100 Greatest Men: #90. John Denver

100 Greatest Men: The Complete List

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.

Essential Singles:

  • 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

Essential Albums:

  • Poems, Prayers, and Promises, 1971
  • Rocky Mountain High, 1972
  • Back Home Again, 1974
  • An Evening with John Denver, 1975
  • Windsong, 1975

Next:  #89. Sawyer Brown

Previous: #91. Diamond Rio

100 Greatest Men: The Complete List

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  1. “He started out in the folk movement, joining The Mitchell Trio, which was rebranded Denver, Boise, and Johnson when singer Chad Mitchell departed.”

    The above comment is very wrong – Chad Mitchell departed the long before the Mitchell Trio (originally Chad Mitchell Trio) label was scrapped. It wasn’t until the last of the other two original members of the Mitchell Trio, Joe Frazier and Mike Kobluk, departed that the name of the trio was changed to Denver, Boise & Johnson. I have several of the post-Chad Mitchell albums with John Denver that feature the Mitchell Trio name. Although John Denver was, on the whole, a better singer than Chad Mitchell, he lacked that sense of satire and irony that Chad possessed, and the post-Chad Mitchell albums do not stand up to the original CMT albums

    I don’t think you have John Denver ranked too high but you certainly have him in front of several singers (Gene Watson, DAC, RVS and Gary Allan) that belong in front of him as far as their contibutions to country music go

  2. I really think the entire pop music world, not just country, always sold John Denver short when he was alive. The fact that his songs about love and nature didn’t necessarily fit it with the protest songs of the 1960s urban folk music movement doesn’t make them any less relevant; and the fact that his country music appeal was controversial to a point because he wasn’t Nashville’s idea of it doesn’t mean he didn’t know anything about the genre.

    If anything, his background in the folk music movement helped expose him to the kinds of ultra-traditional American country music styles that Nashville had largely been distancing itself from for years. There’s a bluegrass element in any number of his songs, especially those on his 1974 album Back Home Again, and on his 1977 hit “Baby You Look Good To Me Tonight.”

    To only look at the surface of his material, or to listen only to those “hip” tastemakers out there who say that he was lame and unhip, is to miss an important artist; and I do think that John Denver was an important artist…maybe not Dylan, or Elvis, or Hank Williams important, but an important and influential artist all the same.

  3. There’s definitely a bluegrass element to his An Evening with John Denver album, one of the best live albums in my collection. I was raised with John Denver’s music and loved it before I even knew anything about genres. It was a loss when he suddenly died. I also remember Vince Gill crying on the Opry soon after he died during his intro to “Country Roads”, since he grew up with his music too. For me, there’s something refreshing just in Denver’s clear, easy voice.

  4. I enjoyed reading the article even though I don’t agree with the ranking. Great comment by Eric North.

    Denver is my favorite male country artist. I admit that I place more weight on the quality of the vocals than the writers on most country blogs I read but I also don’t think JD gets his due credit as a songwriter. Of my favorite JD songs, he was the sole writer for about 40 of them and co-wrote another 10. He wrote over 200 songs.

    I don’t have the Chad Mitchell Trio albums with JD but I have some early CMT albums and they’re great.

    Thanks to Paul D for recommending the Bruce Feiler book “Dreaming Out Loud” on another site.

  5. I always thought Charlie Rich was a total jerk for flaming the ballot when announcing JD as Entertainer of the Year. And as someone mentioned, Rich was not exactly pure traditional country himself. I grew up in the 70s and hated a lot of the music of that time, especially post-1975. The Eagles and John Denver resonated with me as well as most of my 8-track playing friends. I appreciate Denver’s inclusion in this top 100.

  6. John always thought of himself as a folk artist; it was a discussion he and I had many times (I was a long time friend- I spoke to him the day he picked up the new plane). He had a deep love of all music and was a huge Hank Williams fan.

    As Bob pointed out he didn’t get a lot of credit for his songwriting (which is very clever). He also didn’t get a lot of credit for his skills as a musician. He played 12 and 6 string acoustic guitar, autoharp, fiddle, piano and banjo. He also had an effortless tenor; I wish his early albums were available on cd as they contain some of his best performances.

  7. Rich was definitely under the influence of something when he did that. Nobody ever talks about how earlier in the presentation, when he was announcing the nominees, he was creepily leery toward Loretta Lynn.

  8. I was always under the impression that the unfortunate combination of pain medications for a chronic condition (I don’t remember the specifics but it ended his athletic career) and alcohol caused the incident. Certainly Rich, a Renaissance music man if ever there was one in country music, wouldn’t have cared about the country content (or lack thereof) in John Denver’s music

  9. …it’s rare but it happens – i have to disagree with paul w. dennis. even here in europe, a lot of people remember having grown up with john denver music and looking back to when i was a kid, i can’t remember many camp fires without someone picking and singing “country roads”. and even today, i always enjoy hearing it.

  10. I think the fact that he had universal appeal during the 1970s was one of the many reasons that Denver never got the respect that he deserved; even then, albeit a lot less so than these days, one had to fit into some kind of a niche–and he didn’t really. He was a singer/songwriter, with a background in folk, and did sing a lot of songs with themes about rural and country living that I think have become bumper sticker slogans in Nashville today. He knew whereof he sang and spoke, and there just won’t be anyone else like him to take his place. At least I don’t really see any from the current crop in Nashville.

  11. Tom – I never said I didn’t like John Denver – I have about a dozen of his vinyl albums, stored on the shelves where I keep my albums of Judy Henske, Burl Ives, Peter-Paul & Mary, Tom Paxton, The Brothers Four, Judy Collins, The Chad Mitchell Trio and other folk artists.

    Denver’s country content was always marginal but he was a terrific performer and AN EVENING WITH JOHN DENVVER is one of the great live albums. It was also his most country endeavor.

    I think John’s personna was the main reason he didn’t get much respect in the rather cynical late 60s and early 70s. The talent was always there

  12. I think Paul’s mostly right. This ranking seems about right to me. He’s represented because he did have impact on country music, but I think his music was certainly mostly folk rather than country.

  13. Rich may have been a class act, but his act that night was far from classy. I hope it was drugs or booze, but I also think he had an idea what he was doing.

  14. Even if Charlie Rich was on something the night he burned that card, one can’t doubt that a lot of people in the Nashville of that time felt that way about Denver, an admitted “outsider”, invading their territory and their radio airwaves. It was ridiculous behavior on their part then, and it looks truly ridiculous now (IMHO).

  15. It’s nice to see Denver getting some recognition here. I’ve always found his music enjoyable and authentic, as well as a natural fit for country music. It certainly sounds more in touch with tradition not only in comparison with today’s music but as you said with many of the country hits from that time period as well. “Wild Montana Skies” with Emmylou is one of my favorites from him.

    Great feature Kevin, I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the list!

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