Three Decades of Pure Pop: The magical smooth-toned pop music of America

w/ Poco
Fri. March 14
8 p.m.
North Charleston Performing Arts Center
5001 Coliseum Drive
(843) 529-5050

"Sister Goldenhair" from the album Harbour
Audio File

"You Can Do Magic" from the album View from the Ground
Audio File

Singer/guitarist Dewey Bunnell of America admits that he thought by the end of the '90s the group was probably entering a phase of being a touring only act. He and bandmate Gerry Beckley were still writing songs and had released two albums earlier that decade, Hourglass and Human Nature. But both came and went with little notice, largely because they were on independent record labels with limited resources for promotion and distribution.

"I really did, sort of in my own mind, resign myself to the fact that the recording career was all but finished," Bunnell says. "We had some good innings, and then there are younger fans and different formats on radio, and that's the nature of the beast."

But Bunnell's thinking just might be premature. America is back with a two-CD set, Here & Now, which features one disc of new studio material and a second disc that comes from a concert recorded for XM Satellite Radio that features Bunnell, Beckley, and their touring band playing the group's classic hits.

Here & Now involves some unlikely collaborations. Released last year, the album was co-produced by Adam Schlesinger (of Fountains of Wayne) and James Iha (the former Smashing Pumpkins guitarist) — two musicians associated with modern alternative rock, not the kind of relaxed country-pop for which America is known.

In addition, the group covers tunes by Nada Surf ("Always Love") and My Morning Jacket ("Golden"). Guest musicians in the session included Ryan Adams and Ben Kweller.

The beginning of the collaboration can be traced to Beckley, who, along with Bunnell, had become fans of Fountains of Wayne. Beckley struck up an e-mail correspondence with Schlesinger.

"It turned out he was a fan of the band," Beckley says. "As that kind of developed, we were swapping songs and sending things back and forth, and he said. 'Why don't you come to New York, and we'll try a couple of things?' So it all developed very organically. That vibe kind of just followed through the whole project."

The involvement of the notable names from the alt-rock scene helped America get its deal with Burgundy Records, which has major label distribution through Sony.

"We had been striking out with major labels for quite awhile," Bunnell says.

Melodic, easy-going songs like "Love & Leaving," "Indian Summer," and "Chasing the Rainbow" sound like they could have been on one of America's early records. That's not to say the songs sound dated. Instead, it's more a reflection of the timeless consistency of the group's music.

The group began as a trio, with Dan Peek as the third member. They met while attending London Central High School (each was born to an American father and British mother). Using acoustic instruments as a foundation for their songs, they released a self-titled debut in 1971.

It made only a modest impact originally, but when Bunnell finished a song he'd originally titled "Desert Song," the producer of the album, Ian Samwell, had the group retitle the song "Horse with No Name" and release it as a single. The song quickly caught on and was added to the first album, which was re-released in 1972.

The hot streak continued with the second album, Homecoming and a signature hit, "Ventura Highway." The musically ambitious Hat Trick slumped somewhat on the charts, but 1974's Holiday featured the hits "Tin Man" and "Lonely People." Hearts included the '75 hit "Sister Golden Hair." English studio producer George Martin worked on Holiday and Hearts.

"Martin was totally receptive right from the very beginning," says Bunnell of the Beatles' producer. "He really did want to get into something, another project, with an artist he could work with and mold a little bit. We were young guys, very keen, very energetic, and we were successful. So he had this kind of package there. So he said, 'Sure, let's give it a shot.'"

Martin ended up producing five more America albums, sticking with the group after Peek left in 1977. And while the collaboration resulted in some strong music and a lasting friendship, after Hearts, the group's popularity started fading, and it wasn't until 1982 and the album View from the Ground that America enjoyed a resurgence with the hit "You Could Do Magic."

With the rise of disco, punk, and New Wave in the late 1970s and early '80s, America seemed out of step with the music scene. There was a brief moment, Bunnell says, when a switch to country was suggested and emphatically rejected.

"That wasn't our thing, even though we liked country and still do," Bunnell says.

Here & Now allows them a chance to reconnect with their audience and make sme new fans.

"We have a whole evening of hits, which is our good fortune," Beckley says of the current tour. "The challenge from year to year is how to mix it up for the fans who come back to repeat shows. To be honest, it's not like a tough challenge, but every year we want to mess it up a little bit with different album cuts and stuff."


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