Gerry Beckley spends a lot of time in airports. A lot. As co-founder of the ‘70s hitmaking-and-still-touring group America, the singer/guitarist, partner Dewey Bunnell, and their band play 100+ gigs a year. That means they’re out there on the road about 200 days annually, which means a lot of waiting and watching in terminals.
During those times, he’s seen a lot of uniformed U.S. military soldiers coming and going. That inspired the song “Sudden Soldier” off his upcoming solo record, Five Mile Road (Blue Elan Records), which he actually starts with the lyric “I live in airports.”
“I’ve seen all sorts of things there. But there’s more and more these scenes of young kids just out of Basic Training heading off to serve somewhere. And they have this look in their eyes of ‘What are we doing? Where are we going?’” Beckley offers. “And often there will be some kind of tribute on the plane with people clapping. They’re really going off into the [unknown].”
In fact, there’s plenty of reflection on the dozen tracks that make up Five Mile Road. About life’s journey, relationships romantic and otherwise, the comforts of home pitted against the thrills of the road, and a clear-eyed view of the past. At 66 years old, Beckley says he could only make this record at this point in his life.
“The challenge is that you never want to approach doing a new record and go in thinking that it will never match a [previous work]. But the cliché is you just make the best record you can at that time. And for me that’s whether it’s an America project or a solo record,” Beckley says.
And while he notes that the musical decisions in America are “not a democracy” (hard to do anyway with just two people…) and whoever has the “stronger opinion” wins, it’s different for solo works. “When you do something on your own, you bundle up things that convey were you are at that time. Rock and roll is a young man’s game. And for those of us who have stuck it out, it’s about how to be relevant and make a listening experience. Something like what Eric Clapton does is the target.”
The record is clearly also the work of a mature artist, and Beckley hopes that comes across to the listener. “[The songs] come from a place of certain clarity. If you have kids, you always think if you could only impart your wisdom of the years on them you could save them a lot of missteps,” he says. “But you can’t, because they occur during the passing of time. But you better have a clearer view when you get here. I would hate to think you’re as foggy at 60 as you were at 40.”
And when Beckley says Five Mile Road is a solo record, he means solo. That’s him playing almost all the instruments (including drums), with a little assistance from actor/musician Bill Mumy, former Chicago singer/bassist Jason Scheff, and Poco guitarist Rusty Young. And that's voice stacked layer upon layer – with just a tint of help from singers Jeffrey Foskett and Jeff Larson. It immediately brings to mind the harmonies of the Beach Boys or Beatles, which is no accident.
“Some of my greatest moments for my own inspiration are when you hear some of the greatest works of our generation. For me, I loved Brian Wilson from day one,” he offers. “I look at things like ‘God Only Knows’ or ‘Caroline, No’ as the pinnacle of our craft.”
As for his main gig, America still tours around the world every year, playing their plethora of hits including “A Horse with No Name,” “Ventura Highway,” “Tin Man,” “Muskrat Love,” “Sandman” and many more. That’s Beckley taking lead vocals on “Sister Golden Hair,” “Daisy Jane,” “I Need You,” “Only In Your Heart,” and “You Can Do Magic.” The other member of the original trio, Dan Peek, left the band in 1977 to pursue mostly Christian music and passed in 2011.
Things are really gearing up for America’s big 50th anniversary year in 2020. They’ve already been the subject of a lengthy segment on “CBS Sunday Morning.” That – to Beckley’s amazement - featured video shot from a drone flying over a convertible car as Beckley, Bunnell, and reporter John Blackstone sped down the real Ventura Highway.
They filmed a sit-down with Dan Rather for his music talk show “The Big Interview” and also an upcoming PBS concert. There’s an authorized book. And their music has or will come out in three different box sets: a career-spanning anthology, a complete collection of their prime work on Capitol Records, and one of rarities and unreleased material. And while Beckley says the America schedule is too packed right now for him to even think about doing any solo shows to promote Five Mile Road, songs from it are played before and after each America show. Though he has realistic expectations for its physical sale.
“The demise of the album itself is a much longer conversation. We grew up with having a side one and side two and about 20 minutes on each side, so you could experience a record whole,” Beckley says. “That blew up with the CD, which could carry more music. So records stopped being a front-to-end listening experience and companies started front loading them with the hits in case people didn’t make it through the whole thing. And now, you can stream just half a song and move on.”
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Finally, by sheer coincidence the night before this talk, I read that Gerry Beckley is mentioned in the upcoming Nick Lowe biography Cruel to Be Kind. In it, Lowe recalls running into Beckley in the mid-‘70s and he was “suntanned, shirt slashed to the waist, looking quite prosperous, like he’d just walked off Venice Beach.”
Beckley then asked Lowe and Rockpile bandmate Dave Edmunds if they’d like to go to a party and see “some of his friends.” The British duo agreed, then were shocked when they walked into the room to see the “friends” included Beatles and Who drummers Ringo Starr and Keith Moon and singer/songwriter Harry Nilsson. All were, um, feeling no pain at the time.
“I’m afraid that’s true! Far out!” Beckley laughs when told, before telling his own anecdote. “Nick is a treasure, and we go all the way back to the first Brinsley Schwarz album. We were huge fans. One of America’s first gigs after we started to make it big was opening for the Band. And Nick and Brinsley were such fanatics of the Band, they wanted us to sneak out there and write down their amp settings! I’ll think I’ll reconnect with Nick and catch up. And Bob, you can say that you were the catalyst!”