In 1971, two acts that would enjoy tremendous success in the worlds of pop and country music both had their breakout hits. Folk singer and songwriter John Denver, whose “Leaving on a Jet Plane” had been a Number One for Peter, Paul & Mary two years earlier, scored his first solo chart entry with “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” a love letter to the state of West Virginia, originally penned by then-married couple Bill and Taffy Danoff. The duo initially hoped Johnny Cash would cut the tune, but once Denver heard it, he insisted on recording it.
Also that same year, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, a California-based country-rock group enjoyed their first (and subsequently biggest) Top Ten single, with the Jerry Jeff Walker story song “Mr. Bojangles.” A track from their LP Uncle Charlie & His Dog Teddy, the song was the group’s only Top Ten pop hit. In 1980, as the Dirt Band, they returned to the Top 40, and, like John Denver in the Seventies and Eighties, enjoyed several country hits as well, including an unbroken streak of 15 Top Tens and the 1987 Number One “Fishin’ in the Dark.” In 2016, the group celebrated its 50th anniversary with a PBS special and live LP, 50 Years and Circlin’ Back, the title a reference to the group’s landmark 1972 triple-LP, Will the Circle Be Unbroken.
Denver, who coincidentally had released his own version of “Mr. Bojangles” just prior to “Take Me Home,” would find his country cred a serious bone of contention among some country artists in the Seventies. By 1975, having placed three tunes atop the country chart in rapid succession (“Back Home Again,” “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” and “I’m Sorry”), he was announced – by a heavily medicated Charlie Rich, who torched the card bearing Denver’s name with a lighter – as Rich’s successor to the pinnacle of country music: CMA Entertainer of the Year. Throughout the rest of the decade, although he was a hugely successful concert draw, TV and movie star, Denver only enjoyed minor country success. But in 1981, he had a Top Ten country hit with “Some Days Are Diamonds,” and four years later enjoyed his last country Top Ten with “Dreamland Express.”
In 1985, Denver and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, who would become inexorably linked as neighbors in Aspen, Colorado, appeared together during the very first Farm Aid concert, which sought to raise awareness of the importance of the family farms that were experiencing hardship throughout the decade. An outspoken advocate for numerous causes in his lifetime, Denver told the crowd, “I believe the small family farmer to be the backbone of our country. They need our help.” Backed by the Dirt Band on the tune, Denver was now minus the “granny” glasses he sported a decade earlier, but his voice, strengthened with age, remained a powerful instrument conveying pride in the land, and indeed, in the folk-country tradition he popularized throughout his career.
Inspired in part by his father, Lt. Col. Henry John Deutschendorf, Sr., an Air Force pilot and speed-record holder, Denver had a lifelong interest in aviation and had been a pilot for many years. On October 12th, 1997 – 19 years ago today – the legendary singer was killed when the experimental aircraft he was piloting crashed into California’s Monterey Bay. He was 53 years old.
Denver’s legacy as a pop and country superstar has most recently been acknowledged with the inclusion of “Take Me Home, Country Roads” (along with “Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again” and Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You”) in the epic, star-packed “Forever Country” video mash-up celebrating the CMA Awards 50th anniversary.