by Christopher Guly
OTTAWA, March 7 (Xinhua) -- Rarely in public without his black cowboy hat, lanky, craggy-voiced Stompin' Tom Connors could have easily achieved fame in Nashville at the Grand Ole Opry country- music mecca in the United States. But the legendary Canadian troubadour, who died at home of natural causes Wednesday afternoon, chose to remain in the homeland he celebrated in song throughout his half-century career.
Tributes continued Thursday to the man whose greatest legacy was the nationalistic pride he instilled in Canadians.
"We have lost a true Canadian original," Prime Minister Stephen Harper said on Twitter. Connors "played the best game that could be played."
The singer's best-known song was associated with Canada's most popular game. Connors's "The Hockey Song" became an anthem played at National Hockey League games as it was Wednesday night during a Toronto-Ottawa match-up when word got out that its folk-singing author had died at the age of 77.
Born Charles Thomas Connors in the eastern Canadian province of New Brunswick on Feb. 9, 1936, he had a rough childhood marked by a hand-to-mouth existence with his teenage, single mother who eventually relinquished him to the care of Children's Aid when he was eight years old.
Adopted a year later by a family in the neighboring province of Prince Edward Island, Connors left home at the age of 15 and began hitchhiking with his guitar across Canada for the next 13 years.
As the legend goes, his musical career was launched at the age of 28 when he found himself a nickel short of a beer at an Ontario hotel and the bartender agreed to give him the drink if he would play a few songs.
Connors would, by his count, go on to write at least 260 songs and record an astounding 61 albums, 10 of which have yet to be released. For his fans, the strength of his impressive discography that earned little radio airplay lay within his unique storytelling that lyrically introduced generations of Canadians to key episodes in their history and life in small towns across the country.
Canada is "the most underwritten country in the world as far as songs are concerned," Connors told The Canadian Press news service in 2008. "The people in this country are starving for songs about their homeland."
Given the nickname "Stompin" because he would keep rhythm by tapping the heel of his left boot, Connors was also fiercely patriotic.
In 1978, he returned six Juno Awards (Canada's equivalent of the Grammys) to protest what he viewed as the Americanization of the Canadian music industry after the prizes were handed out to " turncoat" Canadian artists who sought and obtained fame in the United States.
Connors preferred to live and perform in Canada, and a 2004 appearance on the American television program, "Late Night with Conan O'Brien," was a rarity. The show, taped in Toronto, featured Connors leading the audience in a rendition of "The Hockey Song."
He last performed in public in 2011.
In a statement, Canadian Heritage Minister James Moore said Connors would be "remembered for his constant support of Canadian talent and concern for the preservation of our cultural heritage."
The National Arts Center in Ottawa, where Connors was honored in 2000 after receiving the prestigious Governor General's Performing Arts Award for lifetime artistic achievement, lowered its flag to half-mast in tribute to the man who "loved Canada" and who "wrote about the beauty he saw in the Canadian people and the landscape."
Although Connors declined his inclusion in the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame, he was awarded the country's highest honor - the Order of Canada - in 1996, and had his likeness appear on a Canadian stamp in 2009.
A hard drinking and four packs-a-day smoker, Connors's health declined in recent weeks, according to a report by the Toronto Star daily newspaper.
However, he left behind a message posted on his website, stompintom.com, which acknowledged that without his "past, present, or future" fans, "there would have not been any Stompin' Tom."
Despite "a long hard bumpy road," Canada's "beauty, character, and spirit" inspired him and drove him "to keep marching on and devoted to sing about its people and places" that make it "the greatest country in the world."
"I must now pass the torch, to all of you, to help keep the Maple Leaf (Canada's flag) flying high, and be the Patriot Canada needs now and in the future."
Connors is survived by his wife, Lena, two sons, two daughters and several grandchildren.
A public celebration of his life is planned for March 13 in Peterborough, Ontario, near where Connors died surrounded by family and friends.
Instead of flowers, his family has asked that donations in his memory be made to local food banks or homeless shelters.