In 1971, John Denver, a former member of the folk-singing Chad Mitchell Trio, scored a Number Two pop hit with the pastoral “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” At the same time, the song was a minor country-chart entry, topping out at Number 50. Three years later, Denver would be the biggest star on the planet, with hits such as “Sunshine on My Shoulder,” “Back Home Again” and “Annie’s Song” climbing both the pop and country charts.
In spite of Denver’s comical exclamation of “f-a-a-a-r out” and his “aw shucks” demeanor making him the subject of ridicule, he was also a popular guest on talk shows and had several of his own variety specials on network television, also going on to star in films such as Oh, God! Yet, at the same time he was proving popular with country fans, Denver and fellow artist Olivia Newton-John, who was also crossing over on a regular basis, rankled a handful of country entertainers for a perceived lack of genuine country cred. The year after Newton-John won the award for CMA Female Vocalist, John Denver was crowned 1975 CMA Entertainer of the Year, and in one of the awards show’s most infamous moments, Charlie Rich, himself a hugely successful crossover act, set fire to the envelope containing the name of, as the allegedly heavily medicated Rich said, “My friend, John Denver.”
While Denver’s chart success began to cool considerably in the next few years, he remained a huge concert draw worldwide, and after a Number One pop and country hit, the rollicking “Thank God I’m a Country Boy,” he would return to the Top 10 in 1981 with “Some Days Are Diamonds (Some Days Are Stone).” He also had hits with duets featuring Emmylou Harris and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.
On October 12th, 1997, 20 years ago today, John Denver was killed when the light plane he was piloting crashed off the coast of California. He was 53 years old. In the time since his tragic death, Denver’s legacy has been reevaluated, especially within country-music circles. His “Take Me Home, Country Roads” was an integral part of the medley that celebrated the CMA’s 50th anniversary and the organization’s “Forever Country” campaign.
Although born in New Mexico, Denver was closely associated with Colorado, thanks in part to one of his biggest hits, “Rocky Mountain High.” In 2011, Lee Ann Womack, John Oates and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band performed in his honor as he became the first inductee into the Colorado Music Hall of Fame. Two years later, My Morning Jacket, Dave Matthews, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Amos Lee and more paid tribute to his songs on an LP titled The Music Is You. Also featured on that album was Lucinda Williams, who sang “This Old Guitar,” a gorgeous ballad from Denver’s 1974 LP Back Home Again, which would go on to be the Number One country album of 1975.
“This Old Guitar” tells the story of the 1910 Gibson guitar that belonged to Denver’s grandmother as a young girl. In the above clip, from a 1974 Denver TV special, the singer explains that his grandmother gave him the vintage instrument when he was about 12. He also recalls getting hit over the head with the guitar at a lumber camp in Washington. “The fellow was not a Hank Williams fan at all,” he says with a laugh. Having once lost the guitar and fearing he’d never get it back, Denver recalls how thrilled he was to have been reunited with the instrument a few years earlier. The reunion, he notes, is what inspired the song. After Denver’s death, his family donated the guitar for use in an exhibit honoring the entertainer at the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix, Arizona.