By David DeRocco As a country America may have a bit of an international image problem right now. But as the band who hit #1 with “Sister Golden Hair,” AMERICA is still infinitely more popular internationally than the country’s golden-haired tin-man of a POTUS will ever be.
America is the rock band formed in England in 1970 by Dewey Bunnell, Dan Peek, and Gerry Beckley. The trio met as sons of U.S. Air Force personnel stationed in London, and called their band America so they wouldn’t be confused as another British band. Defined by the trio’s close vocal harmonies and light acoustic melodies, America released a string of hit albums and classic soft-rock singles including “A Horse With No Name,” “Ventura Highway, ”Tin Man” and their 1975 chart-topper “Sister Golden Hair.” In fact, from 1971 through 1980, the band incredibly released 9 studio albums and one greatest-hits package, a volume of work that Bunnell admits seems absurd by today’s music industry standards.
“They were different times,” said Bunnell, who has retained his position as lead and backing vocalist, guitarist and part-time percussionist with America since their formation. “We were under contract. We were obligated. And we were certainly more prolific as writers then, certainly I was. We had a seven year deal with Warner Brothers, then six years with Capital Records. It’s just a different landscape now.”
Despite their incredible string of 17 charting hits, America – like most bands who are into their fifth decade of performing – struggled to maintain their momentum as 70s pop rock gave way to 80s new wave, dance and glam metal. Even with legendary Beatles producer George Martin at the helm for a string of albums, America’s chart-topping days faded as quickly as a pair of Levi’s bell-bottom jeans.
“You can’t really sustain that kind of pace and still put out songs that the audience is receptive to,” said Bunnell, who along with original guitarist/vocalist Gerry Beckley, bassist Richard Campbell, guitarist Andy Barr and drummer Ryland Steen will be performing August 19th at the Fallsview’s Avalon Ballroom. “We had our peaks and valleys and periods where we couldn’t get arrested for our songs. But we’re in our 47th year of touring as America. The songs still seem to create a lot of interest and excitement. I’m very grateful that we’ve sustained our career for this amount of time.”
The band has continued to release albums, including their 2015 release Lost And Found. That album was pieced together with lost tracks mined from the band’s hectic early 70s recording sessions. Bunnell says the album is a great audio snapshot of the band at the peak of its creativity.
“We were recording so much in those days and into the early 80s, so we had a lot of leftovers. George Martin would always say ‘if it wasn’t good then Dewey why would it be good now.’ That was a good rationale at the time because it was in close proximity to the recording of the album. But new we are able to look back and take what would have been the 13th or 14th song on a 12 song album and look at it differently. The songs sound really great.”
With hopes of chart domination no longer a priority, Bunnell says America’s focus now is on delivering a great live show. The band tours regularly (including a recent trek through Australia) and works hard to maintain the signature vocal sound that defined them.
“The live show is really important to us. We’re in a period now playing with two new players. Our drummer (Steen) has got a little bit more power and oomph. Andy (Barr, guitars/keys) puts his own style on some of the solos. It’s amazing how a little new blood in the organization can just tilt the prism a little bit on the songs. We’re doing about a 100 shows a year, primarily long weekends or we’ll string together 10 days. It’s not like the old days when we’d go out for three months. It was like travelling to Mars and back, by the time you came home you were so disoriented. Also our voices are so important and fragile enough to where we won’t do more than three nights in a row. We used to do four or five, but your voice is so ragged at that point you’re shortchanging the songs and the audience if you’re holding back to save yourself for the next two nights.”
With the band three years from their 50th anniversary, it’s time to start thinking about their legacy. With a string of hits, a Grammy, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and an induction into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame, America has certainly earned its share of accolades. Is it unrealistic to think the next one is an induction in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? Bunnell is entirely realistic about the band’s chances.
“I think it’s a great institution, and a milestone for a career to be tapped for nomination or to be inducted. To be honest, we don’t really hold our breath on that one. We’ve cheered for our friends like Chicago who finally got in. But the criteria is so subjective. There’s no sort of charted number of records or hit songs criteria to reference. We’ve always thought that we didn’t really make any innovative new inroads in this thing called rock and roll. I think we did really follow a well-worn path. But we did have good songwriting. You have three or three-and-a-half minutes to create some kind of imagery or memory and project that feeling through music. That’s what each song is really doing. Where do we fit in? If we get nominated down the road that would be wonderful. We’ve received our share of spotlights and #1 records so we’re really happy with our situation.”