John Denver, who went to high school in Fort Worth, attended Texas Tech in Lubbock in the Sixties, and went on to sell millions of records worldwide, died Sunday when his twin-seater airplane crashed into Monterey Bay off the California coast. He was 53.
Born Henry John Deutschendorf, Jr. in Roswell, New Mexico, Denver came to prominence in 1967 when Peter, Paul & Mary covered his song "Leaving on a Jet Plane." Starting with "Take Me Home, Country Road" in 1971, Denver's gentle, reflective songs drew a marked contrast to Vietnam, Watergate, and general social disarray; his songs helped bridge the famous generation gap between Nixon's "Silent Majority" and their brash, countercultural offspring. Ten years previous, his songs would have been hailed as visionary, perhaps even revolutionary, but the tenor of the times labeled them quaint, unobtrusive popcraft, suitable for mass consumption but not serious social comment.
Except Denver did have a message. Song after song, he urged respect for nature and one's fellow man; more than that, Denver wanted his audience to relish the outdoors and each other's company as much as he did. Amazing that, even after millions of albums sold, such a simple message had such a hard time getting through -- and indeed still does.
I remember three things about John Denver: Seeing him and Kermit the Frog singing "The Rainbow Connection" on Sesame Street. As a youngster, I thought it was cool that Kermit knew how to play the banjo. Later, when I understood that the song was about tolerance, my respect for Denver (and Kermit) grew; the second is hearing him sing "And So It Goes" on the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's 1989 album Will the Circle Be Unbroken Vol. 2. Again, Denver overlooked material wealth in favor of spiritual harmony, and his remarkable tenor rarely sounded better; the final thing is wearing out my parents' copy of John Denver's Greatest Hits while learning to play upright bass to "Take Me Home, Country Roads."
Maybe John Denver was corny. Maybe he couldn't sum up society's problems in six minutes like Bob Dylan, breach the id and ego like John Lennon, or fry up some hot licks like Mick and Keith. Denver only wanted to make people happy with his songs. In that, he succeeded.
-- Christopher Gray