Mark Farner has always had a special spot in his heart for veterans, evident by the space he dedicates to them on his website and the songs he sings in tribute.
It began with his parents. His father was a tank driver in the Seventh Armored Division in World War II, returning home with four bronze stars.
"He was in four major battles. A very lucky guy because most tank drivers didn't get to see a second battle," he said. "And my mother was the first woman in the United States to weld on Sherman tanks, and that was the tanks my dad drove … That's in my history."
And when the founding member of Grand Funk Railroad went to Europe with the band in 1971, they performed for 10,000 troops in Schweinfurt, Germany. Semi-trucks served as the stage, and tanks provided the spotlights.
"That was really funny to run across stage and have these tanks following me," Farner said by phone from his home in Michigan. "We started (performing for troops) early on, and I just kept it up because they need to know that people here are thinking about them and there's prayers going out for them. And every time I sing 'Closer to Home' I ask the audience to sing it with me and we'll send it to the troops wherever they are in the world, because there's no distance in the spirit, and they get it. We do it, and it's a wonderful thing and a fun time."
Farner will perform "I'm Your Captain (Closer to Home)" along with other Grand Funk Railroad hits — songs such as "Some Kind of Wonderful" and "We're an American Band" — during a free concert July 4 at Festival Park in Elgin. Also performing are Felix Cavaliere's Rascals, Rare Earth and Cool Rockin' Daddies. A fireworks show will be held after the concert, which is part of the Grand Victoria Casino's Summer Concert Series. The music begins at 5:30 p.m., with doors opening at 3:30 p.m.
The patriotic Farner — who makes sure to sell only T-shirts and items made in America — said he is happy to be performing on our nation's birthday.
"The celebration is for our independence and there's a lot of things that come together for people's independence. So for us to get together and have some fun on a day that we can put everything else aside and just say 'Let's Rock,' it's a wonderful time," he said. "For me it's a reward because I'm a musician. We live for the stage, that's our country up there. When we take the stage, that's our boundaries. And the only fix for that is going back and getting some more. So on July 4 I'm going to get my fix again."
Now touring with his band, N'rG, Farner continues to work on new material. Four songs are completed — one of which is slated for a movie — and he is writing more, he said.
His most recent single, 2014's "Take You Out," is meant encourage men to get out on the dance floor.
"It's overwhelmingly so, that women would love to see more men on the dance floor," Farner said. "And they don't even have to know how to dance. If they just stood there and snapped their fingers, that would be fine. It really would. They'd get into it. They'd start moving … It just comes by doing it, you can't be afraid to get out there and dance. The guys that are dancers — they're the popular guys out there."
Music, he said, came naturally to him. Farner only had three guitar lessons, and he took to the keyboard easily as well.
"Part of that is genes," he said. "Mom was a great singer."
On Sundays when her side of the family got together, the men would play banjo and guitar, and the women would sing.
"It was in me. I always loved music," Farner said. "And when I started busting out and kind of blowing the cobwebs off these vocal chords, they just kind of developed on their own because of what I'm made of, what I had to listen to and what the good Lord put in me for talent.
"I can't read music, I just play it all by feel," he said. "And it feels pretty good to me."
It was the 1969 Atlanta International Pop Festival that gave Grand Funk Railroad its big break. The only unsigned band on the bill, the band opened the show, performing for free.
"People liked it because we did original music, and we closed the show with a Wilson Pickett tune 'Land of 1,000 Dances' and I did a little dancing out in front of the band, and the place came apart. It was great," Farner said. "One-hundred and eighty thousand people got up and were rocking. It was great, it was really far out."
The band was invited back the next year, "and we were way up on the roster then."
In between playing with Grand Funk Railroad throughout the next couple of decades, Farner recorded solo albums, including contemporary Christian music. Faith, he said, has always been an important part of Farner's life.
Prayer is deeply meaningful to him, and he is grateful for those who have offered their own prayers for his son 26-year-old son, Jesse, who was paralyzed in an accident.
"He broke his neck six years ago, and people come up to me at concerts and tell me we've been praying for Jesse. It's the sweetest thing to have somebody pray for your son," Farner said. "They don't even know him, but out of their love they offer prayers to God. He's still a quadriplegic and still on life support, but he's still wearing that smile. And I don't know how he does it. But he gets going every day.
"I want to thank those friends that have been praying for Jesse," he said. "It really means a lot to his mother and me."
Kathy Cichon is a freelance writer.
Mark Farner with the Rascals, Rare Earth and Cool Rockin' Daddies
Fireworks following the concert
When: July 4
Where: Festival Park, located adjacent to Grand Victoria Casino, 250 S. Grove Ave., Elgin
Tickets: Free admission
Information: 847-468-7000 or grandvictoriacasino.com/events/gvc-summer-concert-series/