Graham Reid | | 2 min read
As with his peers in the middle of the road, the Carpenters, time has been kinder to the music of John Denver than critics were at the time.
In an age of deep and not unreasonable cynicism -- Watergate, the war in Vietnam, political turmoil and looming recession -- Denver's unabashedly romantic and optimistic songs which delighted in love and nature seemed at odds with the times. Which was doubtless a large part of their appeal.
In Rhymes and Reasons from '69 he sings to the jaded generation in words which might have appealed to or come from St Francis of Assisi, "it is here we must begin to seek the wisdom of children and the graceful wave of flowers in the wind, for the children and the flowers are my sisters and my brothers . . . and the song I am singing is a prayer to non-believers, come and stand beside us we can find a better way".
Right from the start he was recognised as a fine songwriter by his fellows and many people covered his Leaving on a Jet Plane. And he wasn't just a balladeer singing Annie's Song and Rocky Mountain High because on songs like Take Me Tomorrow he worked the fast end of post-electric folk.
But it was that pure and strong voice -- heard best on songs like Follow Me, Sunshine on My Shoulder and hits like Take Me Home Country Roads -- that wove their way into people's hearts.
At that time he was also perfect escapism, song titles tell you that much: Sail Away Home, I Guess I'd Rather Be in Colorado, Starwood in Aspen, Farewell Andromeda, Back Home Again (which Willie Nelson should cover), Fly Away, Dancing with the Mountains, Shanghai Breezes, Wild Montana Skies . . .
As a pilot he sometimes seemed to have a mainline to the view from above and beyond (The Eagle and the Hawk) and his imagery was most often taken from the natural world of mountains, rivers, fields and the season.
He wasn't a hippie so much as believer in the power of Nature, and of course he spoke openly about his enjoyment of marijuana, coke and acid. The booze was the one that brought him down though, especially after a couple acrimonious divorces.
He sometimes didn't spare himself in songs (Goodbye Again has a dark thread behind the departure narrative) so take away the image of the man as an emotional lightweight, MOR populist -- sometimes with unecessary strings on his songs -- and there is an interesting body of original material which is impressive for its craftsmanship so subtle he makes it sound effortless.
This four-CD collection of 45 of his songs -- hits and good album tracks -- is the place to start a reconsideration of his songcraft and at just $13 at JB Hi-Fi stores here, it is also a very good bargain.