Home on the range at Portuguese Bend with Dewey Bunnell
by Bondo Wyszpolski
I’ve come to Portuguese Bend to talk with Dewey Bunnell about horses, wild horses as well as the one in the backyard of the home he shares with his wife Penny. But there’d been sad news the day before, and Bunnell briefly reminisced about surf guitarist Dick Dale, whose obit had appeared online and in print. That a discussion about horses would begin with a discussion about musical influences shouldn’t be surprising. Bunnell is a founding member of the internationally-known pop-rock group America. Dick Dale was responsible for getting him into music, he said
“The every first guitar hero I ever had was Dick Dale,” Bunnell says. This was in the early 1960s, when Bunnell’s father was stationed at Vandenberg Air Force Base near Lompoc. “I was only 13 at the time, if even that. My parents played a lot of Elvis, Patsy Cline and Tony Bennett. So I’d heard music but it was just background music.”
And then he heard Dick Dale.
“I remember really listening to that sound, that deep, loud reverb guitar, and I got into it. And that’s what inspired me to pick up the guitar.” His neighbor had one, Bunnell continues. “I thought, I’m gonna try and pick out that sound, ‘Miserlou,’ or whatever it was: single note, instrumental, didn’t have to learn a lot of chords. So it was a real stunner for me to learn that he died yesterday.”
The early 1960s was the golden era of instrumental surf music: “Pipeline” by the Chantays, “Mr. Moto” by the Belairs, “Wipe Out” by the Surfaris, “Walk Don’t Run” by the Ventures…
“I moved onto all those band, too,” Bunnell says. “It really was a coming of age time for me at that point. It led right into the Beach Boys and the Beatles and the British Invasion and all of that in the ‘60s that I’ve never lost interest in. Somehow I found my way into a band in high school and we became the band America.”
Talking horse sense
“Because I wrote ‘A Horse With No Name,’ a lot of people assume I had a strong connection with horses, which was not true,” Bunnell admits. “I’d never been around horses in my life. I like horses, I like animals, and I’ve always liked the diversity of wildlife, but horses in general, to be honest, I always thought they were a little too big.”
That was before he met Penny, who was born and raised in Wisconsin and who had a horse (presumably with a name) when she was a young girl.
“We got talking,” Bunnell continues, “and she told me about how wonderful it was having a horse, and how sad [she was] when she lost it.” I’m assuming all this is true since Penny, who I would describe as exuberant, is sitting across from us in the parlor that looks out over the backyard.
Bunnell is often on the road fulfilling his rock star obligations. America tries to play about 100 shows a year. It may have been while her husband was performing in some distant city that Penny became involved with a wild horse rescue organization. And it’s at this point, really, that our story begins. Coming home, tugging off his cowboy boots, Bunnell asked her exactly what it was they were trying to do.
Penny explained it to him, Bunnell listened, and eventually took up promoting the cause.
“I didn’t know anything about wild horses being rounded up and maybe not having the lives they deserve,” he says. “I understand that conservation is a touchy subject and it conflicts with enterprises and capitalism and business. But to consider the great American wild horse, the mustang, as vermin, or as a nuisance, is really inappropriate. We have to take care of our own and this is a great animal. So I think it’s good to spotlight some of these organizations that are trying to educate the public to the fact that there are some bad things happening with some good wild horses.”
These horses live on federal land, overseen by the Bureau of Land Management. “It was fine,” Bunnell continues, “until a lot of these federal lands started being leased out to ranchers for cattle and grazing, and then there are the oil and gas concerns that lease federal land. One of the victims of that situation is that these wild horses have to be pushed around and moved off the areas that are being used by the lessees.”
Along with shrinking acreage, there’s the overpopulation. According to a recent Associated Press article by Mead Gruver, “More than 55,000 more wild horses and burros live in the West than the roughly 27,000 the BLM says can thrive in harmony with the landscape.”
Penny mentions that the wild horse rescue groups advocate addressing overpopulation through birth control. “They can do this annually, and that’s better than rounding them up and sending them to slaughter.”
“There’s a tipping point where an animal can proliferate too much,” Bunnell adds, “but that doesn’t seem to be the motive.” And what that motive is, apparently, is protecting the interests of the mining and drilling corporations and the cattle ranchers who are indirectly satisfying our hankering for a juicy hamburger or steak.
Cattle ranchers versus wild horses: “I’m sure there are compassionate ranchers,” Bunnell says, “but somebody has to speak for the horses, too.”
In the meantime, the Bureau of Land Management is actively soliciting owners of large, private pastures, to take in some of the overflow. There are prerequisites, of course, but the US government is also throwing in a financial incentive. However, for those who don’t have a zillion acres that can accommodate a few thousand equine refugees, there’s another way. You can start by having $125 in your checking account.
What does the guy who wrote “A Horse With No Name” end up having, nearly half a century after penning that song? A horse called Noname, that’s what. Talk about destiny.
When you marry a woman who loves horses and the house you move into has a couple of empty horse stalls in the yard, what do you think happens? Well, maybe she makes the case that taking in a wild but endangered horse could be a good thing, and not only because it saves an animal’s life but reveals a solidarity with the cause.
“I couldn’t very well argue with Penny at that point,” Bunnell says. “ I said, ‘Sure, let’s give it a shot.’”
So they got in touch with the Palomino Valley National Wild Horse and Burro Center on the outskirts of Reno, Nevada. A woman there who’d been photographing wild horses took pictures of a several-month-old filly that caught her eye. “She emailed Penny,” Bunnell recalls, “and said, ‘If you’re ever going to get the horse, I see the one you should get.’ So she basically picked it out.”
A few weeks later, holding pictures of the horse, Penny said, “All I want for Christmas is a pony. That one.”
They laugh about it now.
“Penny did all the legwork,” Bunnell says. “You do have to go through a lot of bureaucracy. First of all, you have to have a facility that complies. They’re not gonna give just anybody a horse for $125. That’s just the beginning.”
It sounds a little like a mail order bride, but here it’s bridle and not bridal.
A couple of additions to the horse stalls were needed, and photos had to be sent to the BLM. The latter saw to it that the horse didn’t have any medical issues, no outstanding warrants or prior convictions, that sort of thing.
“Then the day came when we were to go pick her up,” Bunnell says. “We rented a horse trailer and drove 307 miles to Reno.”
The horse was cut from the herd and funneled through ever-narrowing chutes. There wasn’t much room to maneuver when she got to the last one, which led into the stall of the horse trailer. As might be expected of a wild horse, she began rearing up. But after she was safely in the trailer Bunnell turned around and drove 307 miles in the other direction, back to Portuguese Bend.
They did wonder if she would bolt out like an enraged beast, but after coaxing the horse from the trailer Penny was able to guide her to her stall. “We put hay in there,” she says, “and she went right in.” This took place in January of last year.
“And that was it,” Bunnell says. “Now we had a horse.”
Naturally, a few days were required before she became accustomed to the new surroundings and to the pair of two-legged humans who went with it. She bit them once or twice and kicked Shiloh, their dog. She doesn’t bite anymore, but Shiloh’s still not getting near her.
Bunnell admits that for a while he was resistant to the idea of being a horse owner, even though she was soon called Noname, pronounced with three syllables, no-nah-may, which makes one thing it could be a descendent of the horse that Geronimo rode into battle. “I just kept worrying about how many things could go wrong,” he adds, “and I was concerned about expense, which isn’t as bad as I thought. It’s been a real success story, to be honest. There’s been very little downside at all.”
If this was a TV show instead of a printed page, the following would be flashing across the bottom of your screen: lovewildhorses.org.
Back on the highway
Penny and Dewey Bunnell were married in 2002. She’d been living in Lomita and working for a company that sold medical equipment to hospitals. Music-making of a different sort. However, her sister and brother-in-law lived in Palos Verdes, and Penny used to have an Arabian horse that she boarded on the Hill. So, one thing leading to another, Penny and Dewey have lived on the peninsula for 17 years.
“We’re natives now,” Penny says with a laugh.
As pleasant as their surroundings are in Portuguese Bend, the couple also owns 50 acres in Wisconsin where they often spend time during the summer. There is a small regional airport nearby, from which Bunnell must then fly to Minneapolis for additional flights when he’s meeting his band for an engagement.
It appears that America is performing more often these days.
“We’re in our 49th year,” Bunnell replies. “We started in 1970, but we’ve had our peaks and valleys. The big years were the ‘70s and early ‘80s. That’s what people want to hear, the music from the ‘70s, which I’m fine with. We’ve made a lot of other records throughout our career. That’s really tapered off considerably.” But in honor of the approaching milestone (50 years), he’s promising a few new projects, documentary footage, a biography of the group by a New York writer and another big box set.
“We’ve been very fortunate that we’ve come up on a slow rise as a class rock band that’s got legs. Our catalog of songs still gets airplay.” Bunnell mentions several of them, ranging from “Sister Golden Hair” and “Tin Man” to “Ventura Highway,” “You Can Do Magic,” and “Lonely People.”
“It’s not just ‘Horse With No Name,’ although you’re always branded with that first impression. There’re a lot of songs, and that transfers to the live shows,” which he admits he still enjoys doing. In fact, “I don’t think I really appreciated the live shows nearly as much as I have the last quarter century.” He cites the audience response, the instant gratification, the opportunity to meet new fans. Some old-timers might grumble about having to go out on the road, but from Bunnell there’s not a single sour note.
“We’re still a five-piece,” he continues, “but we got a young drummer and young guitar player who are just excellent. Then there’s Gerry Beckley, myself, and Rich Campbell our bass player. So, what’s not to like right now? As long as we got our health, which is the whole point of life anyway, right? You can’t do anything if you don’t have that.”
The group’s website, which includes information about wild horses, is venturahighway.com.