His sweet AM radio sound resonated across genre boundaries, but for traditionalists, John Denver was where they would draw the line.
That such inoffensive music could ever cause such controversy may seem silly today, but Denver’s crossover success in the country market reached its peak with a 1975 CMA win for Entertainer of the Year.
Coming one short year after the hotly contested Olivia Newton-John win for Female Vocalist, presenter Charlie Rich may not have been in the right frame of mind when he lit the envelope on fire before announcing Denver’s win, but he certainly spoke for the wide dissent felt among the industry’s rank for these genre carpetbaggers.
But how did Denver get to the point that he’d even be a contender for country music’s top prize? He started out as Henry John Deutschendorf, Jr., born in New Mexico to a military family that moved around often. During a stint in Arizona, he spent two years as a member of the Tuscon Arizona Boys Chorus.
His interest in music was further developed when he received a guitar from his grandmother on his twelfth birthday. He was so enchanted with dreams of being a music star that while attending high school in Texas, he ran away to California with his father’s car, but was brought back home to finish high school.
He started out in the folk movement, joining The Mitchell Trio, which was eventually rebranded Denver, Boise, and Johnson by the time Denver departed. Fellow member Michael Johnson would also go on to a successful solo career, having big AC hits in the seventies before topping the country charts in the mid-eighties.
Denver’s solo career heated up quickly. Shortly after leaving the trio, he released his first solo album in 1969. It wasn’t a runaway hit, but it featured a song called “Leavin’ On a Jet Plane”, which became a #1 hit for Peter, Paul and Mary later that year. Two more solo albums floundered until he had his breakthrough as an artist with “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” It was a huge pop hit, reaching #2 on the Hot 100, and made a minor impression on the country chart as well.
Now a platinum-selling artist, Denver’s brand of folk slowly took a more country turn. Unlike Newton-John, who was embraced by country music more fully than pop music at first, country radio came on board after Denver was already a regular fixture on the pop charts, starting with “Annie’s Song” in 1974. After “Back Home Again” topped both charts, his subsequent singles in 1974 and 1975 would do better on the country charts, with “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” and “I’m Sorry” becoming #1 country hits.
Thus the controversial win for Entertainer, which in retrospect has more to do with Nashville’s xenophobia than anything else. Listen to Denver’s big hits alongside Nashville songs of the same era, and they don’t sound particularly less country than a lot of it, especially the records of Rich, his personal flamethrower.
Denver’s style of music laid the groundwork for everyone from Mac McAnally and Dan Seals to Kathy Mattea and Zac Brown Band, and while his star soon faded on pop radio, he still made regular appearances on the country charts, scoring a bit of a comeback in the eighties with the top ten hits “Some Days are Diamonds (Some Days are Stone)” and “Dreamland Express.” He also reached the top twenty with “Wild Montana Skies”, featuring the talents of Emmylou Harris on vocals.
Denver died tragically in a plane crash in 1997. While his contributions to country music were controversial at the time, memorials ran at both the Country Music Association awards and the Grammy Awards following his death, further solidifying the wide impact that this singer-songwriter made on contemporary music.
- Take Me Home, Country Roads, 1970
- Sunshine on My Shoulders, 1973
- Annie’s Song, 1974
- Back Home Again, 1974
- Thank God I’m a Country Boy, 1975
- Fly Away (with Olivia Newton-John), 1975
- Looking For Space, 1976
- Poems, Prayers, and Promises, 1971
- Rocky Mountain High, 1972
- Back Home Again, 1974
- An Evening with John Denver, 1975
- Windsong, 1975
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