by Norman Warwick

My son, (Andrew, left) thinks he knows more than I have forgotten about John Denver and his music. As a self-taught but admittedly still learning guitar and banjo player he has built himself a repertoire that leans heavily on the massive music collection I had but that he surpassed several years ago. Like his dad, my son, now in his early forties is now something of an ethnomusicologist and enjoys the story behind the music and the routes and directions by which it has arrived here as much as enjoys the songs themselves.

My son will know, for instance, that although Take Me Home, Country Roads became John Denver’s beloved signature song, it was actually written in collaboration with married song-writing pair Bill Danoff and Taffy Nivert back in 1970 and remains what Ellen Johnson* of Paste on-line magazine calls ´one of the most blissful country tunes ever sung´.

´And´, she adds, ´it doesn’t get old´!

´Every time I hear that first wisp of steel guitar, Denver’s sturdy tenor and mention of his “mountain mama,” I’m smacked with a bittersweet sense of peace. I’m from Alabama, not “West Virginia,” but this song may as well be about traveling along any sliver of southern highway, beelining back to the “place I belong,” because it always imbues me with deep emotions and an appreciation for our region’s natural surroundings. But you don’t need to be Southern to appreciate this classic. Whether you hail from the innermost corner of one of America’s biggest metropolises or the same Appalachian foothills so eloquently described in the song, there’s just something undeniably comfortable about “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” It is not your American duty to respect our president, but it is your duty to respect the hell out of this song, no matter where you’re from. I don’t make the rules´.

Famously covered by Phil Collins, Ray Charles, Toots and the Maytals and Olivia Newton-John (whose version puzzlingly, but effectively, appears in Studio Ghibli’s Whisper of the Heart), Take Me Home, Country Roads has recently seen musicians of a different generation taking a liking to Denver’s musings on the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Shenandoah River. Chicago rockers Whitney recently joined with Waxahatchee’s Katie Crutchfield for an especially groovy indie-folk version, and last year the Americana trio Mountain Man (left) covered it, in their characteristically stripped-down fashion, for their Mountain Man Sings series (complete with Alexandra Sauser-Monnig posing as a be-speckled Denver in the album art).

Ellen reported in her article that Boho fashion brand Free People is currently selling a t-shirt emblazoned with the song’s title for the decidedly ridiculous price of $78. Perhaps this is in response to the song’s resurgence on the app TikTok, where, alongside other rock and pop songs from the 1970s and ’80s like Mr. Blue Sky and You Make My Dreams (Come True), it has become a popular overdub (as well as a very strange slowed version from Kingsman: The Golden Circle, which, befuddingly, teens are using for more comical scenarios).

She also noted that maybe Take Me Home, Country Roads, the song my son´s dad , played on a cassette player in the car while the child was growing up, and that you might have heard a million times during WVU games, is an earnestly pure song that has officially superseded its corny reputation and re-entered the indie zeitgeist and even the more zany Gen-Z-dominated corners of the internet. And it has done so during a time when folk-rock music from Denver’s era seems to be making a sort of comeback.

Like all dads of my generation I passed on to my son, born twelve years after its release,  the classic 1968 song Carolina In My Mind. Written by James Taylor (right). that track was spiritually akin to Country Roads, and we musos from the local folk scene played him both songs (and much Tom Paxton material, too) at my son´s christening in 1980. I never thought then that Taylor would still be around on the scene today releasing albums as surprising as  his latest, American Standard, and  still be achieving chart success at the same time as Elton John is once more at the top of the pop singles charts!

I grew up on singer-songwriter country-folk of the kind we these days call Americana, much of which was unknown then but todays is revered by ´loyal friends and front row dancers´  who, like me, love John Stewart, Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt.

John Denver and James Taylor, of course, enjoyed great success early in their careers as to some extent did Jim Croce (left) who, according to Ellen Johnson, is ´´´certified dad music by almost any standard´, Croce was another of Denver’s contemporaries.

´This is not to say that Jim Croce is considered “cool” by the music community at large´, Ellen Johnson reminded us,.´(in fact, it’s safe to say he’s probably thought of as the opposite), but I’d still urge anyone who’s read this far to revisit his 1972 breakthrough You Don’t Mess Around With Jim. I’ll be damned if there aren’t some roots-rock bangers on there. Perhaps you’ll even be moved to listen with your dad ´next Father’s Day, at which time he’ll probably back me up on this´.

The move to something of a post-pandemic normality in 2020 saw new albums from some of Denver’s more prominent peers: Bob Dylan and Neil Young. Paste on-linesaid of  Dylan’s Rough And Rowdy Ways, like much of his greatest works, resists any easy categorization, and Young’s Homegrown (originally recorded in 1975 but shelved thereafter) is an essential chapter in his legacy.

´Everything old is new again´, as Ellen Johnson puts it.

It’s doubtful that Dylan or Young will find adoration among young Zoomers in the same way that the more commercial and upbeat Take Me Home, Country Roads has, but this particular moment gives us all good reason to revisit John Denver’s long and often underrated catalogue. my son has already filtered his mental images of his dad´s dusty vinyl records stacked in piles around he gramophone or those records of his mum´s cassettes stowed away in a box of stuff from secretarial-college in a sad corner of the attic. Instead he  remembers Denver for what he truly was: one of the great country-pop singers of his time. Take Me Home, Country Roads, Rocky Mountain High and Thank God I’m a Country Boy are just the tip of the iceberg (or, should I say, the tip of one very fine peak on the Blue Ridge).

Denver tragically died in a plane crash 1997, so he’ll never get to see these well-meaning TikToks or hear a shaggy indie-rock band from Chicago sing his song (or Mark Strong in Kingsman, which is maybe for the best). But his legacy is inextricable from Take Me Home, Country Roads.

Next time my son Andrew is driving along the not-so-´country roads through Seoul, in a traffic jam at dusk, (see photo) with his South Korean wife and their eleven year old daughter, and is asked to skip to the next station whenever Take Me Home Country Roads is played, he might just do what his dad did when his dad´s son was his grand-daughter´s age,  and let it play until she, too, starts to feel the sheer joy, exuberance and pride in that song.

The prime source for this article was piece written by Ellen Johnson for Paste on-line magazine. Ellen is an associate music editor, writer, playlist maker, coffee drinker and pop culture enthusiast at Paste. She occasionally moonlights as a film fan on Letterboxd. You can find her tweeting about all the things on Twitter @ellen_a_johnson.

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