A group of men who began performing musically together while attending college in Ladysmith and later in life regrouped around a love of singing barbershop quartet harmonies is preparing for what may be the walk-off home run of their careers.
Free Beer Quartet features Pat Lynch, Mike Bonn, Brad Martin and Scott Grunseth. They are scheduled to perform the National Anthem at Miller Park at 1 p.m., Wednesday, Aug. 28, prior to a Milwaukee Brewers home baseball game. Free Beer Quartet already has performed the National Anthem at Miller Park four previous times, and this will be their fifth and likely final public performance together.
“Unfortunately this will be our last performance as I have been diagnosed with ALS,” said Bonn, who added he was informed by doctors last August he had the disease.
“The prognosis would be two to three years,” said Bonn, the group’s baritone who is originally from the Lake Holcombe area.
The disease does not run in Bonn’s family.
Lynch, Free Beer Quartet’s bass who lives in Ladysmith, called the group’s last performance an “honor” that is “bittersweet.”
“It is always an honor to be on that field and on that ball diamond,” Lynch said. “And from the personal side it is bittersweet it is coming to an end.”
Lynch wants to remain focused on singing and doing the best he can during the performance. He admits it can be disconcerting while performing with the group being shown on the Jumbotron and the short delay in what gets played over the stadium sound system.
“Mike’s health is deteriorating, and we figure this is probably the last chance we will have to sing there,” Lynch said.
Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis is a progressive neuro-degenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord. Motor neurons reach from the brain to the spinal cord and from the spinal cord to the muscles throughout the body. The progressive degeneration of the motor neurons in ALS eventually leads to their demise. When the motor neurons die, the ability of the brain to initiate and control muscle movement is lost. With voluntary muscle action progressively affected, people may lose the ability to speak, eat, move and breathe. The motor nerves that are affected by ALS are the motor neurons that provide voluntary movements and muscle control.
The disease is described as very rare with fewer than 20,000 cases in the U.S. per year. Treatment can help, but this condition can’t be cured. It requires a medical diagnosis and lab tests or imaging are always required. It is chronic and can last for years or be lifelong. In this disease, nerve cells break down, which reduces functionality in the muscles they supply. The cause is unknown. The main symptom is muscle weakness. Medication and therapy can slow ALS and reduce discomfort, but there’s no cure.
ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease, is named after Henry Louis Gehrig (1903-41). Gehrig was an American professional baseball first baseman who played 17 seasons in Major League Baseball for the New York Yankees from 1923-39.
While playing, Gehrig began noticing a tiredness and physical decline. He was diagnosed with ALS, leading to his retirement from the game and him delivering what has been called “baseball’s Gettysburg Address” to a sold-out crowd at Yankee Stadium on July 4, 1939, when he described himself to fans as “the luckiest man on the face of the earth” for having “been in ballparks for 17 years and have never received anything but kindness and encouragement from you fans.”
Sixty years after his farewell to baseball, Gehrig received the most votes of any baseball player on the Major League Baseball All-Century Team, chosen by fan balloting in 1999. In 1999 editors at Sporting News ranked Lou Gehrig sixth on their list of “Baseball’s 100 Greatest Players.”
Gehrig’s story was featured in the 1942 film The Pride of the Yankees, starring Gary Cooper as Gehrig.
Bonn, who now lives in Plum City, began showing symptoms of ALS starting in 2015, beginning with lower back pain that led to surgery in February 2018.
“The neuropathy and numbness was spreading not only to my feet but to my hands and my arms,” Bonn said.
Bonn was forced to quit his music teaching job in Plum City, where he was an instructor for 27 years as a vocal, general music and instrumental instructor. At one time for seven years, he was the only music teacher in the school district.
Bonn, who is from the Lake Holcombe area, started his education toward becoming a music teacher at Mount Senario College in Ladysmith in 1981. He received two bachelor’s degrees in music from the college, and later an instrumental certification for music from Northland College in Ashland. He then received a master’s degree in music in 2000 from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls.
Along with the Free Beer Quartet, Bonn has been in many musical performance bands over the years. It all started when he began playing in a polka band when he was in seventh grade as a 12-year-old boy earning $50 a night.
The polka playing continued through high school, providing money to buy a motorcycle, deer hunting rifle and other items other high schoolers who didn’t play in a band Friday and Saturday nights could only dream about having the money to buy.
In college, Bonn joined other bands like Back Stage and Free Beer Quartet. After graduating he joined The Johnny Lynn Show, meeting big-time country music legends like Loretta Lynn, Bobby Bare and Conway Twitty and even opening for singer Tom T. Hall.
While performing in places like Nashville, Tenn., and touring the country, Bonn’s music interests remained rooted in Rock ‘n’ Roll. He returned to Eau Claire and joined a great 4-piece wedding band called Hit and Run.
In 1991, he began teaching in Plum City. In 1993, he and Kris were married on their pontoon on Lake Holcombe. In 1996, the couple learned they were expecting their first child.
After college, Free Beer Quartet members all went their own directions. They regrouped about 25 years later following a chance phone call in 2009 from a producer of the popular television talent show competition, America’s Got Talent. They scrambled to find all the members, eventually reuniting and rehearsing for a few hours the night before the auditions in Chicago, where they were among 5,000 other acts.
“They sent 40 auditions on to Los Angeles to shoot the show and we were one of the 40 auditions. It was very impressive,” Bonn said.
They got a yes vote from one judge, a no vote from another and an almost from a third judge.
“We had so much fun, we realized why we were together in college. We decided to stay together and keep singing,” Bonn said.
With members in Florida and Wisconsin, the group began touring in those states. It played shows and fairs, but their favorite gigs were nursing homes, care centers and assisted living facilities.
“Putting smiles on their faces were worth all the money in the world, playing the old-time songs,” Bonn said.
The group also recorded a CD despite getting together only a handful of times each year.
In 2010, the Milwaukee Brewers called asking Bonn if Free Beer Quartet was available for a home game National Anthem performance. The team liked the group so much, officials kept calling.
“They called me. That was the first time, and the second time, and the third time and the fourth time. They called Mike Bonn all of those times,” Bonn said. “This time I am not in control because I am unable to be in control.”
Other singers in the quartet are doing all they can to support Bonn including recording jingles for local radio.
Brad Martin, 56, the group’s second tenor singing melody who now lives in Clermont, Fla., called this “a bittersweet time for the quartet and for Mike.”
“This is one thing we knew would help Mike out quite a bit, so fortunately for us over the years the Brewers have been really good to us. We just made a phone call, and the Brewers were very, very gracious to let us come and do it,”
“I know that this in front of Mike gives him something to look forward to. All these little things are victories, and you need them,” Martin said.
The performance will be sad as it will be the last for the group, according to Martin. “And I don’t foresee us being able to do anything else,” he said.
He won’t rule out little sit-down events, but admits that is difficult living in Florida.
“Every day means something with this disease,” Martin said. “His choice is to just be as happy as he can and just try and do everything you can with a positive attitude.”
Scott Grunseth, the group’s high tenor who lives near Hawkins, called it an amazing honor to go out with the final performance at Miller Park. He added Bonn is a consumate professional who will be fully prepared and ready to go when the music starts.
“It is such an honor to end this way, and do this for Mike. It will be his final hurrah, and he is going to rise to the occasion. Anything he has lost, he will rise to the occasion,” Grunseth.
“We have had so many opportunities other people never get. To end it this way is like a movie,” Grunseth said. “It is just like it was scripted. We are going to ride this right to the end, and what a ride. For Mike, I can’t think of a better way to show what he is all about with the strength he has and the four of us have been friends to each other. It has been amazing.”
“We get one more performance, and this one is all about Mike,” Grunseth said. “What a deal. It is going to be awesome.”
Bonn wants to be treated no different than any of the guys.
ALS may have robbed Bonn of his strength, but not his will to share music with tens of thousands of people.
“I think it is a great opportunity to share a love of music with everyone, and the more the merrier. I consider it an honor to be able to sing in front of 40,000 people and have them appreciate one of the great classics, which is the National Anthem, and done right.”
Free Beer Quartet will perform the song the way it was originally intended, according to Bonn. He hopes group members don’t stumble on any of the words, but he is sure the harmonies will ring true and pure in the stadium without any excessive embellishment that detract from the song.
Bonn thanked the Brewers for asking. He thanked families who are planning to travel to see the game. He thanked friends who continue their support.
“It means a lot, too, that fans and family of the quartet are willing to drop everything in the middle of the week to come to Milwaukee and listen to us perform the National Anthem one more time,” Bonn said. “This will be the last time I will be able to do it because I am fading faster than I would like.”
The group wants to spread awareness about ALS.
“They don’t know anything about this disease. They don’t know what causes it. There is no cure for it. It is 100 percent fatal,” Bonn said.
Not by choice, Bonn has become a local spokesman for the disease. He has been interviewed in the media. His community has sold T-shirts.
Bonn’s motto for life is “Go through life with a smile on your face and a song in your heart.”
He remembers lyrics in a song he used to sing at weddings, Our Song, by Elton John. He uses the phrase, “My gift is my song, and this one is for you.”
That song lyric was printed on the back of the t-shirts sold in Plum City.
“The more people who are aware, the swifter we can find some relief for the patients of ALS, either helping them through their illness or finding a cure would be great,” Bonn said.
Bonn admits he will really have to concentrate to sing the National Anthem next week as he always has in the past. The disease is robbing him of his control over his limbs and lungs.
“The nerves attack your muscles, and without your muscles my lungs won’t contract the way they used to,” Bonn said.
“I will be very sad it will be my last performance in front of all those people,” Bonn said.
The disease may be stealing Bonn’s muscular control, but it is not robbing him of his humor.
“This is Free Beer’s last call,” Bonn said.
The group is having special t-shirts printed. They will be red and white with “ALS we need a cure” on the front, Free Beer Quartet on the sleeve and the performance dates on the back. Red and white are the colors of Free Beer Quartet, and they have been around a long time. Tickets for fans of the group are in one section.
The good old days
Bonn still reminisces about the good old days at Mount Senario, performing as a member of Free Beer Quartet. He’ll never forget reuniting with the guys for shows over the last decade.
The group has performed at Mardi Gras. It has appeared at Ingram Days. It has sung in the Ladysmith High School auditorium.
“Free Beer Quartet started in Ladysmith, and that is a near and dear place to our hearts,” Bonn said. “Ladysmith is where it all began.”
“Things could be worse. They couldn’t be very much worse, but the fact I get a chance to see how much impact musically my life has made on so many people,” Bonn said.
Plum City is a small town that graduates about 20 students per year. A benefit for Bonn drew a crowd of about 1,000 people.
“I am able to see how much my life has meant as a friend, as a father, as a husband, as a teacher and as a musician,” Bonn said.
Lynch called Bonn his best friend through high school, adding Bonn also was his best friend at his wedding. The final show will be unforgettable.
“This means everything to me. It means the world to me,” Lynch said.
The group wants this performance to be about Bonn.
At a recent benefit for Bonn, Martin broke down half-way through the first song,seeing Bonn in the wheelchair.
“It is a hard thing,” Martin said.
“As long as it is all about Mike, that is what is important,” Martin said. “This is going to be a pretty touching time. I just hope we can get through the song.”
The final performance of the National Anthem came at the perfect time for Bonn, according to other members of the group.
“It’s his legacy. It’s in his honor,” Martin said.