Thank God I'm a Country Boy

Growing up in Aspen it was a common occurrence to run into John.  He lived right up the road from my childhood friends Amber and Zach.  A run in at Carl's or Clarks was a common occurrence.  Nearly 20 years later JD's lyrics and rhymes remain the embodiment of the real Rocky Mountain High.

A great piece in today's Daily News by Jeff Bear

Musicians gather around Aspen for the annual John Denver Celebration week

Long-time local musician Jan Garrett recalls him clearly, the young musician who walked into a Snowmass Village bar where her band, The Hustlers, were playing a gig in 1967. 

“This guy wandered in while we were taking a break and he said ‘do you mind if I play during your break,’” Garrett recalled, “and it turned out it was John Denver. He had just left the Chad Mitchell Trio and he was out on his own, and he loved Colorado and was kind of just touring around.”

Garrett said that when Denver and his wife Annie moved to Aspen a few years later, she and the members of the band she was then playing in, Liberty, became friends with the couple.

“Liberty played around town at the Red Onion and the Blue Moose and some other places,” Garrett said, “and John would come occasionally and listen to us, and there were some songs of ours he really liked.”

Local musician Larry Gottlieb, who was the pedal steel guitar player for Liberty, said he remembers a particular day while the band was playing a gig at the Blue Moose, which was located in the basement of a building on the northwest corner of Cooper and Galena streets and was owned by Jim Gibbons, who was a golfing buddy of Denver’s.

“We were playing there for an extended period, and Jim told John ‘you should come down and hear the band,’” Gottlieb said. “So he did, and the next day we were down there rehearsing and I walked up the stairs and there was John, and he asked me ‘who wrote that song?’ He was referring to a song called “River of Love” that was written by [band member] John Sommers, who later wrote “Thank God I’m a Country Boy.” 

Gottlieb said that Denver told the band, “I’m recording in New York next week and I’d like you to come and record that song with me.” 

“So we played our Saturday night gig, then we flew to New York on Sunday and went into the studio and recorded that on Monday, and we were back at the club on Tuesday night in Aspen,” he said. “That song ended up on an album of John’s called “Farewell Andromeda” which came out in ’75.”

Gottlieb said that Liberty joined Denver on tour in 1973 for three shows, in Portland and Eugene, Ore., and Seattle, then did some scattered dates with him in 1974 before joining him on a 40-city tour over six weeks starting in April of 1975. 

“That was the crest of the wave [of John Denver’s popularity],” Gottlieb said.

Garrett recalls that Denver first wanted Liberty to record an album on his label, Windstar Records. So they flew to Los Angeles and recorded at RCA studios with Denver before joining him on tour that spring. 

“That was a really fun time,” she said. “That was his heyday; John was very popular at that time, and his audience was really nice to us because we were sort of this crazy eclectic band and they liked our music, and that kind of warmed them up to hear John.”

Gottlieb said he first realized how famous Denver had become while standing next to him in an airport when a couple of excited fan girls approached and said “are you John Denver?” 

“I thought, ‘this is a bigger pond than I’ve been swimming in,’” he said.

Gottlieb said that Denver was very spiritual, and the two connected over their spirituality after Denver read a book that he recommended. But it also became the source of a rift between them.

“I was in the early phases of my spiritual growth, which was the toddler phase, and somebody said ‘I’m a psychic and I had this dream that something bad would befall John,’” Gottlieb said. “And I felt like I needed to have her call and tell him, so I gave her his phone number. 

“The next morning John calls at like six in the morning and says ‘I can’t believe you did that,’ and he’s all pissed off, and I said ‘you know John, I was just thinking of you as any other good friend.’ He stopped and calmed right down and thanked me for that, and said ‘well that’s all I ever want to be to you.’ That’s the kind of guy that I experienced.”

Garrett said she kept in contact with Denver, and many years later was giving a voice lesson to his second wife, Cassie Delaney, when Denver overheard them working on an original song called “Tenderly Calling” that Garrett had written.

“He said ‘I want to record that song,’” Garrett said. So he did, with Garrett playing piano and singing background vocals. The song ended up on Denver’s album called “Different Directions.”

Profound influence

Mark Cormican is a musician from northern Kentucky who said he’s been coming to Aspen almost every year since 1976. He and his band, Starwood, have played Denver’s songs at the annual John Denver Celebration every year since its inception in 1998, the year after Denver died when a small plane he was piloting crashed off the Pacific coast near Monterey, Calif.

This year he said he decided to create something a little different – a singer/songwriter event held in the fifth floor ballroom of the Mountain Chalet featuring musicians who have been influenced by Denver’s music.

“Being a John Denver fan, or a Gordon Lightfoot fan, or Jim Croce, or whoever, it does inspire you to write your own music,” Cormican said. “So these songs are very inspired by John Denver, but from our own minds and hearts.

“John Denver loved other people’s music as much as he loved his own — he loved original songs, and this is the only event this week, and really ever since we’ve been doing this, where no John Denver songs are sung. It’s all original songs.”

Cormican said that the idea for the singer/songwriter event came to him last year during the nightly sing-along in the Mountain Chalet’s lobby.

“Last year we sort of went off the track and did some Eagles, Beatles and James Taylor, and I thought ‘these people can do other things besides John Denver songs, and most of them are good writers,’” he said.

Cormican said that the biggest influence Denver’s music has had on his own music is the relatability of the songs. 

“There are a lot of songs he wrote that aren’t on the radio,” he said. “Annie’s Song is a great song, and Rocky Mountain High, but he wrote some other tunes that you don’t hear on the radio that I can just relate to so well. 

“I think that’s the main appeal to John Denver’s music. When I write a song, I make it so that it’s not only about my life and my experience but other people can relate to it too.”

Musician Brad Fitch, who participated in the singer/songwriter event, said he’s been aware of Denver’s music since he was a kid growing up in Estes Park because his mom was a great fan.

“I listened to his music, along with other singer-songwriter music, folk music and country music, and really liked his style,” Fitch said. “I liked his lyrics specifically, so as a songwriter I would say the biggest influence was lyrically. I noticed that his lyrics were topical, really meant things to people, really made people feel good, and I thought ‘I’d like to have that kind of effect with my own songs.’”

Heart of the music

The Aspen Meadow Band has been playing at the John Denver Celebration every year since 2007, and played three shows at this year’s event.

The band members have dedicated themselves to doing benefit concerts for organizations like Relay for Life, Muscular Dystrophy, Juvenile Diabetes Camp and CASA. With a lineup of up to 13 interchangeable musicians of varying influences, they are able to play songs that fit any particular venue or event.

Guitarist Matthew Senn said that part of the reason the band connects with Denver is the message that flows through much of his music. 

“We relate to the message he has in the heart of his music … about the wonder of life and community, and respect for nature,” he said. “The simplicity of “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” to the amazingness of “The Wings That Fly Us Home.” He spans the spectrum of the human experience.

“So that’s a big part of what we want to have in our shows and the presence that we have for people.”

Guitarist Broc Norman said that Denver had a profound influence on his early musical career.

“When I was growing up I was allowed just a few 8-tracks, and they were all John Denver,” he said. “But I related to him, I could play his stuff, and I learned his stuff. It was just the feeling he gave, and seeing people my age or older that related to that. It’s the spiritual connection that comes through the notes.”

Drummer Derek Boone said that anybody can sing the words, but Denver had a way of singing them with truth. 

“He was authentic. That’s why I connect to him, because when he sings it’s so real, you know he’s believing every word he’s singing,” he said. “He was passionate, you just feel like it’s the truth when he sings. He convinces me when he sings a song, he makes you believe it. I think we should all sing like that.”