John Denver’s song was released in 1971, and like the singer-songwriter himself, the song has been debated, discussed, and holds an almost mythical status that people still talk about to this day. And it’s been 50 years. So, what’s the big deal? Well, for one, it’s John Denver, and he’s a legend. Then there’s all the stuff about the meaning of the song, like how it was written by two of his friends, how none of them were ever in West Virginia, and how the song was.
This song didn’t just make Denver an international star; the heartfelt lyrics still resonate deeply with people in and outside of West Virginia. Come with me on a journey surrounding the lyrics and their meanings. And yes, you should probably play the song while reading (if you can)!
“Almost heaven, West Virginia
Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah River
Life is old there, older than the trees
Younger than the mountains, blowing like a breeze”
Pretty much everyone, including those who haven’t been, can appreciate the beauty West Virginia has to offer. The forests are rich, and the skies seem to always be a crisp blue. The Blue Ridge Mountains are just one part of the much larger Appalachians.
In reality, only a little bit of the range is actually located in West Virginia, but the song is really about a general southern nostalgia. As for the Shenandoah River, it runs through both Virginia and the eastern border of West Virginia, along the edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
“Country Roads, Take Me Home
To the Place I Belong”
It’s believed that the particular road the song is referring to is Clopper Road, which begins in Gaithersburg, Maryland and leads into West Virginia through Montgomery County (it’s now a busy four-lane road).
A large part of the song was actually written by co-writers Bill Danoff and Taffy Nivert – friends of Denver’s. Denver joined in later to finish writing it. As the story goes, they were looking to kill time as they drove along Clopper Road towards a family reunion in Maryland – not West Virginia. The funny, or ironic, thing about the song is that none of the three co-writers had ever been to West Virginia before making this song.
“West Virginia, Mountain Mama
Take Me Home, Country Road”
The fact that they never even went to West Virginia at that point is one of those strange but true facts that only adds to the spirit of the song. Even more amusing is that the song is the state’s unofficial anthem. So, why did they choose to write “West Virginia” in the lyrics?
The inspiration to sing about West Virginia came from a set of beautiful postcards Bill Danoff’s friend had sent him. The “mountain mama” lyric refers to the incredible number of mountains, like the Appalachians, that run through the state. West Virginia is, in other words, the mother of mountains.
“All my memories gather ’round her
Miner’s lady, stranger to blue water
Dark and dusty, painted on the sky
Misty taste of moonshine, teardrop in my eye”
It looks like “miner’s lady” is a reference to West Virginia itself since coal mining has always been a major feature of both the state’s economy and identity. The state is also almost entirely surrounded by land and thus a “stranger” to the ocean.
The moonshine lyric is likely an allusion to the old-fashioned makeshift alcohol that was commonly produced in Southern states. Given the peaceful and naturalistic tone of the song, the mention of moonshine is a nostalgic one, if nothing else.
“I hear her voice in the morning hour, she calls me
The radio reminds me of my home far away
Driving down the road, I get a feeling
That I should have been home yesterday, yesterday”
Danoff claimed that even though he never went to West Virginia when the song was written, he nonetheless became fascinated with the state.
He grew up listening to a West Virginian radio station (WWVA) while living in Massachusetts. As recently as 2020, Danoff spoke to NBC Washington to set the record straight on the famous song that, let’s face it, John Denver got all the credit for.
It was December 30, 1970, and a sold-out crowd crammed into the small Cellar Door nightclub in Washington, D.C. It was night number five of a week-long lineup for John Denver. His opening act was Fat City, a band that featured Danoff and his then-wife, Taffy Nivert.
Danoff was working as a doorman at the Cellar Door and afterward as the lighting and sound technician for years before he performed at the club. “Nobody at the club knew I sang or played anything,” Danoff said in the interview with NBC. He and Nivert later became half of the Grammy-winning Starland Vocal Band.
Back in the late 1960s, the couple was still just a couple of struggling songwriters, living in an old basement apartment in Georgetown. Their early gigs were at house parties, long before they started taking the stage at the Emergency Club.
Danoff happened to know Denver from his time at the Cellar Door, when Denver was part of the Mitchell Trio and later as a solo act. Denver had even recorded one of Danoff’s songs, called I Guess He’d Rather Be in Colorado. During the week of New Year’s, Denver was booked at the Cellar Door.
At the time, Denver was looking for more material for his next record (with RCA). After his fourth night at the club, Denver, the Danoffs, and a few other musician friends planned to meet at the Danoffs’ apartment to jam and try out some new songs.
But Denver never showed up. “After an hour, they weren’t there, and we were worried,” Danoff recalled. Then the phone rang, and it was a call from the emergency room of the George Washington University Hospital. “They’d been in an accident,” Danoff said, referring to Denver and some of their buddies.
Apparently, Denver “whacked his hand,” and broke it on the windshield. Another passenger in the car broke several of her ribs. However, Denver wasn’t frazzled by the incident. Despite his broken thumb, he went straight from the emergency room to Danoff’s basement.
Danoff remembers, with a smile, them having some beer “and whatever else we were serving at the time.” They were trying out some new songs, and Danoff was eager to find a hit. But they just weren’t having any luck that night. Danoff had been writing songs for a few years up to that point, but the record companies weren’t very interested.
His wife suggested they sing their latest song, Country Roads, for Denver. But Danoff didn’t want to since the song wasn’t finished. Plus, he thought it was “too country” for Denver’s liking. The person they were truly hoping would sing the final product was Johnny Cash.
But the Danoffs didn’t know Cash. They just knew that his music influenced them and the song specifically. They hoped that he might want to record it. For the Danoffs, Cash was the perfect fit. He explained: “What I liked about the Johnny Cash records when he came on, they did that same chord, and it had a whole lot [of] power.”
“Wow, that’s really cool; that’s like rock ‘n’ roll, so almost heaven [in] West Virginia,” Danoff said. Either way, they played the song for Denver that night in the basement. He liked the song, and so the three of them stayed up all night putting the finishing touches on it.
As Danoff recalled, it was Denver’s “incredible energy” that made it all work. Left to his own devices, Danoff confessed that he would have just had another beer and played another song. Denver – “a ball of fire in those days” – told the Danoffs that they should just get it done now.
Danoff remembers Denver saying, “Like an old Mickey Rooney movie – let’s put on a show!” By the end of that magical night, the three of them felt like they had created a real hit. In Danoff’s eyes, the words were pretty, the chorus was nice, and it “felt good to sing.”
There was, however, one verse in the song that he thought would keep the tune from making it to the pop charts. If they wanted to get it on the radio, they were going to need to change the second verse. Danoff believed that the second verse would never be played on AM radio at the time.
Curious as to what the original verse was? Of course, you are. Thanks to Danoff, we now know what the original version of Country Roads was all about, and it had to do with naked ladies and Jesus Christ – lyrics Danoff knew would be too, um, colorful, for 1970s radio.
The original second verse was as follows:
“In the foothills,
Hidin’ from the clouds,
Pink and purple,
West Virginia farmhouse,
Men who look like Christ,
And a dog named Poncho nibbling on the rice,
As we know now, the second verse was altered to include miner’s ladies, moonshine, and teardrops in John Denver’s eye.
The very next night, on December 30, 1970, Denver called his co-writers to the stage for an encore, which was when they performed the edited version of Take Me Home, Country Roads in public for the first time. The trio reportedly received a five-minute standing ovation.
“It seemed as though the audience would never stop applauding,” Danoff recalled. The next night, they performed it again, and the same thing happened. That’s when they knew they had a hit. Just a few days later, the trio was in the studio to record the song.
Since Denver had a broken thumb at the time, Danoff stepped in to play the lead guitar. Denver went on to record the song on his album, Poems, Prayers & Promises, which was released in the spring of 1971. The song was a hit from the moment it premiered.
It peaked at No. 2 on the U.S. Hot 100 singles in April, and by August, it was already certified gold for selling over a million copies. Okay, so now we know how the song came to be. But what about the lyrics? Danoff divulged some interesting anecdotes about the song’s meaning, too.
Danoff confirmed that Clopper Road played a significant role in his inspiration for the song. If you’re one of the many people who heard and believed the myth that the song was originally called “Take Me Home, Clopper Road,” Danoff is here to tell you that’s simply not true.
While the rumor gained a lot of popularity, “it’s not true,” Danoff asserted. So, what is the truth? Danoff said that he and Nivert were driving to a family gathering – she was driving, and he was playing his guitar. They were driving on the scenic Clopper Road, which actually did inspire the title of the song.
“I just started thinking, country roads… of me growing up in western New England and going on all these small roads,” Danoff revealed. “It didn’t have anything to do with Maryland or anyplace.” He described his writing process as similar to filling out a crossword puzzle – trying to find words and lines that fit.
Over time, he and his wife would add lines. The words he said he loved in the song were “Blue Ridge Mountains” and “Shenandoah River.” Danoff calls them “songwriter words,” which brought him to “West Virginia.”
They needed to find a place with three syllables. Danoff thought that the four-syllable Massachusetts – his home state – might work, but West Virginia sounded a lot better. We know now that neither Danoff, Nivert, or Denver had never been to West Virginia at the time (but he has since been there multiple times and even walked into the Shenandoah River).
But the fact that he had never been to the state didn’t bother Danoff. “I just thought the idea that I heard something so exotic to me from someplace as far away,” Danoff said. He’s also proud to have been named an “honorary West Virginian.”
While the song has been covered by many artists, Danoff’s favorite has to be Ray Charles. As the late great musician’s voice cracked while singing, as if to hold back a tear, well, “That broke my heart,” Danoff confessed.
The five-decade-old song is still a global sensation. More than 150 artists have covered the track in over 19 languages. Olivia Newton-John’s 1973 version is one of the more popular ones. In 1972, only a year after the song’s release, Morgantown’s West Virginia University started using it as a pre-football game anthem.
Let’s take a look at Annie’s Song now…
Annie’s Song, as it sounds, was an ode to Denver’s first wife, Annie Martell (who can be seen on the album cover of Back Home Again). The song was released in 1974, a few years after Country Roads. Denver wrote the sweet song on a ski lift at Ajax Mountain in Aspen, Colorado.
Annie Martell recalled the day that her then-husband wrote the song: “It was written after John and I had gone through a pretty intense time together, and things were pretty good for us,” she began. She described how he left to go skiing, got on the ski lift, and “the song just came to him.”
“You fill up my senses, like a night in a forest
Like the mountains in springtime, like a walk in the rain
Like a storm in the desert, like a sleepy blue ocean
You fill up my senses, come fill me again”
Denver then skied down the mountain, came home and wrote it all down. Initially, as Martell said, it was written as a love song for her. But the song turned into something of a “prayer” for him. Denver himself commented on the song, declaring it his “most popular song around the world, if not the most famous.”
Come let me love you, let me give my life to you
Let me drown in your laughter, let me die in your arms
Let me lay down beside you, let me always be with you
Come let me love you, come love me again
(Let me give my life to you
Come let me love you, come love me again)
He said he wrote it after a “particularly difficult time” they had together, and when they got back together, they were “closer than ever before.” That day at Ajax Mountain was an especially “exhilarating” day for him.
You fill up my senses, like a night in a forest
Like the mountains in springtime, like a walk in the rain
Like a storm in the desert, like a sleepy blue ocean
You fill up my senses, come fill me again
As he was sitting on the lift, he looked out at the mountains he loved and the blue Colorado sky – his favorite color, he said. He was in awe of everything he was seeing and feeling as he watched the white snow against the green trees and hearing the birds singing and people laughing. Everything he was experiencing at that moment was “beautiful” and it “filled [him] completely.”
As he was deep in this exhilarating moment, Denver recalled thinking about other things that do the same for him. His first thought was of the woman he fell in love with again – Annie Martell. In the ten minutes it took him to go from the bottom to the top of the mountain, he had written Annie’s Song.
“I had the melody in my head, and I knew the chords on the guitar,” Denver said. He then skied down to the bottom, raced home, picked up his guitar, and played his new creation. “Annie’s Song is a song for all lovers and, in its deepest sense, a prayer to the love in us all.”
Despite his sunny image, his private life had its shadow. Annie’s Song, for instance, ultimately ended on a sad note. The beloved couple divorced in 1983, and the property settlement led Denver down a dark path. He became so enraged that he nearly choked his ex-wife.
What he did do was take a chainsaw and cut their bed in half. “I’d never had an experience like that ever before,” Denver confessed to The Los Angeles Times. “The divorce was one of the most unhappy moments of my life. We were married 16 years.”
Even though he was quoted as saying, I’d like to fall in love again, but I’m not sure that I ever will,” he did indeed fall in love again. In 1988, Denver married actress Cassandra Delaney, and the couple settled down at Denver’s home in Aspen.
In addition to his adopted son, Zachary John Denver (whom he adopted with Annie Martell) and his daughter Anna Kate (his adopted daughter with Martell), he had his third child with Delaney, Jesse Bell. Denver and Delaney divorced in 1993. Of his second marriage, Denver said Delaney “managed to make a fool of me from one end of the valley to the other.”
With Annie’s Song and Country Roads, Denver was launched into fame and remained popular (albeit less so) until his untimely and unexpected death in October 1997, when he crashed his plane in Northern California. For those who are curious, this is how it happened.
A few years before his death, he was facing some legal trouble. He had pleaded guilty to a DUI charge and was placed on probation. A year later, while still on probation, he was arrested again− this time, for “misdemeanor driving” also under the influence. He crashed his Porsche into a tree in Aspen.
His case went to a jury trial (for some reason), and in early 1997, the hung jury resulted in a second DUI charge. Prosecutors reopened the case, only to close it when Denver died in October 1997. Denver had a pilot’s license, and in 1996 after the DUI charges, the FAA concluded that he would no longer be allowed to fly a plane.
Unfortunately, his inability to abstain from alcohol became a major factor in his death. On October 12, Denver was testing out an experimental plane – a Long-EZ – that he bought from a man in Santa Maria. Denver was practicing a series of touch-and-go landings before taking the plane out for a spin over Monterey Bay. 53-year-old Denver’s “test ride” was his last.
Less than 30 minutes into the test flight, he nosedived into the water. Search and rescue crews found Denver floating near the plane’s debris. It was determined that his death was instantaneous. The loss of his life was certain, but the reason for it was unclear, and there were many unresolved questions.
Evidently, a few factors led to the crash. The first problem was that Denver neglected to refuel the aircraft. Perhaps he believed there was enough fuel for a brief spin, but the way the plane was designed required the pilot to un-buckle and turn around completely in order to switch the secondary fuel tank valve.
Denver reportedly turned down the offer to refuel the tank, insisting that he was going to use autopilot to stay level when he needed to move to turn the fuel selector valve. Experts have noted that while doing that, Denver likely extended his foot on the right rudder pedal, taking him into a nosedive.
According to the National Transportation Safety Board, Denver didn’t indicate an emergency when he radioed into the Monterey airport control tower during a routine transmission, which occurred mere seconds before the crash. Denver radioed into the tower to report that he was adjusting his transponder.
George Petterson, a safety board investigator, reported that Denver “was sending the transponder signal.” Petterson had the privilege (if I can call it that) to hear John Denver’s last words, which were: “Do you have it now?” By the time the control tower personnel saw the signal on the screen, they tried to call Denver back.
However, his signal disappeared at 5:28 p.m. “There had been no indication of any trouble,” Petterson stated. Witnesses reported seeing the plane flying 500 feet above the water before it suddenly plunged down and disintegrated on impact, 200 yards from Point Pinos.
Veteran pilots with the same plane gave their opinion on the crash, which they said might have resulted from multiple factors. For one, the plane is very fast, light and unusual. Some of these pilots noted that if the front wing had broken away, the plane would have lost its stability immediately and thus crashed down.
A veteran Long-EZ pilot said Denver could also have been distracted by setting his radar systems – so much so that he didn’t even notice the plane flying headfirst into the water. Unfortunately for Denver, his experimental plane was extremely unsafe and unreliable.
Canard Aviators, a group of aircraft enthusiasts, declared that the very plane Denver was flying had suffered 61 reported accidents between 1983 and 1996 – 19 of them involved fatalities. The problem is that these planes are not built by any single manufacturer.
Instead, enthusiasts buy plans and build them themselves out of Styrofoam, fiberglass, and metal. It was later discovered that Denver’s experimental plane was designed by a man named Elbert “Burt” Rutan, known for the long-winged Voyager – the first plane to fly around the world without refueling. Did Denver know any of this? We can never be sure.
Before boarding the plane, Denver told others at the airport that there was enough fuel in the tank for an hour or so in the air. The musician even left his Porsche in the parking lot with the top down, expecting to return soon. According to Denver’s spokesman, Paul Shefrin, the musician had been flying for over two decades and owned a Lear Jet and a Christen Eagle in addition to his Long-EZ.
One theory was that he was intoxicated during the flight, but autopsy reports indicated that he hadn’t been drinking. Although he was sober, other theories started to surface regarding his death. One popular theory is that Denver purposely crashed the plane because he was severely depressed.
It’s not surprising that people wondered if Denver was suicidal since it was well-documented that his divorce, depression, and drinking took a toll on him. One of the more shocking discoveries was the gun that was found in Denver’s car, which could potentially imply an intent to harm himself.
A documentary by Reelz on Denver revealed that a revolver was found stashed beneath the seat of his silver Porsche 911. Denver was widely considered a wholesome, good-natured man, but he still faced inner demons. While he was a successful musician, his popularity had been declining since the early 1980s.
The Reelz documentary also exposed the fact that Denver had been receiving multiple disturbing death threats against him and his family. And they weren’t all from people in the United States. An internal FBI document reported that Denver received at least 17 death threats from Germany since December 1, 1979.
Whether he had the gun in his car for protection or to potentially take his life will most likely never be known. What we do know, though, is that the man is still sorely missed. He has received an almost endless number of posthumous awards. His children, of course, will forever hold him near to their hearts.