NORMAL — Put these seven swinging grandmas in one room and what happens?

Choose one:

a.) instant coffee klatch;

b.) impromptu knitting circle;

c.) spontaneous coupon clipping;

d.) rocking jam session

If you chose d.), and you think we mean fresh homemade jam-making session at the stove, in between respites on the rocking chair, you're wrong.

If you think we mean they're an American band, and they'll help us party it down ... move to the head of the class.

Meet The Grannies U.S.

They're the plugged-in senior septet that debuted in Bloomington-Normal last summer as Yankee counterparts to one of Finland's surprise musical success stories: the Finnish Grannies, who routinely headline in some of Scandinavia's top concert halls.

Giving the Scandinavians a run for their money are Joy Schuler and Sara Woodrum on electric guitar, Karol Enright and Becky Altic on bass, Feli Sebastian and Vicki Cox on keyboards, and Nancy Steele Brokaw keeping the back-beat going on drums.

All are Twin Citians, save for Enright, who lives near El Paso, and Woodrum, who hails from Rantoul. 

"It's been a trip learning a new style of playing," enthuses Cox, a 71-year-old grandma who retired from teaching and now pulls Elton John duty at the keyboard (and, hey, Elton's no spring chicken, either).

"I'm thrilled to be a part of this group," adds Altic, expecting her ninth grandchild in February but still in the workforce as an RN simulation coordinator in Illinois Wesleyan University's School of Nursing.

"I've always imagined singing/playing in a band ... my son is a professional musician who's played in bands that have done both U.S. and European tours. Since he plays bass, I thought I should, too!"

Mission accomplished.

Seventy-year-old Feli Sebastian, a retired clinical psychologist, lost both her mother and a brother within six months this year and felt that she could work through her grief with music.

Presto: another Granny ready to rock, dividing her time between keyboards and flute, ready to take up either when duty calls ("yes" to some flute in Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind," back to the keyboards for the Eagles' "Take It Easy"). 

"I discovered rock 'n' roll through the Grannies Band," notes Sebastian, who moved from the Philippines to the States 35 years ago. "It is different from what I was exposed to, but I'm beginning to like it."

Yeah, yeah, yeah?

Oh, yeah.

Enright, 60, joined up surreptitiously, without notifying her own kids and grand-kids of her rock star yearnings.

"Then something was posted on Facebook," and, whoops, her cover was blown sky-high, just like the school in Alice Cooper's "School's Out." "One of my daughters saw it, and it was 'Hey everybody, look at mom! She's in a rock band!'"

"I guess the secret is out, yes I AM in a rock band," Enright remembers saying, qualifying her blown cover with, "and I'm having the time of my life!"

Just ask Schuler, 65, who's traded in her apron strings for guitar strings, with no regrets whatsoever.

"It's so much fun being able to play the rock 'n' roll songs I grew up with."

Like the "soul stuff" she can shine on with The Grannies: "(We're Having a) Heat Wave,"  "House of the Rising Sun" and "Blowin' in the Wind."

For drummer Brokaw, perhaps best known for her prolific plays, theater reviews and opera librettos hereabouts, The Grannies has offered some long-in-coming avenging of a deprived musical education.

"When I joined the band in my grade school days long ago, I wanted to play percussion and was told that girls didn't do that ... and was given a flute instead," recalls the 66-year-old mother still patiently awaiting her first grandchild ("you can tell my grown kids that").

And now?

"We ROCK!"

They rock, by the way, through the efforts of an ISU music education professor, Kim McCord, who advertised for the band earlier this year in an issue of the local senior publication 50-Plus News & Views.

The goal: To offer a music outlet for a sector of the population often overlooked -- specifically, senior women.

They adopted a music-learning system used in Finland by a good friend named Markku Kaikkonen, who teaches music to adults with disabilities via a system called Figure Notes, which employs a system based on colors and shapes.

"As it turns out, American rock music is really a big deal over there, and a lot of the musicians with disabilities want to be rock musicians," says McCord.

The resulting learning system found its way to a support group of senior women between the ages of 65 to 84 who had lost their spouses.

Hence, the birth 10 years ago of The Finnish Grannies, who have grown from learning/support project to pop culture phenomenons who can pack the biggest concert halls in Helsinki (including a Dec. 14 concert that will join forces with The Grannies U.S; see accompanying story). 

McCord decided that it would be a great experience for her ISU music education students to work with a group of senior ladies using the Figure Note system and Thomas Metcalf School facilities.

The ad was placed last June; the rest is history.

Each of the seven women answered the ad on her own, not knowing any of their soon-to-be-band-mates and not certain what instrument she would be required to learn, her prior musical training, or lack thereof notwithstanding.

The strangers became fast friends, and are now bonded in a big way, meeting Sundays and Wednesdays for rehearsing and camaraderie.

"I think a lot of women grew up listening to the Beatles, and maybe always wanted to play rock on their instrument," McCord says. "But in the '60s they weren't encouraged to do that sort of thing."

The Grannies, in both its U.S. and Finnish editions, is the dream come true for those natural urges put on hold a long time ago, in a pop culture far, far away.

"I guess it would be truthful to say it's a pretty unlikely journey for all of us," notes Brokaw. "But now we play in a rock band. And now that we're a band, we are individually and collectively determined to be the best that we can be. So we work pretty hard it."

How do they sound?

"That's all in the ears of the beholder," she says. "But since we started from zero, I think it would be fair to say we've come a long way."

Follow Dan Craft on Twitter: @pg_dcraft


Load comments