70s folk rockers celebrate half-century of work with authorized biography and extensive box set.
America co-frontman Dewey Bunnell is calling from his lake cottage in northern Wisconsin. He knows it seems like an unlikely spot to find him, but he says it suits him. “It’s a beautiful place to get away,” he says. “We’re very fortunate. I’m really happy. I’m a big outdoors guy. I love working in the yard, fishing, the usual outdoors stuff. I always crave it.” And these days, of course, that location’s relative isolation makes it a more ideal place to wait out the pandemic than Los Angeles, where he and his wife normally live for most of the year.
Besides all his outdoors activities, Bunnell has kept busy lately with releasing significant America items in connection with the band’s 50th anniversary this year. On May 15, America, the Band – an Authorized Biography was published (written by Jude Warne with a forward by Billy Bob Thornton). On August 28, the band released an extensive box set, Half Century. And beginning on November 27, America–Live at the London Palladium, a 2018 concert special that had previously only been available as a DVD/CD, will be streamed for the first time (details listed below).
But the one thing America can’t do right now, unfortunately, is tour. “Frankly, I’d kill to go out and do a show,” Bunnell says. “We’re really frustrated about not being able to play because our live show is such a big part of our lives. In fifty years, this is the longest stretch that we haven’t played a show.”
Still, Bunnell is grateful that the band is celebrating their half-century mark, even if this year hasn’t shaped up as planned. As for why America was able to last this long, he says, “Our music is pretty user-friendly. We like structuring songs in an easily palatable way, I suppose. It’s what we like. You only have four minutes to fill the song up with a melody and lyrics that mean something to you or have a universal appeal. That is, in a nutshell, what I think added to our longevity.”
When they were teenagers, Bunnell, Gerry Beckley, and Dan Peek founded America in 1970 after they met in high school in London, England. Their fathers were all in the U.S. Air Force, stationed at a nearby military base, so the band members were all American citizens despite their English location; this inspired their band name choice (Bunnell, born in England, holds dual citizenship).
Bunnell says the thing that immediately set the trio apart from other artists in the flourishing singer-songwriter scene was their ability to do vocal harmonies so well. “Singing in harmony with a group of people is just this magical thing,” he says. “It’s the old, ‘the sum is greater than the parts.’ The three guys’ voices blended in such a way that this one beautiful sound came out.”
The band enjoyed immediate success with their 1971 self-titled debut album, which contained the massively successful single “A Horse with No Name” (which Bunnell wrote and sang). Their follow up album, Homecoming (1972), included another hit song from Bunnell, “Ventura Highway.” In 1975, with the release of their fifth album, Hearts, it was Beckley’s turn to have written and sung the hit single, with “Sister Golden Hair.” Peek departed the band in 1977, but Bunnell and Beckley have remained constant co-leaders ever since.
In the 1980s, America had continued success with the single “You Can Do Magic” (from their 1982 album View from the Ground). Since then, America have established themselves as a popular “legacy act” on the international touring circuit. “Thankfully, our generation came up with us, and it’s passed on to other generations,” Bunnell says of this ongoing success with their shows. “Really, I don’t take it for granted at all as the years go on.”
Knowing their 50th anniversary was on the horizon and wanting to compile something special for their loyal fans, Bunnell and Beckley began sifting through all of their material last year. “It was a good impetus to get involved in looking back through a lot of old boxes of tapes, 8-tracks, and hard drives, and we discovered some pretty cool stuff,” Bunnell says. “A lot of film footage in various formats.” The resulting Half Century box set includes seven CDs and a DVD.
Bunnell is also excited to share the band’s authorized biography with fans, especially because he likes the rather unconventional way that author Jude Warne wrote it. “Her main thing was to tell the story through our songs, which on the surface seems logical and is exactly what we would want, but a lot of biographies deal with a lot of things that aren’t specifically song-related,” Bunnell says. “She actually picks some pretty obscure songs that a lot of my friends and family are saying, ‘I never heard that song!’”
Bunnell himself is known for using an unusual writing style in his lyrics, especially on the poetic “A Horse with No Name.” He is pleased that people think his words are memorable. “Certainly, you hope that your lyrics stick somewhat,” he says, adding that he deliberately set out to write this way. “As a young person, the songs that appealed to me create this imagery, and that’s what I wanted to do in my songs. Even if a lot of my song lyrics aren’t necessarily that cohesive… [A] lot of the lyrics have some meaning for me, or they are a surrogate scenario to something that happened to me or my family. Then some of them are just surreal fantasy imagery.”
Bunnell says that there has never been competition between himself and Beckley, despite the fact that each of them has written and sung different hit singles for America. He says it’s “always been pretty much a democratic kind of a deal, so we really never had any true conflict in that regard.”
Looking back on America’s entire career, especially in light of their 50th anniversary, Bunnell says, “I’m proud of the catalog and the songs. Obviously, there’s no way to predict success, and we certainly didn’t plan on being around this long, so it’s a real gratitude thing that we’ve still got this, and we’ve had it since we were teenagers.”