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Playin’ the music that comes naturally

Having toured with Stompin’ Tom, Al Widmeyer knows a thing or two about pleasing an audience

“I drove a guy who was playing music with him to a motel, and he was sitting there,” says Al Widmeyer of a fateful 2005 meeting. “We got talking, and he knew people I knew. I recorded on his label back in the late ‘70s.”

Stompin’ Tom Connors knew Widmeyer’s work – a Canadian bluegrass veteran, he was a member of the legendary Dixie Flyers and has opened for George Jones, Conway Twitty, and some guy named Johnny Cash. “He knew I played the dobro, and people don’t play the dobro. So he asked me, ‘Did you ever think about going back on the road?’ I said, ‘Give me a call.’”

Al Widmeyer made his name as a member of the Dixie Flyers, Canada’s longest-running bluegrass band. He’s performing at the WMC February 9, what would have been Stompin’ Tom’s 78th birthday.[Will Sloan / The Observer]
Al Widmeyer made his name as a member of the Dixie Flyers, Canada’s longest-running bluegrass band. He’s performing at the WMC February 9, what would have been Stompin’ Tom’s 78th birthday. [Will Sloan / The Observer]
From 2006 to the last tour in 2011, Widmeyer travelled the country with Canada’s most beloved country singer, and in 2013, he was a pallbearer at the legend’s funeral. When Widmeyer performs with Lynn Russwurm and Bob Tremblay on February 9 as part of the Two Plus Who, he’ll be commemorating what would have been Stompin’ Tom’s 78th birthday. Today, a Christmas card from the Connor family hangs proudly in Widmeyer’s Kitchener home.

“You’re not only going out as a player – you’re also going out as a fan. It was also a show to me, and to see the reaction from the fans is incredible,” he said of performing with Stompin’ Tom.

In a situation like that, did he ever feel the pressure of having to live up to expectations?

“No, because he made everybody feel comfortable. He just wanted to make you feel like, ‘We’re going to go out there and have a good time, and we’re going to show these folks we’re having a good time.’ And usually that’s what happened. He gave me a lot of freedom.”

Stompin’ Tom (who on earth called him simply “Connors”?) was the kind of performer who united a crowd: Even if you didn’t like country music, you almost certainly liked the guy who sang “The Good Old Hockey Game.” On stage and in interviews, he gave the impression that what you saw was what you got.

“He was down to earth,” Widmeyer remembers. “When we were on the road, we never stayed in fancy-schmancy hotels. We stayed in the workin’ man’s motels, and we ate at normal people’s places. In the truck we had a barbecue, so if we had a day or two off, we’d play croquet and drink beer and have a barbecue.”

And we all remember the national mourning period that followed his death in March 2013, with memorial services that attracted the likes of Adrienne Clarkson and Ken Dryden. “Of course, they wheeled the coffin in, because he wouldn’t want to miss the party,” laughs Widmeyer. Today, “We remain very close to the family.”

For Widmeyer, the Two Plus Who keeps the torch burning for traditional country and bluegrass, in a time when it has become less prominent in the mainstream.

“The new radio stations have seemed to forget the old guys. They’ve forgotten the Johnny Cashes and Stompin’ Toms and Merle Haggards and all those guys, because it’s old. They want the young people, I guess to sell CDs or merchandise. … But there’s still them people out there who listen to them records.

“There’s still that cult following – and it’s growing. It seems there was a pile of festivals in the ‘70s and ‘80s, then there was less and less and less. But all of a sudden in the last 15 years… there’s more festivals.”

With a fragmented media landscape, and with classic country and bluegrass accessible online, Widmeyer has enjoyed a flurry of recent activity. Like his famous collaborator, he still feels the music in his blood.

“It was seeing my father and my grandfather sitting around, playing music in the kitchen. And when we moved to the city, my dad met friends who would sit around and play, and… I had to do it too.”

Widmeyer will perform with the Two Plus Who on February 9 at the Woolwich Memorial Centre. The show begins at 2 p.m., and tickets are $5 at the door.

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