By Andrew Ellis, Editor-in-Chief
Grant Thelen has played many shows with the Devon Worley Band. But there’s nothing like going back to your hometown. And on Saturday, March 23rd, Apollo, the band’s tour bus, will travel up to Albany, Minnesota where he was first hooked.
“I grew up in a very musical family,” says Thelen.
Both of his parents have been regulars in the church choir since he can remember. Additionally, his dad is a guitar player who played and sang in many different bands and even started a few of his own. His mom also played trumpet in the community band. Thelen had his mind set on the drums. At only six years old, he thought he had a logical way of getting his first set.
“My dad played guitar and we had a cousin that played bass,” he says. “And all extended family gatherings involved a jam session of some kind – and they needed a drummer!”
It worked. Sort of. His parents got him a set of electronic drums with four pads that sounded like real drums. But they were no match for his eagerness to play.
“I played it so much that it only lasted a few months before it was trashed,” he says.
Time for the Real Thing
Little did he knew he had proven his commitment. His parents realized it wasn’t just a phase. It was time for the real noise.
“I came home one summer day from a friend’s house to find a three-piece drum set awaiting me in my own room,” he says. “Needles to say I took to torturing my family daily with practice whenever I had a spare minute.”
Before long he was keeping beat with songs on country radio such as Brooks & Dunn and Garth Brooks. It wasn’t long until he started recognizing patterns in different songs.
“I was able to to connect the pieces and parts of drum beats from song to song like ‘oh, that part is just like this other part in another song,’” he says. “So the door opened quickly after that.”
He credits his country influences with his performance approach to drumming rather than just being “the drummer.” His favorites are from those family jam sessions that his dad would play such as Merle Haggard’s “Ramblin’ Fever” and Leroy Van Dyke’s “The Auctioneer.” As he got older he followed drummers such as Dave Grohl of Nirvana and the Foo Fighters and Jimmy Chamberlin of the Smashing Pumpkins.
Love of the Stage from an Early Age
He caught the performance bug early, too. His local elementary school held annual talent shows that showcased art of all kinds, and he signed up.
“I remember singing ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ with my dad accompanying me on guitar as my first ‘public’ performance when I was in kindergarten,” he says.
He’s been involved in the arts since he can remember. He picked up the guitar in 4th grade and joined the youth choir at church, chose the trumpet for school band in 5th grade, and played drums and guitar in the school Jazz Band.
He was also a part of many Prairie Fire Children’s Theater productions throughout elementary and middle school. He got involved in the Albany Area High School’s theater program for six years starting in middle school where he took part in the spring musicals, several one act play competitions, and fall plays. He capped it all off with a part he’ll never forget.
“My senior year was capped off by playing the role of Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof,” he says. “There were many opportunities to to get involved with music and the arts through school in the community, and I took full advantage of any opportunity to perform!”
He even had his own band from 7th grade through his senior year of high school where they played covers and originals. They were part of handful of student bands that played the different school dances and spring fling each year.
When he moved to the Twin Cities to the attend the University of Minnesota as a communications major he also joined the marching band and pep band with his trumpet. The drums took a temporary back seat while he was in the dorms. But he had plenty of memorable experiences in the marching band, like when they played the Vikings game the Sunday after the terrorist attacks on September 11th, 2001.
“We had a giant American flag as part of the show. When it got unfurled on the field the crowd cheered so loud that it just went to white noise,” he says. “I’ve never heard an audience at any show make that much noise. It made me proud to be part of that day.”
Aside from a few percussion ensembles the trumpet was his main instrument through college. But once he moved to a house off campus his drum kit came with him, and he played when he could.
Discovering the Local Country Scene
After graduation came and went he still had the need to get on stage in front of an audience. So into the Minneapolis music scene he went.
“After college I wasn’t really aware of the scene so I started by going to shows and meeting players,” he says. “Then I just kind of continued to do that for years.”
His first gig came with his cousin Melissa Moser who had put a band together and was performing around the metro. Then he spent four years with Shane Wyatt where he got a taste of We-Fest, and started taking in how the national artists put their shows on.
“Keith Urban headlined and we watched his how from the side of the stage,” he says. “It was just a really cool experience!”
Some time after that he joined Hillbilly Mafia, formed by two former Shane Wyatt band members, for two years and Dirt Road Prophets for another five years, which was started by former Mafia members. At that point he wasn’t sure what his next project was. Then came the opportunity of a lifetime.
The Devon Worley Band
“A mutual friend hinted to Devon (Worley) and her mom Jamey Worley (also the band’s manager) that I might be looking for my next opportunity,” he says. “And the rest is history.”
Thelen had actually seen the Devon Worley Band perform at the since-closed Toby Keith’s Bar & Grill, and was impressed by lead singer Devon’s vocals. Later on she and Thelen were judges at the same place for a Karaoke contest, and struck up a bond immediately.
“I think it was because we are kindred spirits of sorts,” he says. “We both have a passion for performing and have been doing it from an early age.”
When someone tries out for a band, it’s not just about knowing the songs and playing the instrument. They’ve got to fit with the vibe of the rest of the members. There’s an energy bands put out as one, and he fit right in.
“It really is indescribable but when it’s there you can feel it,” he says. “Everything grooves and fits together without effort, and that’s what it was like from the first time I played with them.”
The Meaning of a Band
He also found out why it’s the Devon Worley Band and not Devon Worley the solo act. He started getting more shows under his belt and got more involved with creating their original music, and it does take the combined efforts of the band.
“It really truly is a band effort,” he says. “And each member does have the opportunity to shine while contributing to the overall sound and stage show of the band.”
He’s had a lot of memories with the band that will last a lifetime, but one holds a special place in his heart – recording their latest record The Sunrise Resistance. It even gave him a close connection to Dave Grohl.
“We took up residence for a week at Pachyderm Studios in Cannon Falls, MN which is where Nirvana recorded In Utero,” he says. “That place has a vibe and definitely has history that you can feel when you are in the studio as well as the ‘band house.’ I’m extremely proud of that record and it means a lot to me.”
They were all able to shine there as well. They weren’t just musicians recording music to Pro Tools. They making an album that was released in the summer of 2017 yet still resonated so much with fans it earn them a nomination for Album of the Year at the inaugural Midwest CMA Awards. Devon’s name is in the band name, but they are band with a sound unique to them.
“I think that is what makes us stand out,” he says. “We have a sound that is all our own and that coupled with Devon’s powerhouse vocals makes our original music and our spin on cover songs sound like the Devon Worley Band.”
For the band, hometown shows like the one in Albany at the Blattner Energy Arts Theatre (BEAT) are always special. It allows them to go back to each band member’s roots. And with Thelen it’s no different for. He also hopes it gives those involved in the arts encouragement for their life after high school.
“I look at them as a chance to show people my passion and that there are ways to to continue with performing arts after high school,” he says.
Photo Credit: Jenny Phillips, Creative JAM, Inc.