Grand Funk Railroad's Don Brewer: 'I Thought I'd Be Dead by 40'
Don Brewer in 1971
Grand Funk Railroad plays Billy Bob's in Fort Worth on Saturday, Aug. 5.
“We’re an American Band,” the 1973 No. 1 hit single by Grand Funk Railroad, has aged into a staple of classic rock radio. Although far more complex in reality, it's common to romanticize the musician's life on the road. He rolls through American towns — Omaha and Little Rock have special meaning to Grand Funk — meets zealous groupies and basically “parties down.”
Don Brewer, Grand Funk’s drummer and singer and the author of "We're an American Band," had no inkling that it would become a timeless track when he recorded it.
“When you’re 19 or 20 years old, like I was at the time, you aren’t looking to write something that you’ll still be singing when you’re 65 or 70," Brewer says. “When I was that age, I thought I’d be dead by the time I was 40. Now, when I’m performing, I’ll look out and see grandparents, their kids and even their grandkids singing along to that song.”
Not only has Brewer long surpassed his 40th birthday, but the band itself is celebrating its 48th year of existence. Grand Funk is still touring, blasting “American Band” and other hits to an appreciative fan base that has been turning out in droves.
Along with bandmates Mel Schacher, Max Carl, Bruce Kulick and Tim Cashion, Brewer keeps the bus moving around North America. But while their itinerary tallies up a lot of dates, these guys have been in the business long enough to know when enough is enough.
“I never know what’s going to happen from year to year. I always hope our touring will continue," Brewer says. “We’re very fortunate to still be doing this and try to keep things fresh. I see those groups that tour all week on a bus, and man, they’re beat. We’ll come in and play on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays and then head home to recharge. We’re more like weekend warriors.”
Brewer also serves as the de facto band manager and DIY scheduler, a position that affords him the luxury of dictating terms. “We’re self-managed," he says. "So there’s really no one hanging over us telling us when and where to play.”
While some artists bristle at playing hits and try their best to deflect the attention certain songs have provided, Brewer takes the opposite approach.
“When people come to Grand Funk shows, there is an expectation,” he acknowledges. “They want to hear 'The Loco-Motion,' 'Some Kind of Wonderful,' 'American Band,' 'Rock & Roll Soul,' and on and on. We’re gonna play those songs. Sometimes we’ll put in a newer song that Max or I wrote depending on the time limit or show setting, but we’ll definitely be crowd pleasers."
Of course, it helps when the band can put some fire and emotion into the performances. In this regard, Brewer’s history with his current lineup ensures that the catalog of material stays sharp. When you hear Grand Funk live, you know you’re listening to the real deal and not a slapped-together imitation.
“We don’t get together to rehearse too much anymore unless we’re off for three months without any shows,” Brewer says. “There’s just a natural flow to all of us playing together, and that’s the result of us being together for 17-odd years.”
As comfortable as Brewer is with his band, he's equally at ease in front of his audience. However, he admits that some venues are easier to play than others, and he has a habit of engaging in a three- or four-song “feeling-out process” with each crowd.
“I’m not trying to age our band, but some of our audience can skew a little old," he chuckles. “Sometimes these audiences need some coaxing, as in like, ‘Come on, let’s crank up the pacemaker!’ This isn’t a Joni Mitchell show; it’s a rock and roll show, remember!”
Brewer’s songs have carved an indelible notch in the fabric of American lives. They've taken on a life of their own, regularly popping up in mainstream films and television shows, commercials and video games — not to mention serving as a reliable soundtrack for festive occasions.
“'Some Kind of Wonderful' is probably the biggest wedding reception song in the world," Brewer says. "All those years ago, I never would have guessed that."
Grand Funk Railroad, 10:30 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 5, Billy Bob’s Texas, 2520 Rodeo Plaza, Fort Worth, $16 to $26, billybobstexas.com.
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