- True believers: The country rockers’ “Standard American” has become an online anthem.
For one thing, the gregarious frontman of Gunnar & The Grizzly Boys — whose ultra-patriotic country-rock anthem “Standard American” has earned more than a million YouTube hits and Spotify plays — grew up in a small-town setting straight out of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town.
Michigan’s Kent City, despite its name, is technically a village. Local businesses bear names like Fruit Ridge Hayrides, Apple Grove Estates, Apple Power Sports, and the Nyblad Orchard, which has been in Gunnar’s family for four generations. At this point, Kent City is just about as far as you can get from the standard America of factory farms and suburban sprawl “Growing up on a fruit farm is special,” says the 29-year-old musician, who currently lives in Nashville. “We had just one four-way stop sign, but my school did have a really good auditorium and a really good music program. I graduated with 95 kids in my class; I was the class president and Robby [Mason], our bass player, was the homecoming king.”
The two future Grizzly Boys had played music together since the age of 12, and, like many restless rural kids, weren’t very interested in country music. “We were in a punk band with more of a Southern California flavor to it,” says Gunnar of the group, which competed in battle of the band contests from freshman to senior year. After graduating, Gunnar signed up for a nearly year-long tour organized by a Lutheran youth music program.
“We had seven national bands and five international bands, and we went around spreading the good word of the Lord,” says the singer, who sees a lot of parallels between Christian and country music festivals. “There’s a striking similarity between watching Switchfoot in a field in Ohio and Jake Owen in a field in Wisconsin. They’re both family-oriented, although one has a lot more beer.”
After the tour, Gunnar went off to study agricultural science at Michigan State College, where he became friends with lead guitarist Shane Grehan, guitarist/keyboardist Chris Newberg, and drummer Joe Connolly. Along with Mason, they holed up in a friend’s basement to work on their 2010 debut album, Homegrown. “We recorded it with $1,700 from the only battle of the bands that we’ve actually won,” says Gunnar.
By this point, Gunnar’s SoCal punk influences were fading fast. “Being away from home,” he says, “and realizing that I came from a town with 750 people, I just started writing more songs about that town and the people in it.”
While Gunnar’s lyrics sometimes verge on sensitivity, in a Brad Paisley kind of way, his band’s live shows are celebrations of good-natured humor, energetic showmanship, and keen rock arrangements that are just ragged enough to get the job done.
Lately, Gunnar & The Grizzly Boys have begun sharing stages with national acts like Kid Rock, who recently declared his intention to run for Senate. Asked if he’ll go door-to-door canvassing for his fellow Michigan native, Gunnar reluctantly demurs: “I don’t think that I would like totally campaign for him, you know, unless he paid us or something. It takes a lot of money in politics, I understand.”
“It’s just kind of a sweet song about four badass dudes, and it makes people feel good.” click to tweet
Instead, the group will be bringing its own message of redneck hope to the masses with songs like the previously mentioned “Standard American,” which earned serious rotation on Sirius XM. Narrated in a deep bass register reminiscent of Jimmy Dean’s “Big John” — or just about every trucker song ever recorded — Gunnar’s ode to the working man isn’t exactly subtle in its red, white and blue-collar sentiments:
“You can call me a redneck, call me a hick
Say I’m a drunk, messed up just a bit
But the flag I fly has got the stars and stripes
Test my freedom, I’ll be down for a fight.”
The accompanying video, meanwhile, is filled with pissed-off working-class heroes, women dressed in Daisy Duke cutoffs and bikini tops, and the band performing on a barnyard porch surrounded by American-made cars in varying states of disrepair.
“It’s just kind of a sweet song about four badass dudes, and it makes people feel good,” says Gunnar. And yes, the songwriter is aware that women can be just as badass.
“YouTube is always good for that, because you get the proper critiques, all you need,” he says wryly. “But we made up for it in the music video — we have plenty of women in the music video. That might be another problem. I guess we could throw in another verse though.”
While it would be easy enough to dismiss Gunnar & The Grizzly Boys as country-rock transplants pandering to Trump-country sentiments, there’s more to them than that, both musically and lyrically. Gunnar is a talented songwriter, whether collaborating with the rest of the band on “Standard American” or writing songs for last year’s Good Rhythm album with Big Kenny from Big & Rich.
“He’s the taller, deeper-voiced one in the band,” says Gunnar helpfully. “We wrote the song ‘Heart of Dynamite’ the first day, and the second day we wrote a song called ‘A Little’s Enough.’ We spent nine hours each day, hanging out at his house, toiling over every word and every line. But it’s fun work. I mean, I got to hang out with an idol of mine, someone whose records got me into country music. I got to play his drum set, and play his guitars, and we got two songs out of it!”
Still, the Grizzly Boys have yet to reach the point where they can give up their day-jobs. “Since I live in Nashville, I’m not farming as much as I have,” says Gunnar, “although I do have 14½ bushels of peaches, which were just picked off the farm that I lived on up in Michigan, that I’m bringing down to sell.”
And while all five members will be able to get away for this tour, the woman who dances onstage in her red, white and blue bikini in the video will be conspicuously absent. “I think she’s with an MMA fighter now,” says Gunnar, “so she’s got her own circuit.”
Even so, Gunnar is quick to promise value for money. “Man, the tickets are only five bucks,” he says, “which is extremely cheap for a good band.”