America Revisited - Part 8
by John Corbett
America Enters Cyberspace: 1995 to 2000
While America may have entered 1995 without a record deal, they continued to have many dedicated fans. That year witnessed the virtual explosion of the Internet into the public scene. With it came an avalanche of America-related publications in cyberspace. After an initial America chat folder fared well on America OnLine, Ike Gauley, a longtime friend of the band who also served as their photographer, and Rick Wahlgren, a schoolteacher and rabid America fan from Ferndale, Washington, joined forces to create the first America home pages on the World Wide Web. Gauley's America In Pictures page featured examples of his great photographic work in covering the band, while Wahlgren's America Home Page enabled fans to get the latest information on America recordings, concerts, and trivia. Sue Robbins, a professor at Lock Haven University in central Pennsylvania, started off the America Express, America's first newsletter in cyberspace, which featured concert reviews, analysis of past America recordings, and current doings. In addition came an America newsgroup at alt.music.america, which later died after being inundated by confused 'Net surfers, a name change to alt.music.beckley-bunnel, and an unwelcome aspect of the Internet -- spam. It was a far cry from the early days when the only way to get information on the group was by writing to Cross Roads Of The World.
In July 1995, King Biscuit Flower Hour Records, an offshoot of the popular and long-running radio concert show, released America's September 4, 1982, performance on CD, as America In Concert (not to be confused with the 1985 album of virtually the same name). Along with the Warner and Capitol hits were included the elusive "California Dreamin'" and a few great songs from the then-popular View From The Ground album, including "Love On The Vine," "Inspector Mills," and "Never Be Lonely."
In early 1995, Gerry set off on another attempt to record a solo album. Gathering together at his home-based Human Nature studios were some of the stars of the America galaxy, providing whatever help they could to make the album a masterpiece. Old friends Carl Wilson of the Beach Boys and Robert Lamm of Chicago provided vocals for the soothing "Kiss Of Life." They would later record as Beckley/Lamm/Wilson for the Everybody Sings Nilsson tribute to singer/songwriter Harry Nilsson. Another member of Chicago, Jason Scheff, provided bass, and noted jazz musician Mark Isham played cornet on the reflective "Sunrise Sunset," which also featured Dewey as a guest vocalist. "Goodbye Highway," a beautifully polished song, utilized co-producer Hank Linderman on guitars. "Emma," perhaps the most pop-oriented track on the album, sported a live drummer, Fritz Lewak. "Playing God" included an uproarious send-up of a greedy televangelist by the now-famous "Saturday Night Live" comedian Phil Hartman, America's onetime artistic director. Matt McCauley and Willie Leacox also put in guest appearances. Even Gerry's own family got into the act, with the innocent googlings of young son Joe being recorded for "Playing God," and teenage son Matthew providing handclaps on the offbeat "Van Go Gan." The name of that track, which also became the album's title, was derived from a combination of the names of two anguished impressionist painters, Vincent Van Gogh, and Paul Gauguin, and was meant to express Gerry's own feelings of the difficult process of creating a work of art.
Van Go Gan gave Gerry an outlet for his own personal musical direction, including the opportunity to put his own unique stamp on previous America works. "I Need You" was tastefully remade with a jazz bent, featuring Timothy B. Schmit on backing vocals and an inspired saxophone instrumental by Richie Cannata, a longtime session man for Billy Joel. The cryptic "Now Sue" was a return to the abstract lyrics of the old days using the melody and structure of the Homecoming track "Till The Sun Comes Up Again." The harmony was provided by a member of the Beach Boys' touring band, Jeff Foskett.
As with abandoned solo efforts in the past, Gerry experienced trouble finding a reliable distributor for Van Go Gan. A Japanese company -- Polydor -- released it in September 1995, but only in Japan. Subsequent efforts to release the album in the United States failed. But with the growth of the Internet, America fans were able to learn about and purchase the album as an import -- and many of them felt it was some of Gerry's most rewarding work to date.
In early 1996, for the first time in nearly thirteen years, an America song came to prominence, albeit indirectly. George Briner, Chairman of Project Hope, heard Gerry's track "Hope" from Hourglass and decided to use it as the theme song for a major fund-raising drive for the T.J. Martell Foundation, which since 1975 had been funding research to find the cure for diseases such as leukemia, AIDS, and cancer. Briner wrote:
The first time I heard the song "Hope," I was inspired by the power of its message. Now, 16 months later, others have also been inspired. The top talents in country music have donated their precious time and extraordinary talents for a single message... HOPE. And after listening to these great performers singing this great song, I am sure "Hope" will inspire you as well.
Those talents came together in February 1996 to record the song, including Terri Clark, Vince Gill, Faith Hill, Little Texas, Tim McGraw, Lorrie Morgan, Travis Tritt, Trisha Yearwood, and Highway 101. The song was produced on a scale similar to the USA For Africa and Band Aid projects in pop music during the 1980s. In April, many of those artists regrouped to perform it live on prime-time television at the Country Music Awards.
In mid-1996, another America page appeared on the World Wide Web, Steve Lowry's America Fans Across America page, later shortened to the America Fans Page. Lowry, fortunately a computer programmer as well as a rabid America fan from Orem, Utah, was able to put together a page which included biographies of fans across the world, lyrics and guitar chords to every America song, an on-line museum of America musical gear, a chat page, and much more. Together with Rick Wahlgren's America Home Page and Ike Gauley's America In Pictures, any America fan with access to the Internet could suddenly know all the hottest news (and badly-kept secrets) about America's comings and goings. Dewey was very grateful for the fan dedication which brought all the web pages about:
It's overwhelming, frankly. There's actually three pages out there. All have been maintained by people that aren't of our employ or anything. They do it at their own expense, and their own love, I guess, and we're so grateful.
Aside from hot America news, fans could also pick up touring schedules at the click of a mouse, see the latest pictures, and catch concert reviews within hours of the event. Dewey observed that sometimes this could amount to too much information:
I will say [that] the one drawback is that your shows are reviewed virtually instantly, and virtually every show, because there's somebody at each show that will then say, "I saw the guys in St. Louis, and this is what happened at the show." So, if you're having a bad night in any way, if your voice is lousy or you've got equipment problems or whatever, you're going to be reading about it tomorrow... It's tough because if you're using a lot of the same [banter] on stage, you know that they're mouthing your punch lines, and they know the running order of the set.
In early 1997, Dan Peek officially joined Ken Marvin and Brian Gentry in Peace with the release of their second album, the eponymously-titled Peace, for which he wrote eight songs. In a departure from the sleek production of 1994's Stronger Than You Know, Peace at times had a rough, unfinished sound. On the songs on which Dan sang, his voice was barely audible underneath layer upon layer of guitars. This fact alone damaged the album in the eyes of many America fans who were hoping to hear Dan sing new songs for the first time in eight years.
Meanwhile, excitement mounted in mid-1997 as word came that America was in the early stages of recording a new album, supposedly under former Steely Dan producer Gary Katz. There wasn't much else known at that point, so America fans zeroed in on continuing to follow the group as it made its way around the country on yet another tour. In May, America performed in front of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, only the fourth such time they had played a live show with orchestral backing, to rave reviews from the fans who attended.
In the fall of 1997, three of the four remaining America albums yet to come out on CD were offered by a small French company called Magic: Alibi, Your Move, and Perspective. America fans immediately rushed out to nab them and began the long wait for Silent Letter, which had been delayed several times by One Way Records. Their dreams would finally be realized when, in August 1998, One Way released Silent Letter, Alibi, Your Move, and Perspective on CD to domestic audiences after a corporate restructuring and a full year's delay. Now any America fan could purchase any America album on CD.
With the ever increasing number of America albums and compilations made available over the Internet, it was only a matter of time before some of the group's unofficial material showed up as well. In August 1997, a collection of some previously unreleased recordings of early live America material showed up under the title Heard on the America Fans Page. The CD, which included such lost live songs as "Look Up, Look Down," "The Winter Of Our Love," "Living Isn't Really Giving," and a cover of Arlo Guthrie's "Comin' Into Los Angeles," among others, became a popular collector item among the rabid America fans who regularly visited the group's various web sites.
In April 1998, it was finally announced that not only was America going to be releasing a new album in June called Human Nature (taking its name from Gerry's home studio), but that they had also signed a multi-album contract with a new record company, Oxygen Records, a branch of the King Biscuit Entertainment Group. A June 1998 issue of Billboard magazine reported how the deal came about:
The deal... came after King Biscuit released a live recording of a  America performance on the classic "King Biscuit Flower Hour" series. That album, released in 1995, had enough impact at retail -- 12,000 copies, says SoundScan -- to raise [Oxygen Records President Steve] Ship's brow. He had met with the artists during promotion for the live album and discussed the possibility of recording new material.
"I really liked them and heard some of their new material, and it sort of evolved from there," Ship says. Within a few months of the meeting he formed Oxygen, which is also releasing new material from Supertramp. He added America to the roster with a multi-album deal.
The report made it sound as if landing a recording contract had been easy for America. In truth, America had had quite a bit of difficulty in convincing record companies to sign the duo in recent years, partly because they were a duo. In June 1998, Dewey discussed this with Steve Orchard:
We had a few labels say that they would be interested in recording us if we would bring Dan back or if we could put together the original trio... It's been 21 years since Dan left. We've been a duo for so long. It would smack of a cash-in, or a reunion, or whatever you want to call it.
But some observers were insistent that America needed a cash-in. "If they could have somehow gotten Dan Peek back in and promoted it as the three original members, it would have more pull," said a music director at adult contemporary station KEZK in St. Louis in the same Billboard article.
In the studio, Human Nature was fast taking shape. As with any America album, there was a certain process involved in gathering the basic tracks for the project and then deciding how to produce them. Dewey elaborated on this:
On this project, Human Nature, [Gerry's] given me a tape of twenty or twenty-five songs, and... it's kind of a big responsibility. I have to go through that, decide on five or six songs... that I think reflect both of our feelings and things. Things that I can put my vocals on or add some guitar parts and add my stamp to them and yet still fit in with the songs that I've written and make the project fully rounded...
Under the production team of Gerry, Dewey, and Hank Linderman, the tracks for Human Nature were coming together. Many old America friends were on hand to help out, such as Willie Leacox, Brad Palmer, Timothy B. Schmit, Jeff Foskett, Henry Diltz on clarinet, and former fellow-Whiffle Andrew Gold. Phil Jones, of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, did a fair amount of work on drums. The songs had a more acoustic feel, which was intentional. "We've tried to come back to a lot more acoustic stuff and a little more old-style arrangements on these last two albums, on Hourglass and specifically on this one, Human Nature," Dewey admitted in June 1998.
As with any America album, each song seemed to explore its own musical path. Gerry's "Wednesday Morning" is an excellent yet simple acoustic rocker. "Hot Town" picks up where "Greenhouse" left off, with an electrifying rock performance by Dewey meant to create the intimacy and energy of a barroom band. Gerry's "Overwhelming World Suite" is a long, epic piece divided into three parts which harks back to the elaborate "Hat Trick." "Town And Country" is a shining example of the compelling visual imagery inherent in so much of Dewey's songwriting. "Pages," with its probing lyrics, has been called one of the best songs that Dewey ever wrote, but others point to the exotic sounds and words of the African-flavored "Oloololo" as a strong competitor in that department. "From A Moving Train," selected as the first single from the album, received an exceptional amount of praise for its classic harmonies, sleek instrumentation, and introspective lyrics.
"From A Moving Train" demonstrated Dewey and Gerry's increasing tendency to move away from the vivid but evasive lyrics of the past toward more mature themes and images. In this case, Gerry compares a lifetime of change and growth to a train moving inexorably down an endless track. Gerry commented on this new lyrical approach to Performing Songwriter in 1998:
I set far higher standards for myself now. When you're young, you tend to use poetic license beyond what is proper. You might say, "Oh, that will do," or "Well, that doesn't make sense, but it doesn't matter." At this point in our careers, we treat our work with more value. In my case, I sometimes put myself through the ringer a bit, in order to say what I want to say.
Seasoned producer, musician, and songwriter Phil Galdston was brought in to work with two additional tracks, "Moment To Moment" and "Hidden Talent," the latter a catchy pop tune which featured one of the final appearances of the late Carl Wilson in addition to Robert Lamm and Jason Scheff. As a finishing touch for the album, Mark Linett and Dom Maita (Laurie Anderson, John Sebastian) were brought in for mixing. For "Moment To Moment" and especially "From A Moving Train," Elliot Scheiner, who has worked with artists such as George Benson, Steely Dan, Jimmy Buffett, Ashford & Simpson, and Fleetwood Mac, among others, was recruited to engineer just the right sound.
With the album complete, Oxygen needed extra time to promote Human Nature, resulting in the album's release being delayed until September. During September and October, Oxygen was behind a barrage of publicity for America unseen in well over a decade, with Dewey and Gerry being featured in spots on the Today Show, the Home Shopping Network, various radio shows and magazines, plus live performances at record shops across the country, and later, on VH-1's "Where Are They Now?" show. Aided by the media blitz, "From A Moving Train" became the first America song to have chart success in fourteen years, climbing to number 7 on the Gavin radio survey, and number 25 on the more prestigious Radio & Records chart. Without general distribution of the single, however, it was unable to crack the Billboard charts.
The promotion of "From A Moving Train," while relatively unsuccessful in the United States, was proving unexpectedly fruitful overseas. In early 1999, the single topped the charts on Spain's radio survey, and a release of "Wednesday Morning" charted in subsequent months as well. Dewey joked about "milking" the song in Spain just before their tour there in June. Not since 1980, when "Survival" hit it big in Italy, had America had a number one hit of any kind.
Even without a major hit single or charting album, America found a way to briefly grab the spotlight. In November 1998, Reform Party candidate and former WWF wrestler Jesse "The Body" Ventura stunned the political world by winning the Minnesota gubernatorial election despite having been handily outspent by the candidates from the two major parties. In January 1999, Ventura invited America to perform "Ventura Highway" at his highly publicized inaugural ball. Also sharing the spotlight was the great Warren Zevon, who accompanied Ventura on a an uproarious rendition of "Werewolves of Minnesota." The Ventura fever continued over the next few days, with proposals from the Minnesota legislature to rename one of the state freeways to "Ventura Highway."
In the meantime, with Human Nature under his belt, Gerry continued to find outlets for his prolific songwriting. In 1998, America fan Jeff Larson, a talented musician in his own right, released an album entitled Watercolor Sky. Gerry contributed a track called "Annabelle," and even produced it along with Hank Linderman. Also in the works was a song named "Houses In White," written by Bobby Woods, with Gerry singing lead vocals. Demos of the song were posted on Steve Lowry's page for comment by America fans -- another wonderful use of the fantastic powers of the internet.
Although the Web is a wonderful source for information, one of its drawbacks is that few things are permanent. In January 1999, after four years of operation, Rick Wahlgren closed down the pioneering America Home Page. But in April, Dewey and Gerry finally introduced their own nearly-completed official website, www.VenturaHighway.com. Through it, America expects to be able to sell their catalog of albums, reissue lost gems such as the out-of-print Van Go Gan, and report on their doings from a section called "From The Moving Train."
Thanks to the web, America fans were able to learn of Dan Peek's first new solo album in twelve years via Ike Gauley's America In Pictures site. The album, which was released in July 1999 via Thoughtscape Sounds after several brief delays, was entitled Bodden Town, the enclave on the Cayman islands where Dan had been living for the past decade. The album was a very personal affair -- Dan did everything from the instrumentation to the cover artwork on his computer. On several tracks, Dan's friends Ken Marvin and Brian Gentry of Peace helped out with backing vocals. Hopefully, America fans will be seeing a lot more of Dan's work in the near future.
After nearly thirty years, Dewey, Gerry, and Dan have managed to continually keep themselves busy and their fans satisfied. With America's continual touring, and the advent of the intimacy of the Web, America's fans have never been a closer family than they are now. And despite all the obstacles and criticism over the past decades, America continues to persist, with no end in sight. America has proven one thing to be true over the past twenty-eight years: A lot of talent and perseverance has proven that a group need not be outrageous to be outstanding.