A classic pop group’s 40th anniversary is marked by triumph and tragedy

Gerry Beckley and Dewey Bunnell of America are celebrating their fourth decade together with an album of cover versions, Back Pages, which harks back to the group’s formation as high school friends living abroad in England. America immediately scored with megahits like “A Horse With No Name,” “Ventura Highway” and “Sister Golden Hair” before fellow founding member Dan Peek departed to make contemporary Christian music in 1977. Beckley and Bunnell went on to continued success as a duo, and in 2007 enjoyed their highest-charting album in 25 years with Here & Now. We spoke with Beckley from his home in California about his group’s durability and Peek’s tragic death from heart disease in July.

How did you decide which songs you wanted to do on Back Pages?

We had done so many albums where it was our own material, and there was a selection process for all of that—you lay all your cards on the table and let everybody else comment. This was a different set of criteria. I picked songs that I thought were strong and that I would like to sing, and Dewey did the same thing. Then Fred Mollin, who produced the project and has an incredibly deep knowledge of music, had his own list. The three of us threw in well over 50 tunes, and then everybody narrowed it down. It was a cool process.

How do you and Dewey relate now?

It’s gone through many changes over the years. We first met in high school, before we were even in a band together, so there’s a foundation that goes way beyond the 40 years. Once Dan left in ’77, that was one of the bigger adjustments, to go from a three-piece to a two-piece, but if anything it strengthened our relationship. We call it a democracy, but what we really mean is that whoever is more passionate about a particular issue, the other will usually defer to him.

When did you last talk to Dan?

We spoke earlier this year about a couple of tunes he had and the idea of getting together to work on them. We hadn’t spoken for quite a while, but I did on occasion get an email from him, so it wasn’t like we never heard from him. It was a pretty open story. People would ask us, “What about Dan?” and we’d say, “Well, he’s got his own website and he continues to record his own music.” But it’s been a very emotional few weeks. It was just way too early for anybody. He was only 60.

You were on some of Dan’s solo stuff.

Yeah, in fact a YouTube clip came to me just the other day with the making of one of his contemporary Christian albums, and the producer had a camera in the control room. I come in saying hello to everybody, and there’s Dan. It was a bizarre sense of déjà vu. Fortunately that was a really great session and everything worked out really well, and it’s all there. You can just sit and watch the recording process and how we figured our harmonies out. I can thank Google Alert for that one.

What’s next for America?

The Back Pages album is a very good example of something we’d never done. It just goes to show you that when you think you’ve covered every space and you’ve played everywhere, there’s always something else going on. Recording other people’s material was so rewarding. I can imagine there’s at least another album there if we find the time to do it, because there was such a long list of great songs. So, onward and upward.

–Jesse Thompson

‘Whoever is more passionate about an issue,
the other will usually defer to him.’

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