It’s hard to explain how popular John Denver was in the 70s, so just accept that he was.
He was everywhere … in the charts, on television, in films and on constant tour around the world.
He is, generally, assumed to be a country act because of the country themes in many of his songs. He didn't, however, fit into the traditional country boxes or even the new country that opened up in the 60s or 70s. Country bravado and strut is not to be found his music. His country is not of the open plains, the honky tonks or of lying women, cheating men or excessive whiskey and gin. It is the of the high mountains, clean air and thoughtful quiet contemplation.
Accordingly, he brought a folk sensibility and folk sensitivity to country which means it is barely what we assume country is, but it still is.
There are elements of country pop, singer-songwriter, and folk in his music, all done to an open gentle semi acoustic sound. If his music doesn't always sound authentically country it does always sound genuinely rustic, albeit quite smooth. It isn’t always evident in the music but it is evident in the lyrics and narratives that Denver was entranced with the American landscape, its native peoples, the flora, fauna of the land and the societal values of a time past.
That is what makes him country.
And, if you don’t accept that opinion, then you can accept the fact that country audiences accepted him.
Wikipedia … "Henry John Deutschendorf, Jr., was born in Roswell, New Mexico, to Lt. Col. Henry John Deutschendorf, Sr., an Air Force officer (who set three speed records in the B-58 Hustler bomber and earned a place in the Air Force Hall of Fame) and Erma Louise Swope. Henry Sr. was of German ancestry, and met and married his "Oklahoma Sweetheart". Denver's Irish Catholic and German maternal grandmother was the one who imbued Denver with his love of music. In his autobiography, Take Me Home, Denver described his life as the eldest son of a family shaped by a stern father who could not show his love for his children. He is also the nephew of singer Dave Deutschendorf of The New Christy Minstrels … At the age of 11, Denver received an acoustic guitar from his grandmother. He learned to play well enough to perform at local clubs by the time he was in college. He adopted the surname "Denver" after the capital of his favorite state, Colorado. He decided to change his name when Randy Sparks, founder of The New Christy Minstrels, suggested that "Deutschendorf" wouldn't fit comfortably on a marquee. Denver studied Architecture at Texas Tech University in Lubbock and sang in a folk-music group called "The Alpine Trio" while pursuing architectural studies. He was also a member of Delta Tau Delta Fraternity. Denver dropped out of the Texas Tech School of Engineering in 1963, and moved to Los Angeles, where he sang in folk clubs. In 1965, Denver joined the The Mitchell Trio, replacing founder Chad Mitchell, which later became "Denver, Boise, and Johnson" (John Denver, David Boise, and Michael Johnson)… In 1969, Denver abandoned the band life to pursue a solo career and released his first album for RCA Records: Rhymes & Reasons … "
His fourth album “Poems, Prayers, and Promises” (1971), was a breakthrough for him in the US, thanks in part to the single "Take Me Home, Country Roads", which went to number 2 on the Billboard charts.
After that he followed themes and a style which varied only a little, till the end of his career.
When you are onto something why change?
He recorded nearly 300 songs, of which 200 of them he wrote. His career spanned four decades and his music appeared on a variety of charts, including Country and Western, the Billboard Hot 100, and Adult Contemporary. In the US he had 14 gold and eight platinum albums. He was loved around the world for his music and its message.
Allmusic, "One of the most popular recording artists of the 1970s, country-folk singer/songwriter John Denver's gentle, environmentally conscious music established him among the most beloved entertainers of his era; wholesome and clean-cut, his appeal extended to fans of all ages and backgrounds, and led to parallel careers as both an actor and a humanitarian".
There is something to be admired about this but it doesn't make country, alt country or neo-country heroes.
Gram Parsons, Johnny Cash, Townes Van Zandt and their crossover music with it's pain, despair and ambiguity makes for credible country counter-culture heroes.
But what he lacks in street cred (or is that trail cred?) he makes up with sensitivity, sincerity and a niceness that are wrapped up in an easy sing-a-long-a-bility of his tunes. He has something to say but he doesn't want to offend, he isn't strident or in your face despite the unequivocal nature of some his messages. He wants you to remember a tune and he had the folkies ability to turn words into moods.
Denver's sincerity doesn't extend to analysing his own personal demons in song, well, not directly or in any confessional manner. He had personal demons, but his image was quite separate. And when his image was tarnished, later in his life, by his drinking and associated allegations it seemed that much worse because it wasn’t expected of him.
Of course the truth is everyone has demons and those bits of darkness are hinted at in his earlier solo music.
This solo album (his second major release but third album release) is from Denver's transitional period between folkie and country. He was experimenting with the singer-songwriter style (as were a lot of ex folkies) as well as with rock sounds.
There are moments of darkness here (some which may put off traditional Denver fans) but it works and, importantly, it was a transition from folk that he needed to do. There are originals with bite as well as some well chosen covers which are darker still. But, there also hints of the pretty folk country music and open handed sincerity which would become his forte.
His voice is perhaps a little too sweet for this material (though it would serve his later material perfectly). In singer-songwriter folk we want out vocalists to be a little gruff, a little hoarse, a little lived in and a little raggedy around the edges. We want them world weary. And that's what we got with most. But, Denver has one of the purest voices in music with a natural vibrato and quality that, once heard, is remembered.
So, it is not surprising that his voice and music launched a thousand buskers
I haven't listened to every John Denver album but Denver's earlier solo and Chad Mitchell Trio work needs to be rediscovered or at least heard again. It may not be “up there” with his best but it is certainly worth a look and more interesting than when his work tapered off in the 80s and 90s.
Tracks (best in italics)
- Take Me to Tomorrow -a big rock beat (with keyboards up front) on this one with all the familiar late 60s themes …"do you care", "are you happy with your life"
- Isabel – More like the John Denver we know though not as effortless as his later stuff.
- Follow Me – More Denver we are familiar with though overproduced and with his voice slightly uncertain but haunting.
- Forest Lawn – (Tom Paxton) – from Tom Paxton's seventh album, despite the album title, "Tom Paxton 6" (1970) (there was live album in there also). A satirical song on the funeral industry is quite funny and very in the style of the folkie.
- Aspenglow – Aspen and glow …very John Denver
- Amsterdam – (Jacques Brel, Mort Shuman, Eric Blau) – One of Jacques Brel’s most well known songs originally sung in his French in 1964. There have been a number of English translations. John singing about Dutch prostitutes is odd but he does a good job of it even if his voice isnt gruff or dramatic enough. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amsterdam_(Jacques_Brel_song)
- Anthem-Revelation – an up-tempo pop rock song with a religious evangelical vibe.
- Sticky Summer Weather – a strange one. Echoes of numerous later Denver songs though with a touch of Phil Ochs about it.
- Carolina in My Mind – (James Taylor) – James Taylor's well known song from his self titled debut LP (1968). Denver has pitched this wrong. This would be perfect for his impassioned delivery, instead he gives it too much bounce. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carolina_in_My_Mind
- Jimmy Newman – (Tom Paxton) – another track from Tom Paxton's album, "Tom Paxton 6". This is cynical and strident and quite good.
- Molly – (Biff Rose) – written by Biff from his LP, "The Thorn In Mrs. Rose's Side " (1968). This is very Biff Rose (with a hint of David Ackles), like a song from a musical stage show. Catchy but very quirky.
Patchy but more good than not … I'm keeping it (perhaps)
Take Me to Tomorrow
Sticky Summer Weather
Carolina in My Mind
Live with Tom Jones
with Mama Cass
- John Denver the activist, on wikipedia: "Denver became outspoken in politics in the mid-1970s. He expressed his ecologic interests in the epic 1975 song "Calypso," which is an ode to the exploration ship and team of environmental activist Jacques Cousteau. In 1976, he campaigned for Jimmy Carter, who became a close friend and ally. Denver was a supporter of the Democratic Party and of a number of charitable causes for the environmental movement, the homeless, the poor, the hungry, and the African AIDS crisis. He founded the charitable Windstar Foundation in 1976, to promote sustainable living. His dismay at the Chernobyl disaster led to precedent-setting concerts in parts of communist Asia and Europe … During the 1980s, Denver was critical of the Reagan administration, but he remained active in his campaign against hunger, for which Reagan awarded Denver the Presidential World Without Hunger Award in 1985. Denver's criticism of the conservative politics of the 1980s was expressed in his autobiographical folk-rock ballad "Let Us Begin (What Are We Making Weapons For)." Denver was also critical of the Republican-dominated Congress and American Conservatism of the 1990s. He denounced the National Rifle Association (NRA) as a corrupt political machine that could buy off politicians, and in an open letter to the media, he wrote that he opposed oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Denver had battled to expand the refuge in the 1980s, and he praised President Bill Clinton for his opposition to the proposed drilling. The letter, which he wrote in the midst of the 1996 presidential election, was one of the last he ever wrote. Denver was also on the Board of Governors of the National Space Society for many years"
- Denver's second wife, Cassandra Delaney was born in Brisbane and is the younger sister of 70s TV celebrity Delvene Delaney