By Jane Spietz
WHERE: Waterfest, Leach Amphitheater, Oshkosh WI
WHEN: Friday, August 22, Gates Open 5 PM
COST: $10 before 6 PM • $15 before 7 PM • $20 after 7 PM
Reserved special patio access available in advance $30
American folk-rock group America has been a staple of the music scene for over four decades. Their list chart of topping hits includes “Horse With No Name,” “Sister Golden Hair,” “Ventura Highway,” “Daisy Jane,” “I Need You,” “Tin Man,” “You Can Do Magic,” “Lonely People” and “Sandman.” America’s mellow sound with its tight vocal harmonies has had mass appeal with young and old alike over the years. Founding members Dewey Bunnell, Gerry Beckley and Dan Peak were sons of U.S. Air force officers stationed in Great Britain, where America began. Bunnell and Beckley carried on after Peak left the group in 1977. In their latest release, Back Pages (2011), they covered songs by some of their favorite artists such as Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Jimmy Webb and James Taylor. America was featured recently on Entertainment Tonight in an episode entitled “In Their Own Words.”
I asked Waterfest President Mike Dempsey to reflect on America’s performance at the Waterfest 2014 finale:
“America is the perfect finale and send off for our 2014 season. Expect a great set list performed with precision by a tight group of seasoned musicians and some of the greatest vocal stylings of our time. America is a family-friendly concert with the blend of a warm sense of community and on a Friday night no less! America wraps up Waterfest Back2Back with six great acts on two nights. Our two final evenings have something for everyone. In addition to America, Thursday’s show offers the full theatrical production of Hairball, a Bombastic Celebration of 80’s Arena Rock! The supporting acts are as always highly entertaining with Saksa Manzana, Shaker and The Egg, Sly Joe and the Smooth Operators, and The Presidents. It is also 2-for-1 admission on Thursday before 6 PM. Gates open at 5 PM for America and Reserved Special Patio Access is available in advance at the Oshkosh Chamber. For more information, log on to www.waterfast.org.”
America co-founder Dewey Bunnell called me not long ago from his home in northern Wisconsin while taking a break from planting trees.
Jane Spietz: Here you are, still musical partners with Gerry Beckley forty plus years after America began. To what do you attribute America’s longevity as a band?
Dewey Bunnell: We were friends to begin with. We went through high school together. We’re in our forty-fourth year. It’s hard to fathom that. We’ve just been bonded for so long. And the music has always been fairly approachable and easy to digest. (Laughs) We’ve been very, very fortunate. You can’t really plan on these kinds of things. We still enjoy playing and still get a great response. Obviously, the years are adding up. It’s quite a slog to go out on the road and get on the buses and the planes and drag ourselves around, but it’s still great. It’s the music. That’s what speaks for us and that’s what really goes on into the future. We have a lot of peers and friends in the business––the Beach Boys, the Doobie Brothers, Three Dog Night and bands that have been around longer than us. We all agree that the music is the lead horse. No pun intended.
JS: Speaking of “Horse With No Name,” it was pretty exciting to hear that that song was featured in the Golden Globe Award winners American Hustle and Breaking Bad.
DB: This has been a pretty interesting year for that song. We were really thrilled. We knew about the Breaking Bad episode that featured “Horse With No Name.” It was actually the title of the episode in Spanish. We have no control over these things. It’s a licensing arrangement. But in addition, this year Michael Jackson’s second posthumous album had a version of “Horse With No Name” called “Place With No Name.” The song has re-entered the British singles chart because it’s featured in a European automobile ad. It’s really bizarre how the stars have aligned around that song, and we’re back on the charts in England, of all places, where we started. All of that stuff keeps the dream alive.
JS: At America’s inception in 1970, you and Gerry were U.S. Air Force brats living in England. Were you influenced more by British or American artists?
DB: I would say equally. Yeah, we had been exposed to a lot of British music and some of the first live music I’ve ever seen. I got there when I was like fourteen, and Gerry was about a year later. We were watching all of the British pop music shows and reading the British pop newspapers and magazines. We had been exposed to American music way before that––the Beach Boys, early Beatles work, even as far back as Elvis and the Everly Brothers. We’d already had a lot of influence that way. At that stage, we were just devouring all the music and we’d get every new release, British or American. I think it’s a combination, really. Both sides of the Atlantic were contributing immense amounts of great music in those days, in the late sixties when we were at our most impressionable age.
JS: The Beatles’ producer George Martin also produced seven of your albums. What was it like working with him?
DB: He’s a wonderful man. That really raised our game. We had been producing ourselves. The first album was kind of a collaboration with a producer in England who was a Warner Brothers staff member. We were assigned to Warner Brothers. But the second and third albums we produced ourselves. When that workload became too much, we decided we needed a producer, and of course, George Martin was on the tip of our tongue. He was responsible for all of the Beatles’ work. Again it was timing is everything. He came to Los Angeles for the James Bond film, Live and Let Die. He produced Paul McCartney’s title song, “Live and Let Die,” so he was in town. We were able to schedule a meeting and we just hit it off right away. I think it was the fact that we had British sensibilities, if you will, because we had spent so much time there. And Gerry’s mother and my mother are both British, so there was a lot of the British sense of humor, you name it––we had a lot going. He just raised the game for us. He is an arranger, as well as a producer, and brought strings into the mix a little bit. We made five studio albums with him and then he re-mixed the greatest hits and produced a live album.
JS: “Sandman” was inspired by discussions with returning Vietnam vets. Please expand on this.
DB: There were young airmen and other American military coming through our circle because there were two Royal Air Force bases that we leased from the English. So a lot of returning veterans from the war either would be processed through Germany or various other bases, and they’d find their way into England. So we got some firsthand comments from guys. They were young. We all had that one thing in common, that we were in a foreign country, if you will–– England. We were all trading stories. The “Sandman” concept is that a lot of guys were just afraid to go to sleep. I can imagine; I can relate to it. I may have read more into it than they meant, but to me I can see myself in a combat situation having a real hard time going to sleep. That is the key imagery of, “I understand you’ve been running from the man that goes by the name of the Sandman,” in so far as it’d be pretty hard on the frontlines. As for the rest of my lyrics, I write songs that are somewhat disjointed. As a songwriter, you only have three and a half minutes to create some imagery. I’m very visual. Gerry and I always say that I write the “outdoor” songs and he writes the “indoor” songs. My songs, like “Horse With No Name,” “Ventura Highway,” “Tin Man,” “Sandman,” those are songs for which I attempted to paint a broad visual scene. That means the lyrics are disjointed. “Tin Man” is a good example of that. That again was based on the theme of The Wizard of Oz in that it was about the characters all seeking these elements of their personality that they already had, you know––the brain, the heart, the courage, and so on. Bad English, too: “Oz never did give nothing to the Tin Man that he didn’t already have.” But then, a lot of my other lyrics don’t really even relate. They just create a secondary picture like “the topic of Sir Galahad” or “alligator lizards in the air.” A little surrealism to blend in there.
JS: One of Gerry’s most beautiful love songs, in my opinion, is “Daisy Jane.” Not to mention that I love the title! Sorry, bad pun. Tell us the story behind the song.
DB: It’s a favorite song of the band’s and certainly probably my single favorite song of Gerry’s over the years. When I’ve heard Gerry answer that question, he’s always said there was never really a Daisy Jane per se. That’s another example of a nice, clean production. George Martin arranged the cello part in the middle. It really is a great one, I agree. What I can say about Gerry’s “indoor” songs––his love songs, more or less––is that “I Need You” is another really great love song he wrote from the first album. That song is probably the single most covered song of ours by other artists over the years because it had that sort of standard feel. People like Johnny Mathis, Andy Williams and Harry Nielsen covered that.
JS: What are the basic ingredients that keep America fans coming back year after year?
DB: I think we have a solid show for one thing. We’ve really honed that show down to ninety minutes over the years. It is an evolution because songs don’t always all fit together cohesively. A live show can be disjointed if you don’t have smooth transitions from song to song, so that the set has a build to it and a nice crescendo at the end. I think the show itself brings people back. Again, it’s generational. If the music is passed on and continues to get classic rock airplay and good fortune with things like American Hustle, TV shows and TV commercials, that keeps it alive. The interest is passed on from one generation to the next. I have to believe there’s not a lot of old fogies like us pushing “Horse With No Name” into the charts in England. It’s young people who are predominately curious or they’ve been exposed to it. Those people are hopefully going to come out to see the show live. Because the live show becomes more and more of a rarity in our business in that there is so much sampled music and pre-recorded music and digitized vocal tuning going on that to have a five-piece band up there actually
playing all their instruments, believe it or not, becomes a little scarce these days with the younger acts. And also, the vocal harmonies are really a key. The other day we played a show and it said “not a tribute band, the original band America.” There are tribute bands that people pay as much money to see as the original. All of those things are going to bring audiences out.
JS: America, admirably, is involved in various charitable efforts, such as the Sweet Musicians Fund, which provides financial assistance to struggling musicians facing various issues.
DB: Yes, there are different organizations like MusiCares and things that we all try to help and benefit in whatever way we can. We do a show here or there. We’ve always been available for different benefits to try to give back a little bit. Gerry and I will donate our services.
JS: Are you involved with any causes?
DB: My wife Penny and I have our own personal things. We’re quite big conservationists. We donate our time to north woods wildlife rescue stuff. We kind of are tree huggers up here, and we love the north woods. We certainly love wildlife, and there are not too many causes that we wouldn’t contribute to. Wetlands management is important to us. It’s fun. We probably feed the deer too much! (Laughs) We’re planting some trees today; it’s such a beautiful day. We love Wisconsin, too.
JS: It will be great to have America perform for the Waterfest 2014 finale in Oshkosh on August 22.
DB: We love the Leach Amphitheater and look forward to playing there again. We have some friends that come down and fill up the place!
JS: Thank you for your time, Dewey.
DB: It was great talking to you, Jane.