Note: This article is about the folk-rock band America, not the country 🙂 (if that’s what you’re after, head over to our songs about America playlist).
It’s ironic that a band named America got their start while living in Europe, but that’s the true story behind one of the states’ most popular groups of the ’70s. Founded by Dewey Bunnell, Gerry Beckley, and Dan Peek, they all met each other on a military base overseas while their parents served in the Air Force. With a clean folk-rock sound, the group redefined the leftover flower child movement of the ’60s, taking their soft acoustic renderings and bulking them up a bit with just enough power from layered acoustic guitars and uplifting harmonies.
They racked up hits like ‘A Horse with No Name’ and ‘Ventura Highway’ throughout the ’70s and engineered evergreen-status albums like Hearts and Holiday with The Beatles producer George Martin at the helm (who knew a thing or two about making great music).
Though Peek would leave the group in the late ’70s, Bunnell and Beckley continued as a duo and kept America’s momentum going well into the 1980s. Here we chronicle the best America songs and how they came to fruition below.
9. Daisy Jane
Founding member Gerry Beckley sang lead on ‘Daisy Jane,’ a song about troubled love that he penned. Like other tunes of his dealing with relationship issues, it isn’t about one person specifically but a compilation of experiences with different women over his lifetime. Appearing on their popular album Hearts, they had a bit of fun with it in the studio, and it caused quite a stir among America fans for some time. While recording, the band kept hearing a “thud” every few beats that listeners ultimately tagged as a “heartbeat.” The guys had trouble figuring out what it was, and they spent quite a while muting each track in order to solve the mystery. Finally, they figured out it was Beckley’s foot working a piano pedal to add sustained notes to the mix. They loved it so much they kept it in, in part because they knew it’d drive their most avid fans a bit crazy.
8. All My Life
If you’re searching for the perfect first dance song for your wedding, ‘All My Life’ is a strong contender. Another Beckley-written soft rock staple, the lyrics feature a protagonist declaring his love for his one and only, and promising to honor that love for the rest of his life. It’s an elegant track, with a pleasing bass line and an electric guitar solo that’s got just enough passion behind it to cleanly break up the mood. A strings section towards the end adds a richness to it that leaves the lyrical message feeling complete. It’s not one of America’s trademark tunes, but it’s another solid addition by the band for the archives of the folk-rock genre.
7. Tin Man
Soft rock at its finest, ‘Tin Man’ has a floating, open essence about it thanks to America’s use of suspended guitar chords that give the tune a flowery feel. It’s yet another track by the band that has a dreamlike, folksy quality. The pleasant trance is appropriate too. The lyrics for ‘Tin Man’ deal heavily with the main character by the same name from the hit film The Wizard of Oz. In the film, the friendly metallic character is in search of a heart. Commentary on romance, love, sex, and relationships are all at play in the song’s story as the protagonist’s search for a ticker of his own is present throughout. This song is one of a couple hits that landed America back on the charts after their album Hat Trick failed to produce much commercial success.
6. I Need You
Beckley heads up this dreamy ballad that finds him trying to move on after a failed relationship. Piano softly pushes the tune forward with harmonies giving it a soothing vibe. Beckley wrote ‘I Need You’ when he was still a teenager. Even at just 16 years old, his reflective old soul was front and center with his writing. When the band recorded it, they were originally going to release it as their debut single. However, a last-minute decision by the group switched things up, and they decided to go with a newer song, ‘Horse With No Name,’ as their first single instead. The song has real emotional power, and just a glance down the youtube comments for the song shows you what it means to people.
Recommended: Our list of songs about missing a loved one or a friend.
5. You Can Do Magic
America scored multiple hits in the ’70s as a trio with Dewey and Gerry playing alongside Dan Peek. However with the new decade came a new, leaner band setup when Peek exited to pursue a solo career. Now a duo, the band struggled to find commercial success. To help remedy this, they began demoing outside songwriters. Eventually, they landed on Russ Ballard and his grooving, optimistic track ‘You Can Do Magic.’ A song about changing your mind about love after finding your soulmate, though America always retained an acoustic-based sound, the ’80s influence is impossible to ignore. The song is unapologetically happy and positive, which was a big songwriting theme during this particular decade. Not only did the song mark a turning point for America’s sound, but it landed them back on the charts, proving that even as a duo they had commercial hit potential.
Recommended: Our playlist of songs that mention magic.
4. Lonely People
Another number one hit for the band on the Adult Contemporary charts, original member Dan Peek wrote this one before leaving the group to pursue a Christian music career. ‘Lonely People’ contains a spiritual theme often found in Peek’s music. Some of the lyrics towards the beginning of the composition touch on imagery found in Christian faith, “Don’t give up, until you drink from the silver cup, and ride that highway in the sky.” While it is faith-oriented, Peek actually came up with the concept when he was ruminating over what it would be like to wake up one day and not know anyone around. Peek continued to play the folksy tune after leaving the group, and changed up a few lyrics to further focus on the religious aspects of the message.
Recommended: This one features on our list of songs about isolation (along with a ton of other classics.)
3. Sister Golden Hair
The Beatles’ influence on America really shines through on ‘Sister Golden Hair.’ One of The Beatles’ producers, George Martin, even worked with America on the track, and the album it’s featured on, Hearts. Released in ’75, the acoustic-based, gentle tune was another hit for the band. With open-ended lyrics and a slightly moody feel, the song has been interpreted in different ways over the years. Though Dewey Bunnell often sang lead, bandmate Gerry Beckley stepped up to the mic for this one. Of all interpretations, his family’s was the most interesting. They thought he wrote it about his sister because she was a blonde. Though he had a good laugh about it, he did set the record straight and told an interviewer one time it definitely wasn’t about any of his family members. Given the romantic nature of the lyrics, that’d be pretty weird if it was. The popular single was pushed to the side for over a year after first recording it because the band didn’t think it had commercial potential. When asked about that, Beckley said that sometimes “songs can have a life of their own.”
Recommended: More songs with “sister” in the title.
2. Ventura Highway
Pop singer Janet Jackson sampled this long-loved America song for her 2001 hit ‘Somebody To Call My Lover.’ The beautiful opening acoustic guitar riff is immediately catchy. America’s sound is ideal easy listening, so right from the start of the tune, they put you in a good mood. The song’s video alone has racked up over 45 million Youtube views. In the grand scheme of folk rock as a whole, ‘Ventura Highway’ easily ranks as one of the genre’s biggest, most enduring hits. Frontman Dewey Bunnell thought of the idea when he was a young kid in the 7th grade. While his military father was stationed in California, his family got a flat tire during a drive up the coast. When Bunnell saw a sign for “Ventura,” the name stuck with him, and he ultimately incorporated mental snapshots from that day into the song’s lyrics. The dreamy, timeless track remains an important work of the ’70s rock movement, and a song people still love to listen to today.
Recommended: This one appears on our yacht rock playlist (yes, it’s a thing.)
1. A Horse with No Name
Much like the imagery the lyrics convey, the song itself acts almost like a mirage. No one really knows exactly what ‘A Horse With No Name’ is about, but even decades after its release, it’s still a song that’s a part of contemporary pop culture. Whether it’s featured in a movie, on an oldies station, or covered by a current mainstream act, this moody, western-inspired tune is an age-defying force. Written by Bunnell while his father was stationed in an area with vast desert terrain, it’s admirable the songwriter had the confidence to keep the quirky line, “‘Cause there ain’t no one for to give you no pain,” in the tune. Part of the chorus, the strange wording has become a signature element and a classic line people love to sing along with. Telling a tried-and-true classic American story about a man on a perilous journey, the song shot up to number 1 on the charts in 1972. Their debut single became an instant hit, and slides right into the number 1 spot on our countdown as well.
Recommended: See our list of best acoustic songs (where this one is featured.)