By Jeb Wright
Gerry Beckley and Dewey Bunnell are American icons of soft rock. As America, they have reached heights of success few have achieved. They had two No. 1 hits in “A Horse With No Name” and “Sister Golden Hair.” They reached the Top 10 many more times with such classic songs as “Ventura Highway,” “Tin Man” and “You Can Do Magic.”
America still writes songs and tours regularly, however the duo’s latest project features no original tunes. Instead, America teamed up with producer Fred Mollin and recorded 12 songs they wish they had written. The result is America’s newest release, titled “Back Pages.”
GM: Before I get into the songs, tell me about the artwork.
GB: Dewey oversaw that. We have a pretty good logo that we have used over the years. This time, instead of using our aging faces, the idea of using a book cover came up.
GM: It’s too bad that we are in the day of the download, as this would look great on an album cover.
GB: I think the songs themselves warrant that. We have had some success in the past releasing albums on vinyl. We have a new relationship with E1, but I am hoping we can get a vinyl release for this album, as I think it would be very successful.
GM: America has written many iconic songs. Why do an album of covers instead of new tunes? ?
GB: We certainly have covered a lot, over the years, with our own writing. The concept here was to come up with a list of songs that we wish we had written. This gives us some new songs to play live along with our classic songs.
I don’t think that we jeopardized the ‘Gee, I wish I could hear 10 new America songs” with this release. Not that there is anything wrong with that, as I write as much as I ever did. I think it was better to approach this purely as a project of recording songs that are important to us, rather than just doing covers.
GM: Let’s talk “Woodstock.” Joni Mitchell did it her way,
Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young did it their, way and now you have made a new version of it.
GB: Each one is completely different. I have to be honest; we are fans of Iain Mathews and his band, and they did a version that was much closer to what we did. We knew that it worked at that kind of tempo. We tried to make a hybrid. There were lines that were not in the CSNY version, and we wanted to make sure we used those that were in Joni’s version.
I think it is one of the best examples of the type of songs that are on this album. When we made the list of songs, we had three or four CSN songs that didn’t make the final cut. We really wanted these to be unique versions of these great songs. I think that is part of the success of the album. “Caroline No” is a great example of that. I think Dewey just nailed that. We played it for Brian [Wilson], and he just loved it.
GM: How did you decide what songs to record?
GB: We each put together a list songs, including Fred Mollin, the producer. Once we had our lists, we started to hover over them until we had the ones that made the most sense. For instance, we couldn’t end up with three James Taylor tunes on the album. We also knew we needed to have a Jimmy Webb song on there, but we needed to find the right one. It was an interesting, and, frankly, a fun process. All it has done is baited us to where we want to go and do it again. If we have success with this, then we will be going right back in and doing No. 2.
GM: Mark Knopfler is an amazing guitar player. “Sailing to Philadelphia” was a great choice.
GB: That is the only song that Dewey and I were not familiar with. When we listened to it, which was long before it became apparent that Mark was going to play on it, we realized it was an incredible song. There are so many things about Knopfler that are great, his guitar playing being one of them. This song really points out what a great writer he is. On his version, it is a duet between him and James Taylor, so that really lent itself for Dewey and I to do a duet of it.
GM: My favorite one on the album is the song that has the same name as your band.
GB: “America” is an iconic tune, as are many of the songs on the album. It would be pointless of us to cover a song like “Yesterday,” but Paul Simon’s “America” is a real treasure. This song just worked. It came out great, and it is America doing “America.”
I teach a class at Loyola, here in L.A., and I talk about iconic songs. I always mention “America,” because there is no rhyme in the lyrics. It usually goes by unnoticed because it is such a compelling lyric. You don’t need it to rhyme because you are so involved in the story that it is prose.
GM: Talk about the song you did with Fountains of Wayne.
GB: We have worked with them before. We did an album with Adam Schlesinger. Fountains of Wayne are not a new band, as they have been around quite a few years, but this is a song that is going to be on their next album.
GM: Do you stay up to date with music?
GB: I like to think that I am up to date with newer music. My oldest son, Matthew, is 32, and is quite a successful producer. He steers me to music that I might have missed. He’s always saying, “Dad, you’ve got to hear this.”
GM: I was surprised to hear you do the “Till I Hear It From You” by The Gin Blossoms; that was co-written by Marshall Crenshaw.
GB: The criteria for the album were that they had to be killer songs that are great examples that come from our best songwriters.
In the case of The Gin Blossoms, it just so happens that Marshall co-wrote the song. I think the song stands on its own, and I love their version of it. That is one of the songs that we are doing live. It is really going down well. Some people will think we are just showcasing the greatest writers of the ’60s, but we are not. I think that widens the whole scope of what we are doing.
GM: Which came first: the name of the album or the decision to do “My Back Pages” from Bob Dylan?
GB: We knew we were going to do a Bob Dylan song. We did this song with a very simple, stark, piano and vocal. It came out so well that we thought about it, and Dewey said, “That would be a good title.” It quietly refers to exactly what we were doing.
GM: Is there any temptation to run through the entire 12 songs in a live setting?
GB: We’re doing four, and that is a big chunk of a 90-minute show. It really allows us to pack the rest of the show with our biggest hits. People also know all of these songs, and they go down really well. I suppose we could play the entire album, as a lot of people are doing that right now.
GM: The twist would be that you would not be doing your biggest album, as most of the bands are doing. This would be your new album that consists of these great songs.
GB: I think that is a good idea. Later this year, we are also doing our first-ever Christmas tour. There are a lot of new things, after 41 years, going on with America. Believe it or not, the album is No. 1 on
Amazon.com, so go figure.
GM: Last one: What’s the difference between writing America tunes and reworking other people’s songs into your own?
GB: We started inside out in America, with all original material. Having said that, all bands, in high school, are cover bands. I usually make the analogy that the most iconic artists of all time, Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley, didn’t write a note; it was all about interpretation. I would hope that when you write that you really make it come from your soul. That doesn’t mean that you don’t have the right to immerse yourself in the work of others.
If we had gotten halfway through the project and discovered that we had six really bad cover songs, we would have scrapped it. We saw, clearly, where this was headed and it became better and better. We are really pleased with the outcome.