Most 18-year-old guitar players don’t think that much about their musical legacies. At least, Gerry Beckley of classic rock staple America said he and Dewey Bunnell sure didn’t when they founded the band with the late Dan Peek around 1970.
Beckley, who comes with America to the Keith-Albee Performing Arts Center, in Huntington, March 12, said, “But I think we’ve got a pretty good handle on that now.”
Songs like “Ventura Highway,” “Sister Golden Hair” and “Horse with No Name” have cemented the band’s place in American music.
The band began as a trio in the late 1960s. Beckley, Bunnell and Peek were the sons of U.S. Air Force personnel stationed in London. They began playing together as teenagers with borrowed instruments in the UK before catching on and exporting their folk-rock sound back to the United States.
Through the 1970s and 1980s, the band scored numerous hits on both the pop and adult contemporary charts, scored a Grammy win and maintained a presence in American music through the following decades.
Their music has been used in films, television and in video games, giving the band’s songs a much greater reach than any of them could have imagined.
“That’s beautiful,” Beckley said.
America’s music was part of a change in American music, Beckley said. They’d arrived after popular music had been influenced by earlier folk acts like Bob Dylan.
“There was just a much more different dynamic than what used to occur during the Tin Pan Alley days,” he said.
A generation before, a lot of pop music was sung by vocalists who interpreted the lyrics of other writers, like Frank Sinatra, for example.
And pop music tended to fall within narrow subject matter. Record companies wanted people to be able to sing along to the hits, Beckley said.
That changed as singer/songwriters emerged.
“As we evolved into singer/songwriters, music began to take that road down more serious, introspective tunes,” he said. “You were performing your own words, you were performing your own thoughts.”
It made songs like “Sister Golden Hair” possible, palatable and profitable.
Beckley said, “It’s an upbeat song that opens with, ‘Well I tried to make it Sunday, but I got so damned depressed.’”
Fifty years together is a long time, and Beckley said the length of time he and Bunnell have been performing together even startled them both.
“It’s quite unique,” he said. “It’s been a fantastic journey. Dewey and I are not immune to what that number represents, half a century. It’s really off the charts.”
While their biggest hits were decades ago, Beckley said they still write music.
“I write quite a bit,” he said. “But I suppose I don’t write as much as I used to.”
Beckley described himself as a volume writer.
“You write 10 songs to get two,” he said, adding, “But that doesn’t mean the eight are no good.”
It just means you write 10 with the hopes of getting two that connect with an audience. Sometimes, some of those remaining eight do just fine.
Connecting with listeners is what’s important. Choosing a message is important, though Beckley said what he writes about has changed over the years. It’s had to — he’s grown up and changed over the years.
Beckley said to take a song like The Beach Boys’ “I’m Bugged at My Ol’ Man.”
“That’s fine if you’re doing that in your teens or your early 20s,” he said. “But it’s clearly not a message you’d like to write when you’re a 40-year-old.”
After being in a band for 50 years, Beckley said touring isn’t as easy as it used to be, but the shows seem to be better.
“Almost nightly, [the shows are] a reminder of why we do this,” he said. “They’re always packed and I think we get 8 out of 10 most nights, occasionally a 9.5 or something.”
The crowds are warm.
“We’ve got it down by now,” Beckley said. “It’s really a rewarding experience.”