America is a great name for a great country. It’s also the name of a great rock band. And like America the country, America the band has its roots in England, too.
Even if you didn’t grow up in the 1970s and ’80s, you know America the band’s music: “A Horse With No Name,” “Ventura Highway,” “Sister Golden Hair.” Yeah, I know, they’re playing in your head now.
Dewey Bunnell is one of the founders of America, the band. Bunnell, along with high school friends Gerry Beckley and Dan Peek, were barely out of high school when they hit it big in 1971 with “A Horse With No Name,” which Bunnell wrote.
Forty-five years later, Bunnell and Beckley are still touring America (and the world). Peek, who left the band in the late 1970s to pursue a career as a Christian singer/songwriter, died in July 2011.
“It’s been quite a journey,” Bunnell said in a phone interview earlier this week from his home in California. He and his wife, Penny, split their time between the left coast and a cabin on a lake in her home state of Wisconsin.
“I don’t think anyone can plan on that,” he said of the band’s longevity. “Tthe past 15 years have gone by fast. We don’t take it for granted, we’re very grateful” to still be able to perform their music to first-, second- and third-generation fans. Last week, America played shows in Brazil and Argentina. Tuesday they headed to the East Coast, where they will spend the Fourth of July weekend, kicking off a series of shows in the Mid-Atlantic Thursday in Alexandria, Va., Friday night at The Event Center at Hollywood Casino at Charles Town in Charles Town, W.Va., and Independence Day at the Heritage Fair in Dundalk.
Bunnell, Beckley and Peek all attended high school in the London school for children of U.S. military. Bunnell’s dad was in the Air Force and Dewey was born in England. His bandmates were born in the U.S. After a couple of band reinventions, the trio started playing clubs in London and became known as the “American kids,” Bunnell said. As Americans, they didn’t want to be known as part of the British music invasion, and the band Chicago was making waves here, so they thought why not call themselves America.
“It seemed to fit,” Bunnell said, “an attention grabber band name. The downside is that it’s pretty generic, so our Facebook page has to be America (The Band).”
The guys loved music, loved songwriting and arranging music, but “we didn’t have a master plan,” Bunnell said of the early days. “We thought everybody would like our music because we did.”
Originally, the debut album, which included “I Need You” and “Sandman,” did not include “A Horse With No Name.” It was re-released with the track added when it top the charts in England.
Bunnell wrote “A Horse With No Name.”
“We had this broad definition that I write the outdoor songs … ‘Ventura Highway in the sunshine’ … and images, and Gerry writes the indoor songs, the love ballads,” Brunnell said.
The story behind “A Horse With No Name”: As kids, traveling with their parents, he and his brother liked to poke around in the desert. “I wrote that song in England, where we were at the time, recalling the sights and sounds of the desert,” Bunnell said. “It was probably raining (in England), it rained a lot.”
“Sandman,” also penned by Bunnell, was inspired by his interaction with GIs returning from Vietnam. “We met a lot of GIs. We were 18 or 19 and young airmen were not much older than us … vets coming through the base. Some had a fear of sleeping (“‘Cause I understand you’ve been running from the man, That goes by the name of the Sandman, He flies the sky like an eagle in the eye of a hurricane that’s abandoned.”).
Bunnell also wrote “Ventura Highway” in England, recalling driving down the Pacific Coast Highway and “conjuring up that image again. The sun, surf and free wind blowing through your hair,” he said. “That one, it’s got legs. It’s timeless. People really like it, and ‘Lonely People,’ people really love that song.”
The young band left England for L.A. to work with David Geffen and were “thrown into the spin dryer of L.A. I don’t think anything really prepared us for that, all the obligations, the contracts … It was fairly exhausting. You just put your head down and do it. It was a whirlwind,” as they joined major tours including the Beach Boys and other bands with the “California sound,” which Bunnell finds amusing since he was the only one of the band who had been to California before their move there.
“We enjoyed it, there were a lot of ups and downs, maybe more downs as much as ups,” he said. For their fourth album, they worked with Sir George Martin, who produced for The Beatles. “We had some really wonderful connections,” Bunnell said.
“It’s a different business today, different avenues to the same place,” he said, “with the digital world, streaming, home studios are so much better.”
In May, America released a new album of previously recorded but never released songs, called “Lost & Found.” It contains tracks recorded between 2002 and 2010.
“Basically it’s a group of songs we had written and recorded most in Gerry’s home studio,” Bunnell said. “They were the 11th track on a 10-track project. We have a mass of these things stored away.” The trio wrote songs for each album and thinking these extra songs might make the next album, would later decide that if a song wasn’t good enough for the previous album, it wouldn’t be good enough for the next album either, so the recorded tracks were never released.
“‘Lost & Found’ is a nice project,” Bunnell said.
Each member contributed something unique to America. “Dan Peek … had more of a country lean. Gerry is the most schooled of the three of us, musically. He played piano, wrote ballads with a more complex structure. I was a self-taught guitar player,” he said.
America (The Band) plays about 100 shows a year.
The Charles Town show will be about 90 minutes, he said, with video behind the band for some of the songs, performing their many hits and some of the songs from “Lost & Found,” a cover of “California Dreamin'” that America recorded for a movie, and will be backed by a five-piece band. Their long-time drummer, for 41 years, recently retired.
“We’re not exactly standup comedy, but we do interact with the audience, too,” he said.
After 45 years of songwriting, performing and recording many albums, Bunnell said it’s not likely they will put out an album of new music. “But there’s always some recording going on when we have the time,” he said, adding he’s enjoying touring without the pressure of having to deliver a record every year.
Touring is physically demanding now, he said. “I’m in my 60s. The music part is great. As a friend of mine says, you don’t pay me to play, you pay me to travel,” he said.
And then there’s the grandkids, he has two grandsons and a granddaughter on the way.
“Traveling is not the first thing on my mind when we get off the road,” he said. “We have a little lakeside place in Wisconsin. I like to fish. And we take care of the garden. We are simple.”