall of fame. Cameron, who had signed Connors to EMI, had made solo entreaties before. This time he brought reinforcements; the man himself greeted the olive-branch trio at the door.
"It was a typical Stompin' Tom executive board meeting," Cameron says, recalling a long-into-the-night sit-down that involved refreshments. It was a sincere attempt to smooth over Connors's unrelenting displeasure with the Juno system of rewarding accomplishments in Canadian music. In 1978, in protest against the nomination of Canadian artists who longer lived in-country, the iconic troubadour returned his six Juno awards and began a boycott of the annual ceremony.
Connors's estrangement was a source of frustration for CARAS. "Everybody wanted Tom back," explained Cameron, "and nobody could understand why he wouldn't say yes."
To help the board understand, Connors, on this night, produced a list of six proposals that would, in his mind, help the Junos increase opportunities for those musicians who lived and worked in Canada.
These are the suggestions Connors offered CARAS, never before made public:
An international Juno, to be awarded annually to one Canadian artist who neither lived nor worked in "this musical community." Such artists would not be eligible for any other Junos.
A three-Juno limit for artists in any one category. It was Connors's belief that by taking perennial winners out of the mix, up-and-coming artists would stand a better chance of being honoured.
A "tangible prize," involving cash, promotional support or studio time. "As an incentive to the competitors to keep them working in this musical community," Connors wrote.
Public encouragement. It was Connors's notion that the "tone" of the Junos should be more supportive and patriotic. As he explained, "Losing our talent to the benefit of the United States or any other country doesn't do a damn thing for this country or anybody in it."
Open venues, where the public could hear, see and meet the award winners, who should, Connors believed, avail themselves to the people. "If Wayne Gretzky, Don Cherry and others of their ilk can do it for hockey and its respective fan base around the country," Connors wondered, " why can't the Juno Academy in tandem with radio, television or other people in the music industry create opportunities for all and publicize it to all?"
Recognition of unsung heroes, geared towards regional artists and local boosters.
The deal that Connors proposed was that he would accept invitation into the hall of fame, if CARAS would adopt just one of the above suggestions. It never happened, though, and, as a result, Connors never moved from his Juno grudge.
"They had their chance to bring him back," Tom Connors Jr. told the Globe and Mail recently, "but they decided to go their own way. They had their meeting, and we never heard back."
Connors Sr. died on March 6, at age 77. His son spoke eloquently at the public memorial service for his father at a hockey arena in Peterborough, Ont.
In April, with the feud not reconciled, the passing of the Canadian folk hero was only briefly mentioned during the Juno ceremony in Regina. If it was up to the family, and to some extent it was, the legend of Stompin' Tom wouldn't have been remarked upon at all during the broadcast. It was a delicate position CARAS was in, attempting to balance the wishes of the family with the expectations of the viewing audience. The unfancy inclusion of Connors in the broadcast's In Memoriam segment was Juno's solution.
Connors Jr. recognized the awkward position Juno was in, but believed it was their own fault. "My father gave them some great pro-Canadian ideas, but we never heard from them again," said the son, who handles the icon's affairs. "My father said that if he took the time to put it all together and they couldn't be bothered to institute anything like that, then he'd just stay away as he always had."
Cameron doesn't agree. "We went through them one by one that night, and the suggestions were discussed thoroughly at the subsequent board meetings," he says. "The unsung hero idea was one in particular that we chewed over pretty good."
In the end, it was decided that some of the suggestions were not relevant to CARAS's mandate, while some of the other ideas were redundant. "It was felt by the board that the Junos were already doing some of things Tom was proposing."
Though it wasn't mentioned in his list, Connors was a strong believer in songs not only written by Canadians, but songs about Canada – its places and its characters. Cameron is intrigued with the notion of recognizing such songs with a Juno category – "I will bring it up at the next board meeting" – but notes one Canadiana artist who succeeded without Juno or record-label pushing.
"Stan Rogers is our Woody Guthrie," says Cameron, likening the the Fogarty's Cove folkie who died young in 1983 to the This Land is Your Land American balladeer. "I lived to promote and to make things happen, but Canadians discovered Rogers on their own. And that's a sign of a nation growing."
Cameron sees a bright future for Canadian songwriters in the true-north tradition of Connors and Rogers. Moreover, he notes the indispensability of the ilk. "We need these artists, poets and believers," he stresses. "We're still building this nation."
A Stompin' Tom Tribute: July 7 at the Mariposa Folk Festival, Orillia, Ont. (July 5 to 7; mariposafolk.com); Stan Rogers Folk Festival, Canso, N.S., July 5 to 7, stanfest.com.