America Revisited - Part 7
by John Corbett
"There Isn't A Real Hard Sell": 1991 to 1995
Ironically, America's chance to finally release new material on an album came from a revived interest in America's past. In 1988, Capitol released an America retrospective on cassette called Ventura Highway & Other Favorites, which featured some of the group's better-known Capitol studio tracks and a few of the Warner hits from the 1985 In Concert performance. Three years later, in 1991, America signed on with Rhino Records, a label which specialized in re-releasing classic rock and R&B music on compact disc. By the beginning of the 1990s, many music collectors had gained enough confidence in the CD format to begin replacing their vinyl records with CD reissues, and Rhino was cashing in on the trend. Aside from their first album, plus In Concert and History/America's Greatest Hits, the remainder of the America catalog was still unreleased on CD, especially the Capitol hits and some of the better-known Warner album cuts. But Gerry and Dewey were iffy about focusing on reissues when they felt there was still life in the band to produce new material. Dewey told Steve Orchard how they came to an agreement with Rhino:
Rhino had been approaching us for a while... We just didn't know if [reissuing old material] was what we wanted to do anyway at that point. We thought we still shouldn't get into the full-on oldies rehash deal. But they sweetened the offer by allowing us to put four brand-new songs on it.
Gerry and Dewey immediately set off to put together four quality songs. One of them had already been virtually perfected in concert, the blazing rocker "Hell's On Fire." The same people who wrote the song, Dewey, Bill Mumy, and Robert Haimer, were also the ones who performed on it and produced it, along with engineer Michael Hutchinson, who had mixed artists ranging from Diana Ross and The Manhattan Transfer to Jody Watley and Taylor Dayne. The multi-talented Gerry pitched in as well, supplying everything from vocals and bass to the drum machine. The same team (with the addition of Paul Gordon on keyboards) also came up with the beautifully wistful, acoustic-flavored "Nothing's So Far Away (As Yesterday)," one of America's most appealing songs in a long while. The track would get a limited amount of airplay on various enlightened stations around the country, and seven years later it was memorable enough to be included on the Mothers Against Drunk Driving compilation, Honor Them All.
Gerry also collaborated with Mumy in writing the track "On Target," a digitized, pop-flavored song which was essentially a showcase of his many musical abilities. Produced by Culture Club and Quarterflash veteran Steve Levine at his Do Not Erase studios in London, Gerry performed all of the vocals and instrumentals on the song. The final of the four songs was "The Farm," a bitter look at a farming couple experiencing "the harsh realities of life in their search for the American dream," as Gerry put it in the liner notes. The song featured a somber atmosphere created by Gerry's simple but potent use of keyboards and passionate vocals. Written and performed entirely by Gerry, it was self-produced at the studio he had built in his Sherman Oaks home, which he called Human Nature. The personal nature of the song and its production makes it more of a solo project than a typical America collaboration. This was rooted in Gerry's desire to eventually produce his own solo material. Said Dewey in 1992:
He's certainly always wanted a solo album. He's had two or three in the can, and the label that signed him would go under just before release time, or the material was old and stale to him and he wasn't happy with it. He's had some disappointments in that area, but certainly that's one thing that I would feel fairly secure in saying is [that] in our future Gerry will at least have one solo album out there.
The four new America songs were added to the twelve others which Rhino dug from the vaults at Warner Bros. and Capitol, including the original and rare "Everyone I Meet Is From California." Among the hits that were overlooked on the compilation were "Amber Cascades" and "California Dreamin'," but this may have been necessary to fit the new tracks on the release. The compilation, which was called Encore: More Greatest Hits, was released in July 1991.
The front cover of Encore was a bit of a surprise to fans who hadn't seen America in several years -- Dewey was now a clean-shaven man, having shaved off his trademark beard the year before. "I always thought I'd only shave after I retired," Dewey said in an interview, rubbing his chin. "But I got tired of waiting. It's a whole new part of my day now."
Encore: More Greatest Hits, as the name suggests, was designed to be a supplement to the still strong-selling History/America's Greatest Hits package rather than an album with platinum sales goals. Dewey laid out the Rhino sales strategy in 1992:
It's done reasonably well by Rhino standards. It's certainly nothing comparable to the old days... A certain faction of our old fan base has bought it, which is great. That's the one thing about Rhino, there isn't a real hard sell. They don't really go out and promote the stuff. They just have good distribution.
Encore: More Greatest Hits was both the beginning and the end of America's relationship with Rhino Records. Once again, America was faced with exclusively touring for the near future. By 1992, Dewey seemed frustrated yet resigned to America's predicament:
It was frustrating for a couple years not being able to get a record deal, but now it's been five [or] six years, and you get tough-skinned after you've submitted so many demo tapes and got excited about writing this song or that, and kind of not gotten the favorable response from the executives. But the business changes, and these A&R guys are developing younger acts, and so they should be. Everybody should have their shot. These guys are in these little clubs and garage bands and what not. They're going to develop them probably before trying to retread an old group like our own.
The rediscovery of America's music which led to Encore: More Greatest Hits continued after the band left Rhino. In 1992, all of the remaining Warner Bros. albums -- Homecoming, Hat Trick, Holiday, Hearts (including a bonus track, "Simple Life"), Hideaway, Harbor, and Live -- were released on CD in Japan, while the Ventura Highway & Other Favorites compilation finally made its way to CD in the United States. By 1994, the View From The Ground album was beginning to circulate on CD in various foreign markets. Sales of import America CDs were brisk as collectors began to replace their dusty old vinyl albums with shiny new compact discs -- including Dewey and Gerry, who stocked up on the Japanese releases when they toured over there. Also selling well was "The Last Unicorn" soundtrack, which was released on CD in 1992. In Germany, as "Das Letzte Einhorn," the soundtrack became a belated hit, as Dewey remembered in 1998:
"The Last Unicorn" was a very big hit in Germany. We didn't realize it until we were back over there a couple years ago -- we did a bunch of festivals and stuff -- and people were asking for that song. They'd bring the [soundtrack to the movie] up for autographs... So we had to rush into a rehearsal and knock that thing into shape.
In 1993, after eight years without a record deal, America was finally offered the chance to record a new album with the right amount of creative control. They signed a multi-album contract with Chip Davis's Omaha-based American Gramaphone Records, best known for its many Manheim Steamroller releases. Davis's "compositional technique mixes classical music architecture with rock 'n' roll rhythms in a blend of old and new that has come to define Chip's unique style," reads the American Gramaphone press release -- an environment which seemed perfectly suited for America's elegant form of sophisticated rock.
In early 1994, America set out to record their first full-length studio album in a decade. The main body of the songs were recorded in Omaha and at Gerry's home-based Human Nature studios back in California, featuring Gerry on virtually all of the instrumentation along with Dewey on guitars and vocals, and a new sidekick, Hank Linderman, a studio-savvy guitarist who was writing a book called Hot Tips For The Home Recording Studio. The result was a varied blending of Gerry's increasingly keyboard-based pop sound and Dewey's more traditional acoustic feel. "Young Moon," the first track on the album, was one of Dewey's songs which was embellished by Gerry. Dewey describes the developing songwriting partnership between the two:
[Gerry] helps me with my songs. Generally speaking, I'll come with verses and choruses and I'm always stumped trying to get a bridge, and he's terrific at writing bridges.
"Young Moon" featured a jazzy feel with lush orchestration by Davis himself, perhaps the most romantic song that either Dewey or Gerry has ever written. The next track, "Hope," was a song about exactly that by Gerry, featuring a contemporary rhythm and an anthem-like refrain sung by Dewey toward the end of the piece. Other songs tackled different musical directions. "Ports-Of-Call" was a reggae-influenced observation of the excitement of traveling ships. "Call Of The Wild" was Gerry's straightforward acoustic piece. A remade "You Can Do Magic" was designed to help acclimatize listeners to the new sound with a nostalgic number. "Whole Wide World" and the beautiful "Garden Of Peace," which included long-time friend Carl Wilson on a touching guest vocal, were more acoustic-oriented to fit Dewey's style. "Sleeper Train," a song reflecting on the many complex changes that life has to offer, was written by Dewey and old cohorts Bill Mumy (who was getting back into a major TV role as Lennier on "Babylon 5") and Robert Haimer.
For "Close To The Wind," Gerry once again teamed up with Steve Levine at his Do Not Erase studios in London for what was practically a solo effort. Gerry performed and produced nearly the entire song, with Levine adding his touch and Dewey singing backup vocals. But studio heroics were only part of the album, however. The enduring stage lineup of Dewey, Gerry, Willie Leacox, Brad Palmer, and Michael Woods performed two rough, live-flavored recordings in Van Nuys, California. The first was Dan Peek's perennial favorite, "Everyone I Meet Is From California," with Dewey taking lead vocals. The other, Bunnell, Mumy, and Haimer's "Greenhouse," had been a popular scorched-earth rocker for years, originally introduced in concert in early 1986.
While America music has never been political, Dewey and Gerry have been involved in various causes over the years, ranging from literacy, voter registration, and AIDS. One such benefit led to the pop-oriented track "Mirror To Mirror". According to a press release from 1994:
"It was a charity ski rally," Beckley recalled. "And I saw a couple talking to each other on the slope dressed in full ski gear, including mirrored goggles. I suddenly realized, as they were jockeying for a better glimpse of themselves in the reflection of their partner's glasses, that they weren't communicating with each other at all. It was a good analogy for some relationships."
In May 1994, the album reached record stores, America's first full-length studio release in nearly a decade. A lot of time had passed since then, and even more so since the group had been formed 24 years earlier. Nostalgia and time were themes which permeated the album. As a result, the selection of the title, Hourglass, perfectly reflected both. The liner notes express Gerry and Dewey's feelings about the new album:
Here it is 1994! Twenty-four years since "America" formed... straight out of high school! Sometimes it seems like yesterday and other times it feels like a lifetime ago. This is album number 18... or something! A lot has changed in this last quarter-century; this album was digitally recorded using the latest state-of-the-art technology and instrumentation of course, but some things haven't changed. Harmony voices sound just as nice as they used to, and it feels just as good to be making a new record!
While Hourglass triumphantly demonstrated that America was back in creative form, it still failed to move off the shelves. American Gramaphone was able to nurture the America sound, but was incapable of delivering the kind of publicity America needed to bring it to the public. A few "Rediscover America" advertisements were placed in industry publications, but outside of appearances on "Live With Regis And Kathie Lee" and Howard Stern's controversial radio show, there was essentially no publicity of the sort America needed to reestablish their commercial viability. Hourglass never came anywhere close to making the Billboard charts, and an attempt at a hit single in "Young Moon" flopped.
With the poor commercial showing of Hourglass, American Gramaphone exercised its option not to pick up another America album. Gerry and Dewey by now understood the ups and downs of the industry quite well, and took it in stride. Noted Dewey:
We had hoped after Hourglass with American Gramaphone that we might get another album on their label, but we understand if it doesn't do so much business. They have to make a decision. It's an expensive proposition making an album and promoting it.
Dan Peek, too, made a return of sorts in 1994 when he helped produce the new group Peace, comprised of his old friends Ken Marvin and Brian Gentry, in Nashville, Tennessee. Unlike their 1989 collaboration, Light Of The World, Marvin and Gentry moved away from overtly Christian songs and instead focused on a mellow, soft-rock sound, admittedly heavily influenced by America. On the Peace album, which was entitled Stronger Than You Know, Dan co-wrote three songs, and contributed backing vocals, electric guitar, and harmonica. The record was commercially invisible, being released in limited, mail-order fashion on Dan's own Seven Mile Records, but he was pleased nonetheless:
Brian Gentry and Ken Marvin who comprise Peace remind me very much of Dewey and Gerry when we first met... I have high hopes for Peace. In fact, Seven Mile Records is my own label put together specifically for the band. I have even toyed with the idea of joining them. That's how much I enjoy their stuff. For the moment, however, I am content to work behind the scenes. Additionally, I continue to write and record my own things. In fact, I feel like an "artist" again.