Country Boy: A Tribute to John Denver - John Cowan
I’m guessing the year was 1987, that’s not quite so important. I was playing the Pitkin County Fair in Aspen Colorado as a member of The New Grass Revival, our friend Sandy Munro had managed to get us hired. Two things were important to us that day-playing & singing well, and it was rumored that John Denver was going to be there. He in fact was there. We all got to meet him, he was very complimentary, present, good humored, and kind. Having had the opposite experience with musical icons over the years before and since only reinforced my respect for him as an artist and a human being. Having had the opportunity to work on a tribute to John has been a sweet way to complete this circle.
- John Cowan
Cowan’s cover of “Take Me Home, Country Roads” is included on COUNTRY BOY, a bluegrass tribute to John Denver, out March 25th.
Listen to “Take Me Home, Country Roads” with John Cowan and Jason Carter HERE
It Amazes Me (A letter to John Denver, inspired by the songs that have accompanied my life)
It amazes me.
My first memories of music are of John Denver’s “Back Home Again.” I was only four years old, but I remember. Mom would slide the album out of its sleeve, drop it on to the turntable, and slip the massive headphones over my ears as the music began. The rhythmic strumming of the title track would transport me to the cab of a big rig out on the open road, where I would ride alongside its driver, eager as he was to get back home to his wife, the light in her eyes, and supper on the stove. A montage of love and family would dance through my head as John sang of what it meant to return to the one you loved in the place you called home.
“Back Home Again” took me home, but “On The Road” drove me back out onto that lonesome highway, with my own father at the wheel of an old Mercury V8. It was just the two of us against the world, following the open road, searching for imagined love in the shape of a girl at a truck café. In a family of nine there were few moments that I spent alone in the car with my father, so I had to rely on John to provide me the setting for what I believed would be the greatest road trip I’d never take.
“Grandma’s Feather Bed” was always a fun break from sentiment, with its silly suggestion that it took the feathers of forty ‘leven geese to make it and that it would hold eight kids, four hound dogs, and a piggy stolen from the shed. The images of laughing cousins, fireplace dozing, and waking up in a giant heavenly bed still linger with me today.
My name is Matthew, and so is one of my favorite John Denver songs. It
never fails to evoke memories that I have never lived, paint my mind’s
canvas with landscapes that must be experienced, and promise reward in a lifestyle full of challenges that few can fathom. To be an uncle like
Matthew would be to live a life worthy of a standing-room-only funeral. My father quoted the song when speaking to an audience about me when I was about to leave home for the first time at the age of nineteen. About to serve a two year mission in Paraguay, I was unsure of myself, frightened by all the uncertainty that lay ahead. To hear my dad say that I was made of joy was a rare moment in my life; hearing him suggest that I was something he could be proud of is something I have not forgotten. Indeed, the thought of it carried me through some rough moments over the following two years as I served others, and I was able to find joy in some of my darkest hours in a foreign land.
But the memories don’t end with the songs from “Back Home Again.”
The album “Poems, Prayers, and Promises” can be credited in great part for my propensity to think deeply at a constant clip, more often than not to a fault. As a young boy I hadn’t yet experienced most of what John was singing about, and so my mind was forced to stretch itself in order to grasp “how sweet it is to love someone” to the point that their tears
belong to you. My maternal grandmother was a member of the Blackfoot tribe, and so dancing about the house to the wild, angry cries of “Wooden Indian” meant something more to me than I could possibly understand at the time, but listening to it I knew that some great injustice had been done to her people. The mournful tones of “Junk” suggested that my father was not so misguided in his passion for antiques, and while we never owned a parachute or sleeping bag for two, the belief that memories lived within the pieces he collected was not lost to me.
For many years and over many circumstances I considered my three brothers to be prodigal sons of the family, but the words of “Gospel Changes” have since suggested to me that as a firm believer in a higher power I should have been a better example of unconditional love. I hate to think it, but I know that had I been, my little brother might not have taken his life.
We all have heroes, and one of mine was a man named Pete. He taught me how to fire a muzzleloader, the art of a great campfire story, and what it meant to be a good man in spite of shortcomings. We lived in Connecticut, but his heart remained on his family’s farm down in West Virginia. I remember his eyes filling with tears and light whenever he spoke of that little plot of heavenly land. In the cassette player of his Jeep was a tape with “Take Me Home, Country Roads” recorded over and over again on both sides. I don’t recall any other song ever playing through those speakers, and to hear it now dredges up miles of memories that make me smile. I had the chance to drive through West Virginia last year, and in Pete’s memory I played the obligatory song on a loop as I passed through towns where time runs backwards in a good way.
The playlist of songs and the memories and moments they evoke continues…
My father was never a seamstress; he preferred hammer and nails over needle and thread. But I still have the shirt that he gifted to me one Christmas when I was a young boy with dreams of being like John Denver. The shirt looked just like John’s from the cover of “Spirit.” Dad probably pricked his fingers to the point of severe blood loss while embroidering the sunshine onto the shoulder of that little blue button-down shirt. It wasn’t quite finished, but I didn’t care, in my eyes it was perfect. I wore it for our family photos the following summer, and again when I was JD for Halloween. It took Dad more than a decade to finish sewing on that sunshine, but when he finally did, he wrapped it and gave it to me for Christmas all over again. Sunshine on my shoulder does indeed make me happy, and then again sometimes it makes me cry.
You know, I’ve always wondered just what a Berkley Woman is, and whether or not there would be hunger in my stare should I see one…
My maternal grandmother may have been a Native American, but that didn’t stop her from marrying a cowboy. My grandfather was the first in my short list of heroes. He slept with a six-shooter under his pillow until he died, wore a cowboy hat with authority, and understood what it meant to be a man. When I take his shotgun up into the mountains behind our home I can’t help but think of him, and in those moments I want nothing more than to be a cowboy, to ride the range, see the high country, and lay down my sundown in some starry field. All of these thoughts play out in my mind accompanied by John’s music, and his lyrics make me believe that my dream is not so impossible after all. Hell, I already live in a rodeo town on the side of a mountain, so the stretch to becoming a cowboy is not that far.
Yes, I live in the mountains nowadays, having left most of yesterday behind me. Every breath at altitude brings the high that John knew and sang about so well. My hope is that my children will look back and remember with fondness the paradise that we moved to when they were young, the place where eagles lived in rocky cathedrals, where they were free to shoot at empty pop bottles with their pistols, and where the days are all filled with an easy country charm. One of the greatest advantages to living in the west is that you can almost always see where you are going, even if you don’t always know where you are headed. Here in the mountains I have enjoyed the blessing of listening to God’s casual reply to my many questions, and I can’t see myself living or dying anywhere else. John’s music means that much more to me now, because I can drive through our valley and see his lyrics living all around me.
I moved to this paradise with my very own Darcy Farrow, whose voice truly is as sweet as sugar candy (most of the time). We have been married almost 21 years, pushing through a share of troubles and strife that are ours alone to know. Not long after our courtship began, Elizabeth discovered that I loved and still listened to John Denver. She later confessed that this fact further solidified her belief that I was the one for her. It does not embarrass me to say that she is my personification of Annie’s Song, and that the barely audible, comfortable sigh of contentment heard after the first line is reminiscent of the way I feel when I think of spending forever with her. I fear that should she leave this life before I do, I will be buried with her on that terrible day, because life without her is something in which I have no interest. I don’t have to experience it to know that it’s a hard life living when you’re lonely.
I started listening to John when I was just two feet high, and today I
listen to him standing six feet tall. When I was five, my parents took me
to see him perform. Mom still says it was the longest I have ever sat
totally still, and she marveled at how fixated I was on John as he sang
songs that I had only heard amid the crackle of my father’s turntable.
John’s music truly does make pictures, and for me it will always tells
stories. Not one of his songs fail to transport me back through time, to
moments when life looked more like a long and comfortable drive down a
familiar country road than a four-lane highway congested by the heartbreak, responsibilities, and trappings of adult life.
As a child I would listen to John’s rendition of “It Amazes Me” over and
over again. As the song climbed higher, louder, and faster, I would drop to all fours and buck across the living room like a wild bronco, much to the delight of my family. I have never ridden a real bronco, but that hasn’t
kept me free from the occasional bucking. The music to which I live my life has at times built itself into crescendos of wild wondering and untamed circumstance, and I find that I’ve gotten lost on my way, shouting “where can I hide?”
In moments such as those, I sometimes think that maybe that little boy in
the sunshine-shouldered shirt turned out to be a little like John Denver
In “Around and Around,” John confessed to hoping that once he was gone, others would think of him in moments when they were happy and smiling, and that the thought of him would comfort them in moments when they were crying.
I do, and it does.
"That’s not just a love song; it’s a prayer"
Like many others, I was a fan from age 12 who in my teens was a little
afraid of admitting it. But by college all my roommates and their friends
knew: my dorm room was nicknamed ‘the Shrine’ because it was papered with John Denver posters. I was also a student of the Russian language and Russian history, and in 1985 was completing graduate studies in Russian history with a summer language study program at (then) Leningrad State University. A few weeks before leaving for that program, I saw John Denver in concert in the Chicago area and he mentioned that he would be doing a series of concerts in the Soviet Union that summer. I hoped, but figured the trip itself was excitement enough.
Sure enough, within the first week of arriving in Leningrad I started seeing
the posters on street boards: “John Denver American singer in concert”. The concierge at the hotel my student group was staying in helped me get tickets on the longest day of the year (in Leningrad, where the sun wouldn’t go down that night until 2 AM). A few of us went to the back stage door after the concert where we got to see John briefly, but that was only the beginning.
His translator, Oleg Smirnoff, stayed longer to talk to us, and when he told us that he would be going with John to give concerts in Moscow the next week, the two of us from my student group told him our group was also going to Moscow for the next weekend. He made it clear that he would help us get tickets, though I don’t remember how we followed up with him (I think he gave us his number, but this was pre-cell phones).
When we got to Moscow the next week we did get tickets-second row in the Olympic Stadium hall there - and Oleg made sure we were invited back to the party afterwards. So that night, June 29, 1985, I got to share with John that his song “Singing Skies and Dancing Waters” was my all-time favorite and that I had even attempted to translate it into Russian. His response was very close to this: ‘you know, that’s not just a love song; it’s a prayer.’ And I suddenly realized that I HAD always known that but could not articulate it; that was why I had always been drawn to the song. Someone took the below picture of me with John and Oleg that night, and to this day I share it with friends as the capture of what will always be one of the peak experiences of my life. I don’t think I have any other picture of myself in which I am grinning so thoroughly and sincerely.
And of course my friends, when I got home, gave me a hard time for being a groupie (chasing John Denver all the way to the Soviet Union), but they knew that years of scholarship had earned me both the trip and the great joy they could see written on my face.
Thank you JOHN DENVER
It was 6:00 a.m., on a Monday morning in 1972 I was one more time frantically racing from the day care center
Where I dropped off my three-year-old
To the baby sitter 15 miles away
Who cared for my one-year-old
Because the day care center wouldn’t take toddlers who weren’t potty-trained and I couldn’t afford the baby sitter for both boys
Doing all this so I could be at work by 7:00 am
The radio in my old ‘59 black and blue Plymouth Burst forth with “Country Roads Take Me Home”
I burst forth in tears
While driving down that road again
With my baby son,
I cast my eyes up to the foothills
Surrounding Glendale and noticed for the first time
Since my marriage in ‘67 and my divorce in ‘71
Playing on the tops of the shadowy mountain peaks I was free
Acid rock was ending
The ’60s were over
Whatever lay ahead was better than what I left behind, my
Four-year sojourn into a devastatingly bad Burbank marriage
My strength cometh from the
Mountains that morning
Thank you, John Denver
I had forgotten to look up
And I desperately needed to look up
You reminded me that I could.
I went and bought a bumper sticker that said
"Get High on Mountains" And stuck it on the bumper of my old car
A new era was beginning….
-Judi Reinhart Haworth-Adams
Is There Really Such a Thing as John Denver?
I was in love with John’s music as a child to the point that I practically refused to listen to anything else. One night when I was five years old, I asked my mom if there was “really such a thing as John Denver,” (wondering if he might have been a Muppet or something, I guess). When she said, “yes,” I promptly and emphatically replied (with my hands on my hips), “Well, I want to see him!” Mom barely contained her chuckle when she told me that she wasn’t sure that was going to be possible. But it just so happened that a couple of months later, John came to my hometown for a concert.
My dad stood in line for hours but it paid off when he was able to get front row tickets for John’s concert. I had to do something special if I was really going to see John. So I drew a picture for him that was my version of sunshine on the water. I drew our boat on the Tennessee River and a pretty sunset behind it. I even remember the color I used to sign my name. Now that my drawing was finished, I was ready to see John.
The concert was indescribable. At one point during the show, the band took a break and John sang a few songs, just him and his guitar. My dad leaned over and said, “Why don’t you go ahead and give it to him.” So up the stairs and across the stage I ran. As I reached John, I stopped, awe stricken. Slack jawed, and bug eyed, I reached out to give him my drawing.
"Well thank you honey,” he said. “That is very sweet.” I was still frozen in awe. John said, "Why don’t you put it right there for me," and pointed to a spot. Never taking my eyes off of him, I did as he asked. Then I just stood there. I was still slack jawed, bug eyed, and completely mesmerized. Eventually, John said, "Well, you can go back to your seat now." What an experience!
In 1994, my dad had the opportunity to meet John. After chatting with John for a minute, Dad said, “You know back in ‘77 or ‘78 you did a show in Birmingham, Alabama and a little blond ran up on stage and gave you a crayon drawing.” Before my dad could continue, John’s eyes got big and he said, “I remember that! I didn’t know what to do! That had never happened to me before!” My dad smiled and said, “Well, that was my daughter and she is still just as big of a fan!”
Dad got John’s autograph for me that day. While I never had a chance to meet and speak to John myself, it was a really fun thing for me to learn that (many, many years later) he remembered! I certainly do! It is one of my most treasured memories.
- Wendy Dobie - Kalispell, MT<
Happy Birthday, John
December 31, 2013. I hold up my glass and toast our old friend, John Denver, today on his 70th birthday. John, you are a true American icon. You were a great singer, songwriter, poet, and humanitarian from America’s heartland. Moreover, you came from a deeper place – you came from the heartland of Mother Earth.
Yes, I miss your smile, and that unbridled enthusiasm to dive headfirst into life. When I was with you, I always felt as if I were jogging while you were walking. It’s as if you always had a contribution to make and didn’t want to be late. But then you would pick up your old guitar, open your mouth to sing, and somehow time would stop for all of us.
Now you have no need for shoes and no need for time. I suspect you live with the eagles now and ride the wind, your songs echoing through the canyons of our minds, reminding us how right it is to care. And if we have an empty space inside of us since your passing, I know that it gets filled up every time we pick up litter or pick up a fallen friend. I know you laugh when you see us living joyfully, whistle when you see us living in harmony with nature, and sing out loud when we discover who we really are and live a life that shows it.
Happy 70th birthday, John. We love you,
Friend and Windstar co-founder
Heart To Heart
It was the early 70’s and I bought John’s Rhymes and Reasons album at Rockaway Sales for $5.00. I was 13 years old and it was the first album I ever purchased. I loved his all his songs and became a diehard fan! I shared a love for his music with my sister and my cousin but in the age of hard rock it was difficult to admit to friends that I was a fan. It wasn’t ‘cool’ under any circumstances. I had a few friends who also liked his music, but most were into the very popular rock music of the time. I went to some of his concerts and bought more of his albums, but being in your teens and admitting to being a John Denver fan was just plain risky.
In 1976, while I was a sophomore in high school, I was sitting in class and eyeing the clock- counting every minute that passed- every minute bringing me closer to the concert that I would attend that night with my sister and my cousin. I could NOT wait. Finally, when I could no longer contain my excitement, I went out on a limb and told a friend sitting in front of me that I was “SO EXCITED” because ‘even though I know it’s not cool’ I was going to John Denver concert that evening. MUCH to my surprise, she was ALSO counting the minutes, she was going to the SAME concert. We became INSTANT friends and to this day share a love for John’s music. We played John’s songs on the guitar together, attended some of his concerts together, and over the years we taught them to our children. It’s been a beautiful bond that we still share today. We will always be friends and we’ll always be fans.
John’s music truly is a ‘Heart To Heart’ experience.
Valerie Bello Bayville, NJ
I have been caring a for a lady with dementia for a long time. The lady concerned cannot communicate properly and often shows her frustration by shouting very loudly. We would go for long walks around a lake near where she lives and this was enjoyable to both of us. She had always been a fan of country music from a young woman. Now in her 70’s, she still enjoyed the music but didn’t want to sit and listen. Then, one day while in my car, I put a John Denver disc in the CD player. I had always enjoyed his music and found it very relaxing. The change that came over this lady was instant. “Annie’s Song” was the first tune and as soon as it started, the very first strains coming through the speakers changed her! She relaxed immediately. She had been quite agitated on getting into the car and I wasn’t sure we would be going anywhere that day. As the music carried on through “Rocky Mountain High,” then into “Grandma’s Feather Bed” and loads of other songs she seemed to be asleep. I turned the music down but she appeared to wake up again and got upset. We were by this time parked at a nature reserve and I wanted her to try and walk a little for exercise but no, she wasn’t going anywhere. I put the music back on and she relaxed again. I had always known that music can cross all barriers and generations but this was such a transformation. When we got home, she again became agitated and I explained to her husband what had happened. He borrowed my CD and said he would get others for her. Since then this lady’s life has been so much better. John Denver can be heard everyday in this couple’s house and in my car when I take her out. No matter what music i hear, I will always thank John Denver for making this lady’s life happy again in her dementia.
- Beve Holmes
My dad showed me John Denver’s cassette when I was around 7yrs. I looked at the price of the cassette and it was $2 (in India) in 1998. I asked him why would he pay so much for a music cassette? After listening to all those songs, I realized the cassette was priceless. Now, in the digital era, I am proud to own a vintage 3-CD collection of John Denver I got as a present from my brother. My playlist has 13 hours of John Denver music. I have realized that good songs don’t leave you on a jet plane, or otherwise.
—With warm regards G.Srikanth Decision Scientist Trainee Mu Sigma Inc.
I had the good fortune of meeting John Denver under very unusual circumstances 39 years ago in his hometown of Aspen, CO. Some people who read this account won’t be able to comprehend how I can look back on it so favorably, but for me it was a lifesaving event which I will always cherish and appreciate because it allowed me to meet and become friends with one of the most compassionate people ever.
My life was forever changed on March 2, 1974 when the private plane carrying my family and I crashed into Williams Peak near Sunlight Mountain, CO. I recounted the horrific details of this accident in a cover story for the Aspen Times Weekly on March 8th of last year. The long and short of the story is that my older brother Mark and I were the sole survivors of the crash and suddenly found ourselves trying to recuperate from our injuries at the Aspen Valley Hospital. To say that our spirits were at an all time low would be a gross understatement. In an effort to distract us from the brutal reality of losing our family, our uncle, Johnny Schuhmacher, decided to reach out to John for support because he knew we were huge fans.
I’m not quite sure how many days passed, but the next thing I knew there was a golden ray of sunshine beaming through our door and I saw John there carrying his guitar. He sat down between our beds and began to play Rocky Mountain High as we sang along and began to feel our pain melting away. In a stroke of good luck my aunt, Bunny Weicker, had a cassette player and was able to record the joyous event as the nurses lined up in the hallway to seek a peek at John and the music was broadcast through the hospital intercom system.
For most artists, let alone the #1 at the time, this act of kindness would have been enough, but not for John, he made it a mission to make sure we were all right. On another visit he brought along a, state of the art at the time, VHS player and wanted to show us a tape of one of his concerts. After toiling with the connection between the player and the hospital TV, he realized that it wasn’t going to work. Again, most people would have given up, but not John, he immediately went home and got his own TV, which was compatible with the player, and brought it back so we could watch. When he left that day my uncle was standing in the doorway as John passed and he suddenly stopped, turned around, and said “ I love you guys,” and then continued walking. My uncle said he will forever remember how the hair stood up on the back of his neck when he heard those four beautiful words because he knew how genuine they were.
Our relationship continued on for years after the hospital as John continued to take an interest in our well being. There were motorcycle rides, invitations to concerts, and shared hockey stories at the rink. My only regret was not taking the opportunity to go speak with him on top of Aspen Mountain while skiing many years later as an adult. I guess I thought there would always be a next time, but ironically later that year he was killed in his own plane crash and our story had come full circle.
In the 16 years since his passing, I have tried to make sense out of our unusual connection to each other and what it all means. I’m not quite sure I have it all figured out yet, but what I do know is that John taught me that compassion is the greatest gift you can give someone, because it magnifies and comes back to you even more.
- Andrew Godfrey
Listen to Andy & Mark Godfrey and John Denver sing “Rocky Mountain High” and “Sunshine on my Shoulders”