By Ryan Gueningsman
DELANO, MN Musical history was made twice in one night in Delano May 25 at the Delano Middle School auditorium.
The night marked not only the last choir concert for long-time director Brad Hagen, who is retiring after 31 years of service, but also marked a reunion of the Elm Cliff Guys a group of former Delano kids who “lived the dream” for a very short time in the early 1980s.
The four Elm Cliff band members Mike Merriman, Bill Stevens, Pete Madsen, and Steve Shrode were just kids at Delano High School back when Hagen was beginning his teaching career.
Merriman enjoyed the music of The Oak Ridge Boys, and he and Stevens wanted to learn an Oak Ridge Boys song for their senior choir concert.
“I joined the choir my senior year of high school,” Merriman said in an ‘07 interview about the band.
It was Hagen who helped the two learn the song “Dig A Little Deeper in the Well,” and from that, the Elm Cliff Guys was born, with Shrode and Madsen completing the lineup.
The reunited Elm Cliff Guys performed “Dig A Little Deeper in the Well” and one other selection several weeks ago one more time for Hagen.
“It really tapped into a lot of different emotions,” Hagen said following the group’s surprise appearance on stage at the choir concert. “It was a fun time when we got together the first time, and I know that it’s hard for them to all come together at once. It’s really nice of them. I’m really honored.”
In the band’s heyday, a local talent contest led to performing at graduation parties, which also led to other performances around Wright County, including the Corn Carnival in Cokato, the Wright County Fair, and Good Neighbor Days in Howard Lake.
The band did cover tunes, playing the hits of their counterparts, The Oak Ridge Boys, and other hits of the time. The county fair also led to two performances at the Minnesota State Fair.
However, life happened, with band members beginning families and pursuing further education. A cancer benefit in 1984 was the last time the group had performed together.
“He played a real instrumental role in our success,” Shrode said of Hagen in the ‘07 interview. “It wouldn’t have happened without him.”
Shrode added that Hagen sure didn’t do it for the money, but felt that Hagen “had as much fun as we did. He’s a talented guy.”
“There were long hours he just donated and gave,” Madsen added. “He would just sit and pound out notes.”
Stevens said Hagen encouraged the guys to keep at it during their heyday, and said Hagen felt “they had something special.”
“It was such a joy to see these guys again,” Hagen said. It’s been so long. Some of them I haven’t seen for 20 years.”
However, the Elm Cliff Guys and Hagen both stressed that the night wasn’t about them, but rather was about the students who performed.
“It is their night, and I hope I didn’t Shanghai their evening,” Hagen said, adding that he is proud of how the music program has grown over his years at Delano High School from the days of the Elm Cliff Guys to today.
“The caliber of students students who wanted to make good music it was fun to be a part of that,” Hagen said. “Sometimes you get them started, and you kind of step back and let them take it. They can do so much more.”
Over the years, Hagen has also witnessed huge changes in technology.
“What they used to do on the huge boards is all done on the laptop computer now,” he added. “I also think there’s more opportunities in the business of music than there’s ever been in promotion, producing and things like that.”
However, Hagen said, in many ways, there are certain things that stay the same over the years.
“I’m getting, in a lot of cases, second-generation students, and they approach the class differently for me because I’ve had their parents as students,” Hagen said. “They know that there’s certain expectations we have from them.”
For his replacement, Andrew Beard, Hagen said he encourages Beard to develop his own program.
“He will have a lot of kids who want to make good music here,” Hagen said.
Hagen, originally from Kerkhoven, said his future plans include work on his house, along with still singing with the chamber chorus in Buffalo and also doing community theatre work there.
When asked how many choir concerts he had directed over the years, he said he hasn’t kept count, but said it’d be an average of four per year, which would be about 124.
“Actually, it’s be more than that. I used to do middle school choirs, too,” he said.
For Hagen, much as it was back in the early ‘80s when he started his career and fostered the Elm Cliff Guys, the night was about the students.