Harry Dunne: "Huh. I expected the Rocky Mountains to be a little rockier than this."
Lloyd Christmas: "I was thinking the same thing. That John Denver's full of sh*t, man."
I don't know what it says about me that the first time I heard of John Denver it was from the Farrelly brothers' comedic pairing of Jeff Daniels and Jim Carrey in Dumb & Dumber (1994), but Mr. Christmas' offhand (and hilariously ignorant) comment about the American singer-songwriter who died in a plane crash in 1997 was always a line that stuck in my head. I'm not a huge fan of Denver's, nor do I know all that much about him even now, but I've heard a sample of his songs as a solo artist and I can tell I already like him.
Recently, GQ — a magazine that I read religiously — had this to say about the state of popular country music: "If you feel like real country music died with the 1970s and gave way to a genre that's the musical equivalent of Walmart — monolithic, cheap, and eroding the soul of small-town America — we've got badass news for you." The little featurette went on to introduce lesser-known names of the modern day country music scene: Chris Stapleton, Jason Isbell, and Sturgill Simpson. (Isbell, in particular, caught my ear; his album Southeastern (2013) earns every second of playtime.) But I don't bring this up to talk about those guys, good as they are; I bring it up to show just how true that statement about country music is, how Denver (who leans more toward the folksy side of things at times) embodies that mountain sound full of soul that seems to be long-gone today.
My first real taste of Denver came in March 2014 when I set out with a group of fellow college students to rural West Virginia on an alternative spring break trip. "Take Me Home, Country Roads" (off the album Poems, Prayers & Promises (1971)) became an unofficial theme song (in my mind, at least) of the week we spent helping to fix up a decrepit community center and exploring the hilly countryside of the Mountain State. "Almost heaven, West Virginia," Denver sings, "Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah River. Life is old there, older than the trees, younger than the mountains, growin' like a breeze." It was one of those times when a song and a sound and a place meshed together to create a feeling. And that feeling was a mixture of its own: nostalgia, serenity, a connection with nature. Maybe I sound hippie-dippy, but I don't care.
All of Denver's songs that I've laid ears on to date have this magical quality about them. They're like individual time machines that transport you back to a place and time that you've never been but that feels like home, a place you want to be, where everything is okay and peaceful and tinted with yellow. You're in the mountains — the Appalachians or the Rockies, doesn't matter — or around a campfire, it's the 1970s, and you've not a care in the world, and that's how it should be. That's what country music — all music — should be able to do every time: help you make a powerful connection to something meaningful. It doesn't have to be something in nature, but in my opinion, it shouldn't be about drinking beer and driving big trucks; those are just the common clichés of the genre nowadays.
Today, September 15, is the 44th anniversary of the release of one of Denver's greatest hits on an album of the same name, "Rocky Mountain High." That is the real reason I felt inspired to write this post, to mark a historical moment in Denver's career. A month and a half after its initial release, on October 30, 1972, Denver repackaged the song as a single, and in March 2007, ten years after he died, the U.S. state of Colorado recognized the ethereal anthem as its second official state song, behind A.J. Flynn's "Where the Columbines Grow" (1915).
And gosh, listening to it today, even though I've never been to Colorado, well, I get that sense I was talking about earlier, that I'm there in the mountains with John and it's a beautiful day in the fall and everything's good. As an over-sensitive, hormonal, in-the-wrong-high-school teenager from Mean Girls once said, "I just have a lot of feelings." Okay?