Even if you are not a John Denver fan—and I should admit up front I am—you’ve probably heard his best-known song, “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” It’s infiltrated the American psyche as a campfire staple. It made it onto a best-selling Disney video, Campout at Disney World. It’s the state song of West Virginia, boisterously sung at all West Virginia Mountaineers home football games. In one particularly strange episode of the TV series The Office, Dwight Schrute sings a verse of “Country Roads” in what is supposed to be German. (See the video clip at the end of this article of Denver singing the song on The Midnight Special in 1973.)
But Denver’s career was much more than this one, albeit iconic, song. As a songwriter, he had his first big hit with “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” which Peter, Paul, and Mary took to No. 1 in 1969. Within a few years, Denver was making hits himself. “Country Roads” came out in 1972. But his biggest years were 1974 and 1975, when he had three consecutive Billboard No. 1 albums, and four consecutive No. 1 hit singles, including “Annie’s Song,” which has undoubtedly been played at a million weddings since.
And Denver wasn’t just on the radio. His “Rocky Mountain Christmas” TV special in 1975 attracted 60 million viewers, at the time the biggest audience in ABC-TV’s history. His TV special “An Evening with John Denver,” which aired earlier in 1975, won an Emmy Award. He was a regular guest host of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. He hosted the Grammy Awards five times in the 1970s and ’80s, and in 1975 was the Country Music Association’s Entertainer of the Year. In 1977 he starred opposite George Burns in the movie Oh, God!
Perhaps because of all that fame and middle-America appeal, he was never a darling of music critics. His sound was too gentle and straightforward, especially as his career moved into the 1980s, with its increasingly jaded, ironic, and sexualized MTV generation.
In 1985, when the supergroup USA for Africa recorded “We Are the World” as a fundraiser for famine relief, Denver lobbied unsuccessfully to be a part of the recording. The rebuff, he later said, hurt him deeply and precipitated a downward spiral in his life.
By the late 1980s, a series of extramarital affairs led to his divorce from the woman for whom he had written “Annie’s Song,” and—he later confessed in an autobiography—he turned to alcohol and drugs. He was arrested for drunk driving at least twice, leading to the temporary suspension of his pilot’s license. Flying, which he loved, was his ultimate undoing. He died in the crash of a plane he was piloting in 1997. By then, a second marriage had dissolved, his record label dropped him, and he hadn’t had a hit in more than a decade.
But something strange has happened since his death. The man died, but his songs lived on. Denver would have been 70 this year, and to commemorate that milestone, a group of contemporary artists—including Josh Ritter, Dave Matthews, Emmylou Harris, Train, and Old Crow Medicine Show—have released an album of Denver’s music, The Music Is You.
Like many tribute albums, the performances are a mixed bag. Brandi Carlisle’s version of “Country Roads,” is uninspired, despite the help of background vocalist Emmylou Harris. Dave Matthews’ take on “Take Me to Tomorrow” is just plain weird. But the album has many gems, Mary Chapin Carpenter’s “I Guess He’d Rather Be in Colorado” among them. Evan Dando of The Lemonheads does a surprising version of “Looking for Space.” Amos Lee’s soulful “Some Days Are Diamonds” is perhaps the finest performance on the album. The best cuts honor the songs but don’t try to imitate Denver’s versions of them, such as Allen Stone’s almost wistful take on “Rocky Mountain High.”
The album will undoubtedly bring Denver’s music back into the spotlight, especially with current fans of the artists who participated. The album debuted at No. 37 on Billboard’s album chart and at No. 12 on Billboard’s country music chart.
But for many longtime fans the new album is just a validation of their long-standing admiration.
Jim Curry has been leading a John Denver tribute band since 2007, and he plays as many as 150 concerts a year, often to audiences numbering in the thousands. When I caught up with him on the telephone, Curry was on the road in (where else?) Colorado, on the first day of a road trip that will have him doing 42 shows in 52 days. He said he thought Denver’s music would survive as part of the American Songbook tradition.
“We meet 8-year-olds now who know this music,” Curry said. “We’ve got the grandparents, the parents who are our age, and now the kids.”
That Denver did not live to see this renewed interest in his music is part of the tragedy of his life. His early death was also tragic because his life still seemed a work in progress. Denver often wrestled with spiritual matters in his music. Indeed, one of his albums was called Spirit. But Denver’s personal beliefs were a confused smorgasbord of New Age philosophies. But as he got older, he began to explore again the Christian faith of his youth, the faith of his mother, Erma, who had been a life-long believer, and his father, also named John, who had been a hard-living Air Force fighter pilot for most of his life but who made a profession of faith in Christ not long before he died.
Les Felker was the pastor of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Aurora, Colo., that Denver’s mother attended in her final years. He told me Denver would often attend church with his mom and that Denver heard the gospel message many times from him and from others who were concerned about his spiritual condition.
Bill Fay, a family friend who had been instrumental in the conversion of Denver’s father, was with Denver a few weeks before his plane crash. After an hour-long conversation about the gospel, Fay remembered asking Denver point-blank if he would like to dedicate his life to Christ. The singer thought about it for a few seconds, Fay recalled, and said, “Not now.” A month later, John Denver was dead.
Because of that response, Felker admitted it was unlikely John Denver was a Christian at the time of his death. But he added, “I know John was searching, and I know he knew the gospel. I still hold out hope that he made a commitment to Christ in those last weeks, and that one day I’ll see him in heaven.”
To which this long-time fan would add, “So do I.”