America still going strong after 40 years

By John Benson

Talk about walking down memory lane — America singer- guitarist Gerry Beckley can’t believe it’s been more than 40 years since the release of his band’s self-titled platinum debut.

“It was certainly a moment in time,” said Beckley, calling from Annapolis, Md. “That album was recorded very quickly, very reasonably, basically doing what we did on stage, playing the three acoustics and very few overdubs. And it was a strong batch of tunes. Regardless, no matter what other kind of magic or chemistry, it usually comes down to the songs, and they were really a good batch of songs. Also, the timing — it dropped us right in the singer-songwriter thing.”

In many ways, America would go on to help shape that ’70s singer-songwriter thing with hits “A Horse With No Name,” “Ventura Highway,” “Tin Man,” “I Need You” and “Sister Golden Hair.” Despite its red-white-and-blue moniker, the band actually started out in the U.K., where it was signed by Warner Bros. Records. Early on, the group found an audience as it toured around England opening for the likes of The Who and Pink Floyd.

Actually, it was the success of its debut album and hit single “A Horse With No Name” overseas that caught the ear of their label’s parent company stateside. However, what the Los Angeles-office failed to realize was the album didn’t contain the hit single. You see, America kept writing after its first album hit the stores, with the U.K. label deciding to release “A Horse With No Name” as a single. That’s why Beckley said the initial pressing of “America,” without the definitive folk song, remains a collector’s item today.

“I think there was a lot of magic on that first album,” Beckley said. “It was very strong with things like ‘Sandman,’ ‘Three Roses’ and ‘Riverside’ and of course later with ‘Horse.’ That’s as big as you can get on a record, but I think what we did was build on that as opposed to trying to equal it. In fairly rapid succession, we started to build a catalog of stuff. The second album had ‘Ventura Highway’ and ‘Don’t Cross the River.’ And as we built this thing, we managed to hold and, if anything, add fans. We were basically teenagers, and it could have gone pretty wrong, pretty fast.

“In fact, we won the Best New Artist Grammy Award, and that’s very often a tough thing to follow if you look at the list of people who won it, but we did OK. It was a good year, too. We were up against The Eagles, Loggins & Messina, Harry Chapin and John Prine.”

Today, America often finds itself playing on package bills with its peers. This was the case last month when the band traveled to Japan to open for its good friends The Beach Boys.

Singer and guitarist Dewey Bunnell said over the decades, America probably toured the most alongside the Brian Wilson-led act.

“That was great. We’re huge fans, and they’re kind of our mentors,” said Bunnell, calling from outside of Houston. “It’s great to see Brian with Mike [Love] and Al [Jardine] again. We’re just a ton older, but it’s a nice thing to know that continuum is in place.”

That continuum continues when America comes to Youngstown on Friday for a show at Stambaugh Auditorium. Bunnell said the current set features a new video presentation and a loose set list that includes album cuts and extended versions of “A Horse With No Name” and “Sister Golden Hair.”

“Audiences are generally surprised,” Bunnell said. “That’s why we’re working still 42 years into this thing. It’ll be a great night.”

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