John Denver’s Legacy-Redeeming Classic Track Country Roads Leads Down Unexpected Byways

You’ve got to feel for John Denver. Born Henry John Deutschendorf Jr. in New Mexico on New Year’s Eve 1943, Denver co-founded The Hunger Project in 1977. The project aimed to end world hunger. As a result of this work, Jimmy Carter appointed Denver to his Presidential Commission on World Hunger. Yet when John Denver asked to be involved with the We Are the World famine-relief single, he was rejected for being too uncool. What a snub, considering Denver’s established involvement with famine relief.

To be fair, John Denver’s music veered to the middle of the road. He was also on TV serving up wholesome family viewing an awful lot in his prime. That said, John Denver’s track Country Roads is a stone-cold classic. It has an afterlife beyond that achieved by songs recorded by many of the We Are the World crew. There are great covers of Country Roads! Before delving further, let’s watch Take Me Home Country Roads performed by John Denver in 1995, 25 years after the song was first recorded.

In December 1970, married couple Taffy Nivert and Bill Danoff were working on “Country Roads” (intending to offer it to Johnny Cash). They played the unfinished song for John Denver. Enthused, Denver immediately helped Nivert and Danoff complete the song. The next morning, 30 December 1970, the day before Denver’s 28th birthday, the track was done. That night Denver invited Nivert and Danoff to sing with him on stage. “Country Roads” received a 5-minute standing ovation the first time it was played.

The track appeared on John Denver’s Poems, Prayers, and Promises (1971). Despite a distortion defect on the first US batch of the Country Roads single, the 45 made #2 on the US Hot 100 and was a worldwide hit. Denver had established himself with Leaving on a Jet Plane (1969); now he was a star. Meanwhile, Country Roads had its own row to hoe. Olivia Newton-John had a hit with it in Japan (1973), and Toots Hibbert famously turned the song into a reggae classic in 1975. Below is another video from The Wildlife concert with John singing “Annie’s Song”:

John Denver continued to support non-political humanitarian causes (beyond global famine relief). The 1995 concert that produced the John Denver version of Take Me Home Country Roads featured in this article was billed as John Denver: The Wildlife Concert. It was a fundraiser for the Wildlife Conservation Society (which seeks to protect wilderness areas globally) and ran as a television special. Interestingly, for someone who was pegged as too square to join We Are the World, Denver sided with Dee Snider (Twisted Sister) and Frank Zappa when he gave evidence to a US Senate Committee hearing in 1985 expressing his opposition to the PMRC’s campaign to censor music.

John Denver died in October 1997 at the age of 52 from blunt trauma when an experimental small plane he was flying crashed. Today, West Virginia, Colorado, and other locations mentioned in John Denver’s songs have official monuments dedicated to the singer-songwriter’s memory. In Aspen, Colorado, the John Denver Sanctuary has Denver’s song lyrics chiseled into flat-hewn sides of large boulders. In-vogue performers continue to cover Country Roads and other John Denver songs. So, to celebrate the life and music of John Denver, here is a Grandma’s Feathered Bed/Annie’s Song extended-mix mash-up!

Relax, Music Man Readers, I would never do that to you😀, and I’ve been saving one of the best bits for last. Studio Ghibli is amongst the most esteemed movie studios ever. The frame-by-frame, hand-painted animations of this seminal, award-winning Japanese anime studio are loved by critics and fans, young and old. A personal favorite Ghibli film is Whisper of the Heart (1995) directed by Yoshifumi Kondō and written by animation maestro Hayao Miyazaki. This film not only features Olivia Newton John’s cover of Country Roads, but Take Me Home Country Roads is a motif throughout the soundtrack. In the movie, the character Shizuku translates Country Roads into Japanese. She also writes a satirical version called Concrete Roads. How cool is that, We-Are-the-World cool people? Here is the trailer for Whisper of the Heart. Enjoy.

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