Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Take Me Home, Country Roads

It never fails. I always think of my mother when I hear a song by John Denver.

And it was 40 years ago today that he released a recording that has come to be viewed as his "signature" song — "Take Me Home, Country Roads."

I suppose there are others that might qualify for that designation — songs that were written solely by Denver — but this one is often thought of, by people all over the world, as his signature song.

But the truth is that it began as the composition of Bill Danoff and Taffy Nivert, a husband–wife songwriting team that is perhaps better known for founding Starland Vocal Band, which scored a big hit five years later with the Danoff–Nivert song, "Afternoon Delight."

According to the story, Denver was injured in a car accident in late 1970. While he was recuperating, Danoff and Nivert shared with him a song they had been working on since attending a family reunion. The three of them worked on the song all night and more or less had the finished version ready by the following morning.

And the rest, as the saying goes, is history.

Denver insisted that he had to include the song on his next album — which he did. But he released it as a single first — on this day 40 years ago. It had a bumpy start but it was eventually certified as a million–selling recording by mid–August.

In the last four decades, it has accomplished something that few contemporary songs have achieved. It has been considered by West Virginia lawmakers for designation as the state song. To date, no such resolution has been passed.

But few living songwriters can claim that any of their compositions was considered for anything like that. Matter of fact, not too many descendants of deceased songwriters can claim that their ancestors were so honored, either.

Originally, the song was written about country roads in Maryland. It was adapted for West Virginia although many of the references still are more appropriate for Maryland — and, for that matter, it is my understanding that another version of the song is sung by fans of the Colorado Rapids soccer team.

But that is the great thing about "Take Me Home, Country Roads," even if you didn't grow up in a rural setting. It describes the emotions of a homecoming, of a person's return to a familiar place from which he/she has been absent for a long time.

"Country roads" can just as easily be "city streets" or "multi–lane highways" — whatever takes you home, wherever home might be. Denver wasn't a snob. He was a defender of nature and wildlife, but he recognized the legitimacy of one's feelings for home, whether one's home was in the country or the city.

And, for me, the memories that this song brings back inevitably include thoughts of my mother because she was a fan of Denver's music when I was in my early teens.

I can still remember being in the family car with Mom and hearing a John Denver song come on the radio — and Mom would hum along with the tune, sometimes singing the words.

And I remember other times when we were at home, and Mom would put on one of the many John Denver records we had in the house — and she would hum or sing along with it.

There were times when I was growing up when my home was filled with the sounds of John Denver's music. He was such a constant presence in my life that I almost felt as if I knew him — or, at least, he knew me.

We lived in the country, too, and many of the things Denver described in his songs reflected things from my existence when I was a child. But, at the same time, there were thoughts and feelings that Denver's songs expressed that, I have no doubt, reminded Mom of her childhood in Dallas.

Denver was always good at that sort of thing, and I guess it accounts for the enduring popularity of his music more than 10 years after his death.