It was nearly a half-century ago when it happened, but Dewey Bunnell vividly remembers the wild and immediate ride to fame he enjoyed with his partners, Gerry Beckley and the late Dan Peek, not long after they formed the group America.
“When you’re in the middle of the storm, it’s hard to even catch your breath,” Bunnell says. “We just barely got out of the box and had a No. 1 album, a No. 1 single virtually worldwide and we were 18, 19 and 20 years old when we recorded that first album in 1971.”
The album was America’s self-titled debut; the single, “A Horse With No Name,” which Bunnell wrote. The trio got together at the dawn of the 1970s as sons of U.S. Air Force personnel stationed in London.
“We were kind of Woodstock kids,” Bunnell says. “Songwriting was so important. Our passion and our excitement was with singer-songwriters from Lennon and McCartney and Brian Wilson through James Taylor and Crosby, Stills & Nash — all those people. That’s what we were aspiring to more than the glitz and the glamour and the money, I think.”
Those things would come, though, as America’s run of hits continued with “I Need You,” “Ventura Highway,” “Tin Man,” “Lonely People” and “Sister Golden Hair,” among others.
America, Bunnell says, was a team effort. “We had a group mentality. We had autonomy between the three of us, where each of us could express themselves. But we all had elements that contributed: One’s weakness was the others’ strength.”
Amid that run of its greatest success, America recorded five albums with famed Beatles producer George Martin.
“He was just a wonderful man,” Bunnell says. “A very regal kind of British guy — tall and commanding as a physical presence. We were in awe of him right from the beginning. But as a person, he was great.”
Peek left the band in 1977, renouncing the excesses of the rock ’n’ roll lifestyle and renewing his religious beliefs. He went on to help pioneer the contemporary Christian genre and bought a home in Farmington, Mo., where he lived until his death in 2011.
“That was the rockiest time for the band,” Bunnell says. “Gerry and I really had to reach down and say, ‘No, no, no, we got a lot left in us.’”
Which they did. America’s most recent album of original material is 2015’s “Lost & Found.” Prior to that was the notable release “Here & Now” from 2007, on which Bunnell and Beckley were joined by younger musicians who are fans. It was produced by Adam Schlesinger of Fountains of Wayne and James Iha of Smashing Pumpkins and includes contributions from Jim James, Ryan Adams and Ben Kweller among others.
But back for a moment to Bunnell’s signature hit. “A Horse With No Name” was a song, he says, “certainly of youthful idealism or introspection. It just kind of flowed out as a travelogue: the sights and sounds of the desert, which I was sort of pining for while living in the cold and dreary of England. I really wanted that ‘heat was hot’ and that stark, bright desert with interesting stuff: ‘plants and birds and rocks and things.’
“As I got older, it became more of an inner-journey thing. Being alone and transporting yourself somewhere different, and the horse was just a vehicle.”
He adds with a laugh, “See, I’ve overthought this.”
America’s hitting the mark of 50 years is a bit startling, Bunnell admits. “It just kind of snuck up. The first 25 years seem to go along at the normal clip: It took a long time. And then these last 25, it just seems like, ‘Wow, how did that happen?’”
There are a number of projects that will be released surrounding the anniversary, including various compilations — the box set (“50th Anniversary: The Collection” is already out), a book and a documentary.
And significantly, they’ll continue to stay out there on the road.
“We’re very grateful for the career and the longevity,” Bunnell says. “We feel very grateful that we’ve still got an audience and still work and keep working. That’s the main thing: We really are a working band.”
What America • When 8 p.m. Friday • Where Blanche M. Touhill Performing Arts Center, 1 University Boulevard • How much $37-$109 • More info 866-516-4949; touhill.org