John Denver, the flaxen-haired, bespectacled folk singer famous for such singles as “Annie’s Song,” “Sunshine on My Shoulders” and “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” was a true populist. His songs were about average people, everyday emotions and the sort of wilderness beauty even couch potatoes could appreciate. When he died Sunday at age 53 in a California plane crash, the legacy he left was as big as all outdoors.
At the height of his career, Denver managed to attract one of the widest audiences in popular music. Although his sound rarely strayed far from his roots in folk music, he had a strong following among rock and Top-40 fans in the ’70s and even maintained a strong presence on the country charts. He was named the Country Music Association’s Entertainer of the Year in 1975, the same year “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” topped the charts.
Later, that song developed a second life as the seventh-inning stretch music for Baltimore Orioles home games.
Yet for all his popularity, there was always an aura of humility and gentleness about the singer. It was audible in his music, which celebrated the simple beauty of nature and the affirming power of love. Although he was sometimes mocked for his earnest, uplifting point of view, his sincerity was never in doubt; no other singer could have made a lyric like “Sunshine almost always makes me high” seem so convincing.
Music and Nature
Denver may not have had the hippest image in pop music, but he had an enormous impact nonetheless. During his mid-’70s heyday, his nature-loving lyrics and smiling, flannel-shirted image came to epitomize the kindly, caring side of the ecology movement. Whether his songs were as generalized as “Rocky Mountain High” or as issue-specific as “Calypso” (which was dedicated to Jacques Cousteau and his ship, “Calypso”), his work popularized ecological concerns long before Sting began to sing about the rain forest.
Born Henry John Deutschendorf Jr. on Dec. 31, 1943, in Roswell, N.M., Denver took up guitar as a child and by the ninth grade was performing for his classmates. Being better at music than scholastic pursuits, he dropped out of college and headed for Los Angeles.
Inspired by Joan Baez, Tom Paxton and Peter, Paul & Mary, he sought out the local folk scene, and within a year landed a regular gig at Ledbetter’s, an L.A. folk club managed by New Christie Minstrels founder Randy Sparks.
Sparks also recruited Denver for the Back Porch Majority, a group that originally served as a sort of feeder group for the New Christie Minstrels. When word went out in 1965 that there was an opening in the Chad Mitchell Trio, replacing Mitchell, Denver beat out 250 other applicants to get the job.
By the time he joined the group, the trio had already seen its greatest commercial success, having had minor hits with the tunes “Lizzie Borden” and “The Marvelous Toy.” But Denver used his time in the group well, developing his stage presence and working on his songwriting.
The material he wrote while in the Chad Mitchell Trio was relatively modern in its sound and attitude, an attitude and aesthetic that had more in common with the singer/songwriter material being recorded by such contemporaries as Joni Mitchell and Judy Collins. One of the songs he wrote while in the Trio was a bittersweet lament about the end of a love affair. It was called “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” and the Chad Mitchell Trio began performing it in 1966.
Peter, Paul & Mary heard the song and cut their own version in 1967. Two years later, a Denver, Colo., disc jockey began playing the song obsessively; within months, it became a nationwide smash, the biggest hit of Peter, Paul & Mary’s career.
By that time, the Chad Mitchell Trio had fallen apart, and after a brief stint with the trio Denver, Boise and Johnson, Denver went solo. After building audiences in Aspen and Washington, D.C., he signed with RCA and released his first album, “Rhymes and Reasons,” in 1969.
Although the heavily folk-oriented album included his own rendition of “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” Denver didn’t have any significant success until 1971, when he released his third album, “Poems, Prayers & Promises.” It included a song he had written with Washington’s Bill Danoff (who would later form the Starland Vocal Band) called “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” The tune was an instant classic and was even a hit in Jamaica for the reggae group Toots & the Maytals. “Sunshine on My Shoulders,” which was also on the album, became his first No. 1 hit — but not until 1974, after the song had been featured in the TV drama “Sunshine.”
He picked up his second a few months later, with “Annie’s Song,” a heartfelt paean to domestic bliss inspired by his wife, formerly Annie Marteil. Unfortunately, the relationship was not as successful as the song; the two were divorced in 1983. In his 1994 book, “Take Me Home,” Denver wrote that his drinking problem exacerbated the couple’s problems to the point that he once broke into her home and tried to choke her.
“I had almost lost control but didn’t,” he wrote.
He may have been battling demons in his private life, but Denver’s artistic persona was the picture of placidity. He had a gift for sweet, slightly sad melodies and used his light, clean tenor to excellent effect, illuminating the gently dawning melody of “Farewell Andromeda (Welcome to My Morning)” and bringing an audible ardor to the lulling, waltz-time cadences of “Annie’s Song.”
Although his recordings often touched on the specifics of western life — between the likes of “Rocky Mountain High” and “I’d Rather Be a Cowboy,” it wasn’t hard to locate Denver Country on the map — his appeal transcended regionalism. It wasn’t just that “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” boasted a tune catchy enough to hook city slickers; by idealizing the grandeur of the West, Denver touched on something essential about the American Spirit.
At its best, his work embodied the exuberance and awe that rugged landscape evoked, and in so doing, provided a balance to the gruff masculinity of the cowboy myth. It was as if he acted as the yin to John Wayne’s yang.
That softness and sentimentality inevitably lead to the perception in some quarters that Denver stood for tree-hugging, quiche-eating wimpiness. Garry Trudeau even had the sour, acerbic Raoul Duke (a character loosely modeled on Aspenite Hunter S. Thompson) living next door to Denver and taking occasional pot-shots when his crooning became audible.
To his credit, Denver poked fun at that image a bit in “I’m Sorry,” which found him apologizing for everything from a broken relationship to “the way things are in China.”
Although his music remained largely unchanged over the years, Denver’s commercial fortunes slipped as America entered the ’80s. He kept recording, however, and even had a minor hit through a duet with opera star Placido Domingo (“Perhaps Love” in 1982).
But he didn’t really regain momentum until recently, when a benefit album called “The Wildlife Concert” was released on CD and video. Although it offered little in the way of new material, the honesty and intensity of Denver’s performance brought the singer his greatest success in years.
Had he lived longer, Denver may well have expanded his audience into a whole new generation. As it is, he will be remembered as the last of the great folk popularizers, an artist whose catalog is easily on par with that of Judy Collins or Peter, Paul & Mary.
The John Denver collection
John Denver recorded more than two dozen albums in the course of his career, most of which made the Billboard Top 200
Albums chart. Anyone wanting an easy overview of his oeuvre would be well-advised to seek out “The Country Roads Collection” (RCA), an assiduously annotated four-CD set that spans the bulk of his solo career. Here’s a look at his most significant albums, listing his hit singles:
“Rhymes & Reasons” (RCA), 1969. His solo debut, featuring “Leaving on a Jet Plane.”
“Take Me to Tomorrow” (RCA), 1970.
“Poems, Prayers & Promises” (RCA), 1971. With “Take Me Home, Country Roads” and “Sunshine on My Shoulders.”
“Arie” (RCA), 1971. Includes the hit “Friends with You.”
“Rocky Mountain High” (RCA), 1972. With “Rocky Mountain High.”
“Farewell, Andromeda” (RCA), 1973. With “I’d Rather Be a Cowboy.”
“John Denver’s Greatest Hits” (RCA), 1973. Includes “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” “Sunshine on My Shoulders,” “Rocky Mountain High” and “Leaving on a Jet Plane.”
“Back Home Again” (RCA), 1974. With “Annie’s Song.”
“An Evening with John Denver” (RCA), 1975. With the hit versions of “Back Home Again” and “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” (studio versions of both were on “Back Home Again”)
. “Windsong” (RCA) 1975. With “Calypso,” “I’m Sorry” and “Fly Away.”
“Rocky Mountain Christmas” (RCA), 1975.
“Spirit” (RCA), 1976. With “Baby You Look Good to Me Tonight.”
“John Denver’s Greatest Hits, Volume 2” (RCA), 1977. Includes “Annie’s Song,” “Back Home Again,” “Thank God I’m a Country Boy,” “Calypso,” “I’m Sorry” and “Fly Away.”
“I Want to Live” (RCA), 1977. With “How Can I Leave You Again.”
“John Denver” (RCA), 1979. “A Christmas Together” (RCA), 1979. With the Muppets.
“Autograph” (RCA), 1980.
“Some Days Are Diamonds” (RCA), 1981. With “Some Days Are Diamonds (Some Days Are Stone).”
fTC “Seasons of the Heart” (RCA), 1982.
“It’s About Time” (RCA), 1983.
With “Wild Montana Skies.” “Dreamland Express” (RCA), 1985. With “Dreamland Express.” “The Flower That Shattered the Stone” (Windstar), 1990.
“The Wildlife Concert” (Sony Legacy), 1995. Recorded for television.