A young first-time biographer pitching an authorized book on the band that covered the song Muskrat Love couldn’t have been an easy sell to a publisher. But the 31-year-old New Yorker Jude Warne got it done, and it wasn’t a forward by actor Billy Bob Thornton that clinched the deal.
America, the Band (published by Rowman & Littlefield) is a deep dive into the music of a critically unloved act that rode high in the charts in the 1970s with soft-rock hits A Horse With No Name, Sister Golden Hair and others. Interviews with the trio’s two surviving and still active members, Gerry Beckley and Dewey Bunnell, complement an analysis of America’s music.
Warne spoke to The Globe and Mail from her home in New York.
You write in the introduction that you take inspiration from pioneering music critics Greil Marcus and Lester Bangs. Is it safe to say that neither was a fan of America?
You’re right. A lot of critics didn’t deem America’s music worth taking apart, especially after their first album, which was their most successful. There’s not a lot written about their records in the eighties. Critics found more to analyze with new wave and postpunk artists like the Clash and Elvis Costello. With America, there’s a lot of undiscovered territory, and that was appealing to me as a younger person.
Do you consider yourself a champion of America? An advocate?
I would agree with that. As soon as I discovered their deep cuts, I definitely became an advocate. It was new to me, and I wanted to tell people about them.
What are you championing, exactly?
One of the most valuable parts of America’s legacy and lasting quality of their discography is that they stuck to the timeless themes in their compositions about love and happiness, where a lot of sixties bands moved away from that in the seventies. You could argue, and I do, that their catalogue captured the essence of the hippie generation’s ethos in a very pure way. They isolated the emotional strands of that time and kept using them, even after the sixties were over.
You get to that when you write that like Jackson Browne and the Eagles’ Take it Easy, America’s Ventura Highway was a song that defined its generation. But does that generation want to be defined by the Eagles and America? Wouldn’t they prefer Springsteen as their definer?
Things in the seventies were split. There was a lot of strong, angry rock that came out. There was a lot of turmoil with that.
Yes. And if you look at America’s catalogue, that disillusion wasn’t prominent in their songs. But Bruce Springsteen and America are not exclusive of each other. I like Springsteen a lot. I think you have to join them together to get the ultimate seventies articulation.
My favourite anecdote in your book is about the first time America met David Crosby. When they told him how much they loved his music, he replied, ‘That’s obvious.’ Did the guys tell you that?
They did tell me that, though they have cited it before. It’s one of their favourite memories of their introduction into the So-Cal lifestyle and meeting all their heroes. It’s very fitting of Crosby’s character, with that wry outlook he’s known for. And it speaks to the influence that Crosby, Stills & Nash had on America. It always gets a chuckle, and they like it. They became friends with Crosby.
You also mention America’s Dewey Bunnell turning down Joni Mitchell’s offer to accompany her to Las Vegas to see Elvis Presley perform. Who does that? Did he say why he turned her down?
He didn’t speak at length about it. It was one of those funny asides. But I think it was indicative of the times. I think it was important at the time to take sides. Elvis Presley wasn’t cool then. It was a young person’s attitude not to appreciate someone like him and his commercial success.
Other than writing your book, how would you turn someone on to America?
I would recommend listening to their whole albums. I love their greatest hits, but as soon as I began listening to their entire records, I saw how complex and nuanced the music is, especially the early albums. Hat Trick, for example, is my favourite. It’s a bit murky and moody. A lot of what I like is the mood they create sonically, and Hat Trick captures the rawest version of them.
This interview has been edited and condensed
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