Remembering John Denver, The Singer Who Embodied Colorado

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<p>(Courtesy of John Denver's estate)</p>
<p>John Denver with his guitar.</p>

This special program about the singer-songwriter originally aired Dec. 31, 2013.

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Singer-songwriter John Denver touched millions of people and reached superstar status with his folk-based pop songs, many of them based in Colorado.

Born Henry John Deutschendorf Jr., in Roswell, New Mexico, he fell in love with Colorado and eventually settled in Aspen. More than a few people beat a path to Colorado after hearing Denver’s popular anthems to his adopted state.

"I don't think there's any other performer who embodies Colorado like John Denver,” said G. Brown, curator of the Colorado Music Hall of Fame. In 2011, Denver was named the Hall of Fame’s first inductee.

Today, he personifies the state for people worldwide. “Certainly, in my travels, you meet someone from the other side of the world, someone from New Zealand, and you say, 'I'm from Colorado,' and the first thing out of their mouth is, 'Oh, John Denver!' " Brown said.

Denver’s first Top 10 hit as a solo artist, after a short career performing in small folk music groups, was “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” co-written with Bill Danoff.

Danoff wrote the song with Johnny Cash in mind, but when Denver heard an early version, he knew right away the song could be a hit single. The singer recorded the song just a few days later after performing it to an enthusiastic audience in Washington, D.C.

“Country Roads” appeared on Denver’s fourth album, “Poems, Prayers and Promises,” released in 1971.

Throughout the 1970s, Denver toured frequently. To help stay grounded on the road, he turned to Tom Crum, a friend from Aspen who taught Aikido, the Japanese martial art. Crum also became Denver’s bodyguard and they later co-founded the Windstar Foundation, an environmental organization based in Snowmass.

“There was something in John’s voice that resonated with all of us and spoke to something a little deeper than just the lyrics or just the ego involved in any singer,” Crum said. “And it was that depth of spirit, that depth of heart, that depth of compassion which I think really resonated with the people around the world, and made him one of the biggest artists of the '70s."

Former Colorado state senator Bob Hagedorn is one of many who were touched by Denver’s songs.

In 1973, Hagedorn was a junior at the University of Colorado School of Journalism. He and his then girlfriend were camping in the mountains one night when they both hit on the idea that John Denver’s “Rocky Mountain High” would be the perfect state song for Colorado. (Never mind that Colorado already had one -- a song called “Where the Columbines Grow.”)

Years later, Hagedorn led the effort in the state assembly to name "Rocky Mountain High" Colorado’s second official state song.

"It's so descriptive of the beauty of Colorado and why a lot of people love our state,” Hagedorn said. “I can't tell you how many people have told me over the years that the reason they came to Colorado was because of John Denver's 'Rocky Mountain High.' It seemed like a natural to be the anthem for the state of Colorado."

John Denver died in October, 1997 at age 53.

The songs mentioned in Colorado Matters' special, "Remembering John Denver," are:

  • "Take Me Home, Country Roads," John Denver, John Denver's Greatest Hits
  • "Rocky Mountain High," John Denver, John Denver's Greatest Hits
  • "Leaving on a Jet Plane," Peter, Paul and Mary, Album 1700
  • "Sunshine on My Shoulders," John Denver, John Denver's Greatest Hits
  • "I Guess He'd Rather Be In Colorado," John Denver, John Denver's Greatest Hits
  • "Flying for Me," John Denver, Rocky Mountain Collection
  • "Calypso," John Denver, The Essential John Denver
  • "Rhymes and Reasons," John Denver, Rhymes & Reasons