Christie Goodwin

How America (The Band) Was a Reflection of the Times (Musically)

America is one of those bands that you can’t help but listen to and swoon over no matter what. It’s a beautiful thing, really. Whether it’s a love song or not, the harmonies are swoon-worthy, as are the memories that come flooding back in waves of melody-driven nostalgia, and the top tier lyricism that transcends culture, genre, politics, time, and space.

I once told my mother, a dedicated listener of America since they first burst onto the scene in 1970, that the band felt familiar. Not in the way that I knew them very well or even personally, but in a way that made me feel nostalgic for times, places, and people I have never known, been to, or met.

Whether their songs made up the soundtrack of your hippie-cultured youth, reminded you of your favorite films, or seeped into all of the cracks and crevices of your life from a big fan of a parent, America has made a notable mark on just about every musician or music lover. They encapsulate the subtle, guitar-driven boldness of soft rock bands intertwined with the confessional pop artistry of an all out experimental time period. On the surface, as I also once expressed to my not-so-impressionable mother, America sounds like the lovechild of Creedence Clearwater Revival and The Beatles, but one who was later adopted by the Led Zeppelins of the world.

(This is something Dewey Bunnell, founding member alongside Gerry Beckley, pretty much strived for, as he told us for this exclusive and in-depth interview.)

However, when looking at the band in a more nuanced sense, that was merely the stylish way of life (and art) at the time… and this band is still wholeheartedly original, groovy, and melodic. No matter your connection to them or their subsequent slew of hits during their generation-spanning career, their deep-rooted familiarity comes not from their decade-defining narratives and musicality, but from the sense of comfort that songs like “Sister Golden Hair” and “Tin Man” will always bring to the table.

So many songs of yours and America’s are really, really classic. They’re in media, they’re in pop culture, and they’re still everywhere to this day. How does that make you feel just the long lasting aspect of your art?

Well, it’s extraordinary. It’s satisfying to think the music has gotten that far, or has come this far, and is still striking a chord with people. That’s the best one could hope for as a singer-songwriter; this idea that it’s still listened to and appreciated. Gosh, it’s humbling, of course, but it’s also exciting to know that we’re still out there and have some relevance with songs that still resonate with the newer generation.

I know a musician who is just 21 and basically embodies everything that America does. He is a massive fan both as a music lover and a guitarist, so you are definitely having an impact today.

That’s super flattering. It’s amazing that someone just turned 21 in my lifetime [Laughs].

It doesn’t only show that your work is relevant, but that’s inspiring, which is just as important.

You couldn’t ask for more. That’s really nice.

There is so much to uncover with America. These layers of musicianship and friendship deliver just as much inspiration and emotion as it does fun and joy. Your music is a reminder that being an artist can come with creativity and levity. I’ve noticed that a lot of your albums, especially in the early years, all start with the letter H. Is that a coincidence or happenstance, because there is the incomparable Holiday album, but also Hearts and Homecoming, Hat Trick, and even more!

Good eye. You know, that turned into a gimmick to be perfectly blunt. I mean, it did start by accident. The first album was simply called America, but after “Horse With No Name” was such a huge success, the reprinting always had a horse on it. The second album was called Homecoming, which was literally what happened when we started our band in England. Our dads were in the Air Force. We were American teenagers over here: went to high school and graduated in 1969. That’s a whole other chapter in our lives, but one that was so important because we were these American teenagers in swinging London in the swinging sixties. I say that a lot on stage and everything when introducing and talking about our origins.

Without getting [off track] our second release was us coming home to the U.S. – that was an apropo title, Homecoming, right? That was the second album. The third album was called Hat Trick, which of course is a sporting term for three in a row. Those three were organically ‘H’ titles that happened by happenstance. The next album, which was the first album produced by Sir George Martin. We knew him as George Martin, but he was later knighted and your readers will, of course, know him as The Beatles’ producer. The fifth Beatle, really, he was. That album we called Holiday because Sir George wanted us to come back to England to do that project because our third album had taken so much time in LA and when we realized he knew that, it was obvious he didn’t have that much time. The album took a couple of months, but we made that album for George in England in just about 16 or 17 days.

Oh my goodness.

Yes. We called it Holiday, which (again) is another odd play on words, the British call a vacation, a holiday. “We’re going on holiday!” [Laughs] So at that point we were looking for a title, and I don’t know if it was last minute or anything, but right away when we came up with Holiday – because we were going to go back to England for a real ‘holiday’ or vacation – we all thought, “Oh, this is clever. Let’s make this one of our trademarks.{“ We always liked the way bands like Chicago numbered every one of their albums and it became their tradition. We were very close with that band back then and we thought, “We could do this, too, with letters.” 

Wow. It’s really kind of understated. One has to look deep at the discography and the order of such to notice that, but it’s evident!

We got really cutesy when we named an album Silent Letter, because that was the last album that George produced, and that was even a play on the letter H since it can be a silent letter. We were clever.

And it worked! Would you believe you’d still be telling these stories and playing these songs 50 years down the road on the 50th Anniversary Tour?

It is unbelievable. Huh, where’d the time go?

If you don’t know, I don’t know! George Martin, though – I’d love to swing back around to your work with him. He was such an impactful person, especially in the sixties, seventies, eighties, around that time, and his time with America began with making na album in 16-17 days. Did you have to make any changes to your songwriting or your musicianship to kind of fit within George Martin’s schedule?

Because we looked up to George so much, we put in the work. We were children of the sixties and those Beatle ecords were our bread and butter. We lived and breathed waiting for the next Beatle album and George Martin was at the helm on every one of those. So we wanted to be as prepared as possible for him. It was all kind of another serendipitous thing in that when we met George to talk to him about possibly producing us, we told him that we had produced our first three albums ourselves with some help on the first album from Ian Samwell, but it was a big task and it was bigger than we wanted it to be. There’s a lot of administrative work and booking studios and players for different things. It’s a lot of that and paying bills, too, so George was our first thought to navigate that. He was number one. We thought, “Well, let’s start at the top and then we’ll work our way through a list of producers that we respect and appreciate and love.” In our first meeting with him, we hit it off incredibly. I think it was because of our time in England that we were able to tap into his sense of humor and the history of England and, of course, we knew the history of his work with the Beatles and we could talk about those kinds of things. It was just great. We hit it off, but we wanted to be prepared for him. When we set the date, we booked the time for a month in England to work in studios. That’s where he wanted us to work: in London. He was ready when we got there. We knocked out some different things and worked on some of the arrangements with George, but he ended up playing piano for us. He rolled up his sleeves and he was very hands on. We have to mention his engineer, Jeff Emrick, who worked with him all the way back from, I think, the song “Paperback Writer.” He did all of those great, Sergeant Pepper and Abbey Road and White Album records. George had Jeff Emerick on all those, too, so with George, we got the package: we got Jeff Emerick with him. It is unbelievable. We just had a great time. It was very smooth, moved through each song fairly rapidly, went and did a few recordings, and George enhanced it with some string arrangements. You get that with George Martin, too: a conductor and an arranger. He was classically trained and all that stuff, which was fantastic.

We were never really forging into new territory so much. We were influenced by all that sixties music we were living in and listening to every new release, whether it was Hendrix or Buffalo Springfield or CSN or whatever we were listening to. All this stuff was great and the British music after The Beatles, too. We love Led Zeppelin. That was the cutting edge, the new stuff. I liked a lot of psychedelic music, all of that whole genre, if you will. There were a lot of one-off bands that played some great songs at that time and we’d sit around with headphones on to listen to them. That was the entertainment of the day. I’m dating myself incredibly, but it was a very special thing to have a brand new album by an artist that you knew or a new band in those days. When we started making our own albums, we were bringing all that to the table, even though the core of our thing was singer-songwriter material and putting together nice melodies and vocal harmonies, we still wanted to put splashes of those kinds of records and influences that got us excited. There’s a little bit of that hidden in our records. And, fortunately or unfortunately, on every album there’ll be an uptempo or a rock type song amongst the ballads and the more middle of the road, if you will, soft rock or however you wanna call it. We always wanted to have something a little edgy in there. With my lyrics, I’ve always wanted to paint some different pictures and have some imagery that may not hold together, but it sparks some kind of visual in your head. That’s what motivated us, I think, in a nutshell; all the combination of all that kind of stuff swirling around ourselves personally.

You wanted to stay true to what you guys knew and loved, but also find inspiration in all that was around you with so many, like you said, cutting edge and innovative artists. I think you hear a lot of that in your work. There is a kind of an eclectic take on the folk rock stylings of that time period, which I think made you stand out and made America’s songs appease a lot of people. That’s a testament to you guys taking a little bit of everything you personally loved to make it resonate with everything everyone else was loving.

For us, we were sort of a reflection of our generation. Our writing was a direct result of our influences. When we were putting together songs and arranging them and going in the studio and picking instruments to play and what sounds he wanted on those recordings, we were just reflecting our influences and reflecting our times. That’s why I think it was generally acceptable by people – certainly our own generation. We were a mirror reflecting a generation and so each generation passes it along and that’s what it’s all about. It’s passing the ball and you don’t necessarily have to be an innovator to do that. The innovators are really forging new ground. We had enough ground that we felt to reflect in our own songs and there was a path that was already traveled, but we could walk on, if you will.

Absolutely. There was already an extensive history of sights and sounds to pull from, so being a culmination of such worked. In these times, though, it must be truly intense for you to think about how some of these songs you’ve had in your catalog for decades are still being played in to fans news and old. Do they have that same effect on you as they did 50 years ago or 40 years ago?

When playing them live, yes, it’s true. It sounds cliche, but it’s almost like you’re reliving your past every night – and you are, technically, but it’s in real time. We are really playing those instruments. We are really singing in the mic. It’s a great feeling to keep doing this. Yes, the entertainment factor is there and earning a living, because those two are important: the audience is getting entertained and we’re earning a living, but there’s something about it that is really about carrying the torch. You’ll note that we incorporate video into the show. Behind us on several songs, there will be a little film, a collage of images and things that are definitely pointing backwards in the direction of where we came from. It’s a package deal up there. Hopefully that does strike a chord with people from our generation and any new ones who have done a little studying in our early days. You’ll see images that are very familiar to all of us, but they were landmarks in our lives. With our music as the soundtrack to those images, it all comes together like we always did. […] I can honestly say we’ve had very few moments of friction. We started as high school kids together, me, Gerry, and Dan [Peek]. We were the three Musketeers in a way – one for all, all for one. We had a strong bond when we were that trio, but there was always a little competition, I suppose. Not even competition, really, just a little bit of a mindset of, “I gotta keep up with Jerry! Dan’s gotta keep up with me!” We all wanted to be pulling our weight and work hard to bring to the table that was good and could then be polished by the other two guys. That’s the way it works. That was the formula. We would change a word here or a cord there or fix the bridge of the song or a riff, but it was teamwork. We were all still individuals.

We all still are, frankly. Our writing was another amazing reality that wrote itself from within each of us.. Love songs worked at the piano a lot more, so Gerry’s music was very distinct with that. I always wrote, and still only write, on an acoustic guitar. My songs tend to always be… we call them outdoor songs. I like to write about nature. I’m very heavily influenced by life, by nature, by Mother Earth. Dan had a country influence. His family was originally from Missouri and he was a great hard rock guitar player. The three of us each had our distinctive personalities and differences. Dan left America way back in ‘77, of course, but his music we still play to this day, like “Lonely People” and “Don’t Cross the River,” as Gerry and I carried on.

The fact is we live very different lifestyles. We don’t live in each other’s pockets. When we come together, it’s about what we share musically. We’ve been through marriages and divorces and children and now grandchildren and things that life brings – it’s not all the music and the band, – but we support each other the most that way. We have a similar sense of humor and that’s a big thing. We always love to make a lot of fun of everything that we do. We don’t take things too seriously in life that way, unless they need to be taken seriously, you know? There are very few disagreements.

We get along really well. We still do, on stage and off, then and now, and I think about that when we look back and play these songs with him today, because on any given night, predominantly we try to recreate the songs we made, the way you heard them, the way you fell in love with them. We stretch out on a few songs, improvise a little, but more or less, it’s a well thought out 90 minute set. There are 20 songs or so and we’re very proud of it. I don’t get tired of doing it. Some nights are a little more stressful than others, of course, if you’re battling any kind of a voice problem or you’re particularly exhausted from the road or something like that, but there is always adrenaline and excitement. We have a fantastic band. Gerry and I are in front, of course, but our bass player, our drummer, and our guitar player/keyboardist make us a five piece up there. There’s not a lot of bells and whistles. It’s pretty much a straight ahead show where we are playing all of our instruments and with the visual aspect of the video behind us. We love it. We’re so glad to be back after months or years or however the heck long it’s been.

I’m so thrilled that people are to witness that kind of homage to where you come from, the world you learned from, but also while living in the moment of where you are today with these songs and this career of yours. I can only imagine how much of an immersive experience it is and it’s going to be.

You’re definitely on the right track to what we’re trying to do. Yes, that’s what we are doing. We don’t dilute our songs or trick ourselves into thinking that this is breaking new ground, but we want to reinforce that old ground and its validity to our own songs. Of course, too, we do a couple of cover songs in there. We do a Beatles song. We do a Mamas and the Papas song. We have a little bit of an investment in those songs ourselves, but otherwise it’s all us.

There is also a moment in the set that is another little technical aspect of creating a live show, and having decades to do it right, which is we realize the timing of a set and the tempo of a set and the songs that pick are important. Some can stick out like a sore thumb and maybe put down the momentum of the set. You have to really be aware of that if you want the show to flow in a way that has a beginning and a middle and an end. That’s another creative aspect we focus on and are layering on top of the songs themselves so that they have lives of their own, but are sewn together, by us, in a presentation like that.

That’s so intriguing. It’s kind of like building out an album tracklist to kind of have this concise, musical narrative.

Yeah. That is absolutely it. We’ve learned that over the years interjecting brand new songs or songs that nobody would’ve ever heard is a gamble every night. The real ravenous fans who know everything, the people that know “Rainbow Song,” for instance [Laughs], they might want a brand new song that they never heard, but that’s an anomaly. Most of the audience that’s gonna come to our show and maybe any other artist show has a preconceived idea of what they wanna hear and they’ll be disappointed otherwise. I think everyone does get a bit of what they are expecting, though.

Of course! There are some songs that are tried and true staples for America, so whether or not they know or love “Rainbow Song,” like myself, “Sister Golden Hair” is still going to ring true and be on the set no matter what.

Absolutely. There’ll be none of the big hits missing. We’re very fortunate and grateful. We always are thankful that we’ve got that many songs that are that familiar and get that much airplay and are still getting played on all the streaming services and the technology today allows for at the tip of your fingers. You can play a song of anyone’s at any time or you can hold up Shazam and go, “Hey, what the heck is that song?” Then you find out it’s one of ours or something like that! That’s all fantastic. You know, 50 years down the road to still be doing this was not in the wildest of our dreams. I’m still kind of in shock that 50 years turned up out of the blue. It seems like we were just having our 25th anniversary, you know?