Music Flashback: “Take Me Home, Country Roads” by John Denver

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Music Flashback: “Take Me Home, Country Roads” by John Denver

Thumbnail image from Pixabay

BY RANDAL C. HILL 

A leisurely drive on a country road can offer a chance to leave city stresses behind for a while and enjoy nature’s scenic wonders.  

Sometimes, though, such a usually ordinary event can prove life-changing. 

About the music

Near the end of 1970, musicians Bill Danoff and his girlfriend/future wife Taffy Nivert motored along a picturesque two-lane Maryland highway called Clopper Road. To pass the time, they batted about some lyrics that they felt might fit into a melancholy ode for Johnny Cash. When they got to “almost heaven,” Bill injected the word Massachusetts, from which he was native. And while Massachusetts did contain four syllables—what Danoff wanted—he thought the state’s name somehow wasn’t “musical” enough. Back home in Washington, DC that night, he and Nivert chose a better-flowing four-syllable state name: West Virginia.  

It was a place neither had ever been. 

On December 29, 1970, the 163-seat Cellar Door music club in the Georgetown area of Washington, DC, offered two relatively unknown acts on stage that evening—Bill and Taffy (who performed as Fat City) and a struggling folkie friend named John Denver. His lone claim to music-world fame had been his creation “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” which had become a chart-topping single for Peter, Paul and Mary but had left John’s name unknown to most music fans.  

Bill Danoff and Taffy Nivert. Image from BillDanoff.com

After Fat City and Denver had finished their Cellar Door sets that night, they agreed to rendezvous at Bill and Taffy’s place for an impromptu jam. Later, at one point, Nivert said to her partner, “Get out that song you’re writing for Johnny Cash.” Danoff did as he was told and showed Denver the tune that, at the time, consisted only of one chorus and one verse. But John was bowled over by what he heard and asked to have the first crack at recording it. The three worked throughout the night, John adding the bridge and more words of wistful nostalgia. By dawn, they pronounced the future classic finished. 

The next night, Denver played his entire set and an encore, but the enthusiastic crowd demanded one more tune. When the applause died down, he told the audience, “We just finished a brand-new song, and I haven’t even learned the words yet.” He then unfolded a sheet of paper and taped it below the mic head. Danoff joined Denver on stage, along with John’s lead guitarist and his bass player, and the foursome launched into the first public performance of “Take Me Home, Country Roads.”  

The audience rose collectively for a thunderous five-minute standing ovation when the tune ended. That verified to Denver what he had felt since the night before when he had first heard the unfinished song: this one—for sure—is a winner. 

One month later, John recorded it as an RCA Victor single, with his Fat City friends providing backup. Upon release, the radio-friendly 45 rocketed to Number Two on the “Billboard” Hot 100 chart and finally gave Denver the breakout hit for which he had spent years searching.   

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