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Dewey Bunnel recalls the history of America

An Eight-Track Mind

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America
Fri. Jan. 24
6:30 p.m.
$49-$200
North Charleston Performing Arts Center
5001 Coliseum Drive
North Charleston

There's a lot to celebrate about holding something creative together for 50 years. Amazingly, that's how long it's been since folk rock band America's original members — Dewey Bunnell, Gerry Beckley, and Dan Peek — first assembled in ... Great Britain. As Bunnell explains, "The name America came from a lot of little things, but it was mainly to reflect the fact that we were American kids in England, which we felt gave us an edge over some of the British upstarts we were competing against."

The late 1960s and early 1970s were strange days to be teenagers on the loose in London, according to Bunnell. "Being young and out of our element, we really clung to each other over there and we were always running around taking in all kinds of great music together including Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, and the Rolling Stones."

According to Bunnell, it wasn't long before everything clicked and the trio was sharing the stage with some of those larger than life figures. "We actually opened for Pink Floyd, Elton John, the Who, Traffic, Rod Stewart and the Faces, and Cat Stevens, which was a real learning experience for us.

"It's fair to say that we had to pay some dues along the way, but you couldn't have asked for any more success than what we had with our first album and single. From there we were able to just continue doing what we do best."

Though he's had a hand in writing some of the soft rock era's most enduring songs, including "A Horse with No Name," "Ventura Highway," and "Tin Man," Bunnell remains modest about where these tunes came from. "A lot of my lyrical imagery comes from spending so much time outdoors, but there must be some kind of magical thing that happens, because if there was a formula, everyone who owns a guitar would be following it and writing popular music."

Still, he does find it a bit surreal to hear the band's classic cuts featured in TV shows, films, and even video games. "It's always flattering, but sometimes I am taken aback. We were leaning toward keeping 'A Horse with No Name' from being used in Grand Theft Auto until Gerry's youngest son protested," Bunnell said.

It was the strength of the group's original material that afforded America the opportunity to utilize some of the most interesting people in the business behind the scenes, which in turn led to more and more artistic growth for the band.

Working with legendary Los Angeles drummer and band leader Hal Blaine, Bunnell recalls, was one example of an impactful collaboration, albeit one that happened through happenstance. "Our managers at the time were David Geffen and Elliot Roberts and they set it up. We didn't even know who the Wrecking Crew were at that age and at that stage of our career. We were oblivious to the world of session musicians. So, that was all part of our ongoing education."

The double-team of producer George Martin and engineer Geoff Emerick, who famously functioned as the Beatles' two-man hit factory, were also along for the ride at one point. "We had a long, beautiful relationship with them — something like seven projects in all, five which were studio albums of original material, one of remixes created for our initial greatest hits package, plus a live release."

Later on, there were even some noteworthy sessions with James Iha, of Smashing Pumpkins, at the helm. "It was nice to find out that there were a lot of younger musicians who wanted to get involved with us. I was actually coaxed into recording a version of 'Golden,' which was written by Jim James from My Morning Jacket. That experience forced me to go outside my comfort zone," Bunnell says.

In his words, the band has seen its share of "peaks and valleys" including the departure of Dan Peek in 1977. Yet things seemed to have worked out for the best. "It was all copacetic between us," Bunnell says. "Our lives just diverged is all."

These days, in Bunnell's estimation, the two founding members are primarily concerned with presenting America's history in the best possible light.

"Gerry and I are still out there doing close to 100 concerts together every season with a great band and some video enhancement behind us and sets that are built around all the hits that comprise our now 50-year legacy."

That's precisely the crowd-pleasing, celebratory show that Bunnell and Beckley will be bringing to Charleston this week.

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