A horse with a name

'America' cofounder Dewey Bunnell recalls the band’s rich history ahead of their debut in Israel.

Dewey Bunnell and Gerry Beckley, members of the band America (photo credit: Courtesy)
Dewey Bunnell and Gerry Beckley, members of the band America
(photo credit: Courtesy)
If you name your band America, then it’s safe to assume there are some pretty hefty egos involved. But Dewey Bunnell – one of the co-founders of the 1970’s-era pop-rocker group along with Gerry Buckley and the late Dan Peek – sounds less like a braggard and more like a humble musician.
“I never thought we were innovators, but just good meat-and-potatoes singer/songwriters,” said Bunnell in a recent phone interview with The Jerusalem Post. “We were students in the school taught by The Beach Boys, Crosby Stills & Nash, James Taylor and Jackson Browne. As far as our influence, our record is what it is – the hits are the hits and we’re very proud of it.”
Bunnell is referring to the string of tuneful acoustic-based songs from the trio that dominated both the AM and FM dials for years, like “Horse with No Name,” “Ventura Highway,” “Sister Golden Hair” and “I Need You.”
The band chose its rather ambitious name because Bunnell, Beckley and Peek were all teenage sons of US military personnel stationed in England, and they wanted people to know they weren’t Brits trying to sound American.
“We had been in the London area for something like three years, and we’d be getting a lot of information about new music from incoming kids who brought albums over from the US. It was like, ‘What do you mean, you haven’t heard Steppenwolf?’ We’d go to their houses and listen to the LPs they had brought over with them.”
At the same time, we were taking the Tube and going to see Led Zeppelin, Hendrix and Pink Floyd. It was life in real time,” said Bunnell.
“When we decided to form a group, we were singer-songwriter wannabees, we were listening to music 24/7 and all the albums we could get our hands on at the time.”
Their music intrigued Warner Brothers, which signed them as the whole country-tinged, folk-rock explosion in the US was taking root. After their self-titled 1971 debut album made a minor splash in Europe, the now post-high school trio returned to the US and discovered they had a hit single.
When the plaintive “Horse With No Name” began getting airplay, many listeners heard what they thought was a new song by Neil Young, who would soon be riding on the success of his laid back country-rock classic Harvest and its hit “Heart of Gold.” It was actually Bunnell singing, and he was the most surprised at the comparisons.
“I know that we got pinned with that sounding like Neil thing right away, and I might have been channeling him a little at that time, but we also inspired by many other artists,” said Bunnell. “I don’t think I was aware of it, to be honest. We were fortunate to be compared to him, but it’s moved on a lot from there.”
Young, who shared management with America, was always nice to the band, Bunnell recalled, and he apparently took the inadvertent tribute in stride. In his memoir, Waging Heavy Peace, Young wrote that when his father first heard the song, even he assumed it was his son. When the song was pointed out to him, Young wrote that he thought for a second that maybe he had written and recorded it and forgotten.
Despite, or maybe because of the controversy, America quickly became a soft-rock giant in the early 1970s landscape, keeping to their acoustic folkie roots but also expanding into more expansive pop due to a longtime collaboration beginning in 1974 with Beatles producer George Martin. His input on albums like Holiday and Heart produced major hits like “Tin Man,” “Lonely People” and “Sister Golden Hair” and moved the band squarely into the commercial pop realm. The first of their greatest hits albums in 1975 went platinum.
“We certainly got hands-on experience working with George and seeing how he conducted himself in the studio. It was an unspoken rule: ‘Don’t press George about Beatles stuff,’ but we’d get a tidbit here and there, like ‘This is what we did with John’s voice on “Strawberry Fields,”’ or whatever. I can’t say enough about George.”
Despite Martin’s involvement, the hits started drying up. Peek left the band in 1977 and emerged as a contemporary Christian artist before passing away in 2011, and Bunnell and Beckley carried on as a duo.
They scored one more big hit with the pop fluffy “You Can Do Magic” in 1982, but began focusing in the next decades on their live performances instead of recording careers.
Their stature and position in the rock pantheon was raised considerably in 2006 when Bunnell and Beckley collaborated with a younger generation of indie and power pop rockers like My Morning Jacket, Fountains of Wayne’s Adam Schlesinger and Ryan Adams on a well-received album called Here & Now.
“I really loved that project,” said Bunnell. “I wasn’t really familiar with some of the artists at first. Gerry was the one who kept his ear to the ground with modern music, but it was quite an eye-opener.”
It also provided credibility for America to be mentioned in the same breath as some of their own early heroes.
“The fact that these younger artists made it clear that they listened to our music and were inspired in some way, was a huge compliment and showed that our music has transferred over generations,” said Bunnell, who will be appearing with Beckley and America in Israel for the first time on October 9 and 10 in Caesarea, with local hero Geva Alon opening. The shows are being promoted by Shuki Weiss and Carmi Wurtman.
“We’re proud to be part of the school of music that inspired us, and whatever degree on that ladder that we have is something I’m proud of.”
For more information or to buy tickets, visit: Eventim.co.il/america.