It’s hard to imagine “Country Roads” not being a John Denver song, but it was actually intended for a much different country artist.
While he’s not entirely regarded as a country music artist, John Denver’s influence on the genre is undeniable.
The Roswell, New Mexico native became one of the most beloved musicians in the 1970’s with his acoustic folk style songs, selling over 33 million records and securing 33 Gold and Platinum certifications from the RIAA.
Much of his song’s lyrical content has a very strong overlap with typically country music themes, focused on small town living, wariness of city life, a love for nature, and the ever present struggles of love.
The center of the Ven Diagram peaked in 1975 when John Denver won CMA Entertainer of the Year, which caused some pushback from those in the industry, none more prominent than award presenter Charlie Rich’s less than stellar reaction.
Although there are many strong arguments to be made that John Denver was never really a country artist, there are undoubtedly two songs that will forever live in the country music sphere: “Thank God I’m A Country Boy” and “Country Roads”
“Thank God I’m A Country Boy” was written by his guitar player John Martin Sommers while he was driving home on New Years Eve and released in 1974 on Denver’s Back Home Again album. It was a certified hit, taking number one spot on both the Billboard Hot 100 and Hot Country Songs charts.
But without question the song that will forever live in the public’s consciousness is “(Take Me Home) Country Roads”.
This was the song that took John from a young artist with potential to one of the most successful of all time. It was released in 1971 as a single and despite a slow commercial start, became easily the most recognizable song of his career.
It was written by Bill Danoff, Taffy Nivert, and Denver, and while it wasn’t even really written about West Virginia, it’s become the anthem of the Mountain State (and one of their state songs). Just about everyone who’s ever picked up a guitar has covered it, and the song was selected by the Library of Congress to be included in the National Recording Registry.
But despite John getting a songwriting credit on the finished product, Danoff and Nivert originally wanted to pitch their idea to Johnny Cash, thinking the pieces they had didn’t quite fit Denver’s style. Despite their concerns, they played the song to Denver one fateful night and immediately upon hearing it, he knew he needed to have it.
It was included on his Poems, Prayers & Promises album and the country music world has never been the same.
Denver and Cash did get together to play the song together at least one time, which was recorded for a VHS special in 1978 and only found its way to the internet when someone found a copy in their grandparents’ basement.
I’d have loved to hear Johnny’s full take on the song, but I think it’s safe to say everything turned out just fine for the two of them.