Sunday, October 13, 2013

John Denver's "Take Me Home, Country Roads"

The death of John Denver sixteen years ago yesterday was a jolting moment for many people of my generation, a quiet reminder that all things must pass and that youth and life are fleeting and fragile. This was so both for those who loved JD for the soaring idealism and romanticism of his compositions and the ringing clarity of his voice, as well as for those who derided him as a shallow and sentimental poetaster who purveyed a uniquely awful brand of musical treacle. But love him or hate him, you could for all intents and purposes not ignore him for the two or three years of his peak popularity - roughly 1973 to 1976 - because he was absolutely everywhere in those days: consistently at the top of the album charts, making frequent forays into the Billboard Hot 100 Top Ten singles chart as well, including four #1 records, a frequent guest host on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show, host of his own series of highly-rated network television specials that stretched well into the 1980s, in a starring role in a major Hollywood film with legend George Burns, in addition to a few other dramatic roles, as primary host of the Grammys five times, in nature specials and guest spots on popular variety programs - you could scarcely turn on the radio or TV for a few years then without bumping into JD's earnest voice and toothy grin. By most measures, no single artist in the world sold more records during those three years than did John Denver, the mop-haired and granny-glassed self-proclaimed "country boy" from Roswell, New Mexico who became a poet laureate of the state of Colorado and co-composer of one of the most popular songs in West Virginia - and one of American pop culture's first true multi-media stars.

In the best music business tradition, Denver's handlers (with the perhaps naive cooperation of Denver himself) promoted him so ruthlessly and exploited his popularity so thoroughly that a kind of JD exhaustion set in perhaps rather earlier than it needed to; after 1976, he never had another album or single record hit the top twenty on the primary charts, and though his albums have continued to register in the catalog sales reports to this day, his brief stint at the top of everything gradually faded, leaving him with a much-reduced but extremely loyal fan base in the 1980s and 90s. Too bad, really, because Denver continued to write beautiful and moving songs during those years, and as his live performances attested (see his 1995 Wildlife Concert video), he was singing much better at the time of his death than he ever did when his name was a household word and he was an international celebrity.

There was another unintended consequence of Denver's brief time as a superstar. Popular media saturation helped turn a genuinely talented performer and songwriter into an object of satire and derision. He was mocked with regularity everywhere from the Doonesbury comic strip to Saturday Night Live to anywhere else that a comedian could don a wig, a flowered shirt, and a pair of wire-rimmed glasses. The very earnestness and unabashed sentimentality of his songs that had helped make him a cultural phenomenon was turned against him: he became a symbol of what some regarded as the post-hippie self-absorption of the early and mid-1970s. The fact the Denver consistently devoted a very large chunk of his very considerable fortune and huge amounts of time to advance the causes in which he believed - the environment, world peace, an end to world hunger among others - earned him no consideration from an increasingly cynical popular press in America. The ultimate indignity may well have been that Denver, who for more than a decade had been working with and donating to a number of foundations trying to end hunger, was not invited to sing on the "We Are The World" recording that was created to raise money to alleviate the effects of the devastating famine in Ethiopia and other parts of East Africa in the early 80s. Most of the four dozen or so singers who did participate had never had any involvement  at all with that particular cause, and the "commitment" of many of them ended when they walked out of the studio. That was never what John Denver was about.

The final casualty of the overexposure and the multi-platform popularity was that they have obscured for a time just how fine a writer and performer Denver was. The overt emotion and euphoria over nature in many of his songs might not be to everyone's taste, but the craftsmanship of melodic structure, instrumental accompaniment, and poetry of lyric in dozens of his tunes are undeniable. Denver's most popular numbers did not share the introspective angst of the compositions of most of his singer-songwriter contemporaries, and in the wake of his death in a light plane crash on October 12, 1997, the obituaries tended to focus on his popularity rather than on his musicianship - or on the likelihood that a goodly number of his tunes like "Annie's Song" and "Follow Me" and "Rocky Mountain High" among many others will almost certainly outlive him by decades.

Chief among these may well be JD's first hit record, "Take Me Home, Country Roads," known almost equally as "West Virginia." The song came apparently out of nowhere to dominate the airwaves for weeks in the spring and summer of 1971, rising as high as #2 on the singles charts and selling a million units by autumn. Denver was listed as co-composer in the copyright: he had become friends with Bill Danoff and Taffy Nivert (a duo known at the time as "Fat City"), the act that opened for him at The Cellar Door folk club in Washington, DC. Danoff and Nivert had written the first verse and part of the chorus of the song, and knowing that Denver had authored a #1 single (Peter, Paul and Mary's rendition of "Leaving On A Jet Plane"), as well as many of the songs on his first three LPs for RCA Records, they asked him to help them complete the number. Denver obliged, helping to write the second verse and composing by himself the distinctive and highly effective bridge to the last choruses. Appropriately then, our first version of the song is a performance on Australian television by Danoff, Nivert, and Denver:

No lip-syncing here, no auto-tune - two guitars and three voices only in live performance, an endangered species in pop music today. And in support of fans' contention that Denver's voice improved dramatically over the decades after his peak, here he is in the aforementioned Wildlife Concert in 1995, two years before his death:

Denver's voice had deepened, and there were darker shadings in it as well as better breath control and less of the occasional reediness of his early years.

JD's allusion to Olivia Newton-John's hit with the song in the Land Down Under makes her version the next logical choice:

Newton-John, of course, was another international phenom at the same time as Denver, and the two collaborated on a number of hit tunes. Her version here is rather more straight-up than many of her own popular songs, which often tended to be ornate and over-produced.

"Country Roads" has been covered hundreds of times, and the folk-ish simplicity of the melody lends itself to a wide range of interpretations - as Ray Charles demonstrates here:

Charles retains the slightly uptempo rhythm of the original while stamping it with his own inimitable blues styling.

The tune is quite naturally adaptable to country and bluegrass genres. Next, Grand Ole Opry legend Roy Acuff reminds us of what country music actually sounds like:

...and Nashville studio/sessions legend Charlie McCoy renders unto country the things that are country's in this outstanding instrumental version:

McCoy is playing harmonica, guitar, and bass here. Both Acuff's and McCoy's tracks leave me shaking my head and wondering what the hell has gone wrong in Nashville over the last few years - they're not producing music there any more that sounds anything like this or is remotely as good.

Next, classic bluegrass harmonies from the Osborne Brothers:

A reggae arrangement from Toots and the Maytals, here from 2011:

Also fairly recently, Holland's Hermes House Band had a huge international hit in 2001 in the UK and on the Continent with this rock/reggae/bossa nova arrangement:

Finally - I always like to include amateur performances in these posts when I can find worthy ones, and I think that this one by Wingrass, a group from Japan that covers American folk and country tunes, has much to recommend it:

The vocals are competent and the instrumentation good, but what I really like about this Wingrass version is that the band slowed the tune down and added the almost mournful fiddle line, bringing out the melancholy and wistfulness in the lyrics that even Denver himself seemed to overlook at times.

I am a little surprised at myself by how little of John Denver has actually appeared in the almost two hundred posts on this blog. Denver was if nothing else a gifted performer and showman, and a fine interpreter of the work of other writers as well, as his performance of Steve Gilette's "Darcy Farrow" so clearly indicates. I like quite a few of his songs, including many that were just tracks on his albums and never singles or hits, songs like "Eclipse" and "Rocky Mountain Suite" and "Whispering Jesse" and many more. That oversight is sure to be rectified in the coming months, even given my predilection for looking at traditional songs in these articles. And the pop world seems to have turned a corner in its evaluation of Denver's music. Independent record label Red House Records released what I thought was a first-rate tribute album called Take Me Home in 2000 that featured reinterpretations of JD songs by indie artists like Bonnie Prince Billy and The Red House Painters. This year, ATO Records put out an album called The Music Is You with major artists like Lucinda Williams, Dave Matthews, Mary Chapin Carpenter, and Emmylou Harris contributing.

Even more - also this year, a group of opera stars headed by Denver collaborator (in 1983 with Perhaps Love) Placido Domingo released a very well-reviewed CD called Great Voices Sing John Denver. The disc was the brainchild of music business legend Milt Okun, producer and musical director for the likes of Denver, Domingo, Harry Belafonte, Peter, Paul and Mary, and The Chad Mitchell Trio. It was Okun who mentored Denver into big time show biz when JD replaced Chad Mitchell in that group, and Okun supervised many of Denver's solo albums as well. The classically-trained Okun loved Denver's compositions, and that is saying quite a bit in and of itself. I recall that a week or so after Denver's death, the Los Angeles Times' respected rock critic Robert Hilburn published a retrospective on JD that essentially damned the singer with faint praise, mustering no better compliment than "soothing" for Denver's music and highlighting many of the rough spots in Denver's personal life. In a remarkable, moving, and very well-written response published in the same paper, Milt Okun took polite but strong exception to Hilburn's remarks. "I will bet," wrote Okun, "that in 25 years the artists and groups whose work Hilburn now finds so compelling will either be forgotten or remembered only in the Billboard lists of big sellers, while Denver's songs will continue to be sung in schools, at concerts and around campfires and will have become part of the cultural bloodstream of America." Time has indeed seemed to have borne out Okun's prediction, but for me the highlight of the response was the way that Okun closed it, and it is a fitting closing for this post as well:

"John's songs deserve serious consideration, serious critiques. He really represents the best of what the American popular musical community has accomplished. I hope that in time and with the consideration of serious critics like Hilburn, John will be accepted in the company of great American creators such as Stephen Foster, Charles Ives, Scott Joplin, Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein.

I knew John Denver. I know his music. He was no lightweight."


mark said...

Fascinating - how much better he was in the 90s!
Any ID on the backup singer and instrumentalists on that Wildlife video?

Jim Moran said...

Mark, I happen to know the world's #1 John Denver fan - if anyone knows, she would. I don't have this DVD but I'm sure she does, and if I can get a list of personnel from her I'll post it here.

mark said...

Thank you.

Bill Drellow said...

Legendary guitar legend James Burton on dobro, world champion guitar fingerpicker Pete Huttlinger on banjo. (Huttlinger has a marvelous pair of John Denver guitar instruction DVDs on Hopespun Tapes.) Pat Hawk is the backup singer (sister of skateboarder Tony Hawk).

mark said...

Aha - thanks.

mark said...

Looks like he's up to four entries now. :)