John Denver: Dig Him Or Diss Him?

If you remember his heyday in the 1970s, you likely either love or hate pop music legend John Denver.  There simply seems to be little sentiment in between.

Yet, for all the slagging he took, Denver sold 33 million records, many certified Gold and Platinum. He hosted a popular TV show and his 1977 film, Oh God, was considered one of the best movies of the year.

So, he clearly had some major appeal.

I came of age with Denver’s songs.  In fact, it was my dad (hardly a fan of contemporary music) who turned me on to the promising singer/songwriter by way of an 8-track tape of 1971’s Aerie.

The 2013 BBC documentary John Denver: Country Boy delivers a brief but informative look at the life of a man whose personality was — despite being called “Sunshine Boy” by some — at once magnetic, magical, and moody.  The highlights of Denver’s remarkable rise to superstardom are given their just due here as well as the downside of becoming world famous.

However, short shrift is dedicated to his issues with depression and alcohol, in particular, the years leading up to Denver’s tragic death in 1997.  The news that an experimental aircraft helmed by the avid pilot went down off the California coast was shocking.

Over the course of his career, Denver was constantly dismissed as “lightweight” and “inconsequential” by the too-hip-for-the-room critics.  But then again, other popular performers of the day took their share of harsh hits. Included in this bunch were the likes of Santana, Led Zeppelin, and Funkadelic. Industry bible Rolling Stone was a chief culprit in criticizing those deemed to be “uncool.”  Denver stood front and center among the mag’s invalidated. Providing further context, RS writers even trashed The Beatles’ swan song, Abbey Road, and The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s electrifying debut, Are You Experienced.

Besides his obvious talent as a singer, songwriter, and guitarist, it’s also worthwhile to credit Denver’s commitment to humanitarian and environmental causes. He was ahead of his time, genuine and impassioned.  His songs, immortalizing the beauty of the outdoors, captured people’s imaginations. In 1972, “Rocky Mountain High” soared to number 4 on the charts.

Among his other endeavors was his award-winning membership in the Presidential Commission on World and Domestic Hunger.  Denver was also actively involved in The Cousteau Society, working closely with its founder, oceanographer Jacques Cousteau.  In fact, the 1975 hit song “Calypso” was composed in tribute to his friend’s storied research vessel and the royalties were donated to further ocean work.

You might say that these efforts fall firmly into the category of “consequential,” especially these days when climate and sustainability are on everyone’s mind. Decades before, Denver put his time and money where his mouth was.

It’s more than a little unjust to consider John Denver an innocuous nerd.  Still, if that’s the prevailing opinion, he was unquestionably one hell of a gifted geek.  And a guy who gave a damn.

-John Smistad

Photo: John Denver, 1995 (John Mathew Smith & www.celebrity-photos.com from Laurel Maryland, USA via Wikimedia Commons)

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17 comments on “John Denver: Dig Him Or Diss Him?

  1. Sue Morgan

    I saw John Denver live in Sydney. I would not normally have gone but I won tickets. Have to say it was one of the best concerts I have been to. He really knew how to connect to his audience. He was very funny and entertaining and his songs were excellent. From then on I followed his career more closely and appreciated his music and his talents.

  2. John Denver was a guilty pleasure during high school (1972-75). He rounded out my interest in the “cool” stuff, like The Beatles, Alice Cooper, Queen, Grand Funk Railroad, etc. I was learning the piano at the time and bought one of his song books and learned a few of his songs…. I still have the songbook. My favorite album has always been “Farewell Andromeda”, with “Aerie” come in as a close 2nd. Thank you for this article. It was a pleasure to read.

  3. Dave Bartholome

    Rolling Stone was always too caught up in chasing and promoting what it considered “cool.” As a result, quite a few deserving artists were ignored (or trashed), while many mediocre works of “cool” artists were praised to the skies.

    • Rolling Stone hated most of the music I loved in the ’70s (most notably Rush and Styx), so I wrote off that magazine as clueless and stopped reading it before the 80’s hit. Glad to see Jan Wenner removed from the R&R Hall board of directors at last. It doesn’t happen often, but this time justice was served.

    • How many times I listened to an album immortalized by RS and said, “This just sucks.”

  4. Patricia R (Patty) McMillen

    The prompt says “leave a comment (and please be kind).” So I’ll just point out that 90% of my lack of nostalgia for John Denver comes from his appearance (white guy, partridge family haircut — oops, was that unkind?—just bland at a time in my white-girl life when I craved adventure) and the other 10% from continual Muzak repetitions/covers of RMH which are probably not his fault.Im glad he was a good guy, sorry he died tragically (come to think of it, he’d have made a super first Golden Bachelor), but music history ain’t a popularity contest, or even one based on Jann Wenner’s idio(t)syncratic tastes. 

  5. Larry Lewis

    I’ll offer my two cents. Cent #1: Charlie Rich was wrong to embarrass the country music industry during the CMA awards in 1975, regarding Denver’s win. These days, were Charlie still with us, he’d be burning so many award slips on these shows, he’d be advised to buy stock in a match company. Cent #2: With the holidays soon arriving, I’ll cast my vote for Denver’s song ,”Christmas For Cowboys,” as a classic in its genre. A highly evocative & moving tune; give it a spin later this year…or now.

    • Yeah, Larry. He sold out. Made a Rocky Mountain of $$$.

      And still, somehow, his songs managed to be so resonant to so many, huh?

    • Patricia R (Patty) McMillen

      Definitely easier to include Denver as a legit folk or country than legit rock musician. RMH was, also, harmonically simple enough to become a campfire/singalong tradition around the world – at least I heard it celebrated both in US and at a gathering of scientists in Germany.

  6. Bonnie Buckley

    John Denver was a replacement for a band that canceled the Homecoming concert at the university I attended. He was just becoming known nationally and was a big hit on university campuses. He had an amazing ability to connect with the audience. Everyone I talked to who attended that concert thought he put on a phenomenal show. He was one of my favorites. I saw him in concert three times and have several of his albums. He made his mark not only in music but also recorded with the muppets, starred in a movie, had a hit tv show, and served as a guest host on “The Tonight Show” in addition to all of his activism which was ahead of the times. What other musician was doing all of those things?

  7. John Smistad

    Well stated, Bonnie. Thanks for reading!

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