In 1970 world-famous singer and songwriter John Denver was not world-famous. Nor had he ever been to West Virginia. But one evening late in December one song changed the twenty-eight-year-old folk musician’s career, put a beautiful but impoverished state on the map, and gave a nation disillusioned by the Vietnam War some simple folk poetry to express a simple longing most folks felt and still feel:
Country roads, take me home to the place I belong
West Virginia, mountain momma, take me home, country roads
The song “Take Me Home, Country Roads” actually began as a chorus rolling around in Bill Danoff’s head sometime earlier that year when he and Taffy Nivert were traveling down Clopper Road near Gaithersburg, Maryland—a “country road” in those days, dotted with cows and silos. Bill had never been to West Virginia either, but as a child growing up in Massachusetts he had listened to a “hillbilly” radio station broadcasting from West Virginia, and he had a friend who had sent him enticing postcards from the mountain state as well. The song began to take shape over the following months.
I hear her voice in the morning hours she calls me
The radio reminds me of my home far away
And driving down the road I get a feeling that I should have been home yesterday, yesterday
Just after Christmas, Danoff and Nivert found themselves the opening act for Denver at the Cellar Door in Washington, D. C. After the concert they all three decided to rendezvous back at the couple’s apartment. Denver asked to hear what Danoff had been working on of late. Nivert encouraged Danoff to play the “country roads” tune he had started but never completed.
Danoff hesitated. For one thing, he didn’t think Denver would like it. But Danoff also had plans to pitch the song to country music extraordinaire Johnny Cash. Finally, however, he turned out the song about West Virginia, country roads, and going home, and Denver immediately recognized it as the song of the hour, a hit if there ever was one. The three worked on it together through the night, writing, singing, refining, trimming, harmonizing, and polishing, and the following evening John Denver accompanied by his friends Bill Danoff and Taffy Nivert sang “Take Me Home, Country Roads” for the first time in public as the Cellar Door’s finale.
Almost heaven, West Virginia, Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah River
Life is old there, older than the trees, younger than the mountains, blowing like a breeze
The ovation lasted a full five minutes. Denver’s intuition had been right on target: a hit it was.
They recorded the song together in New York the following week, and by the middle of the year it had made the number two spot on the Billboard Hot 100 and had already sold in the millions. It became John Denver’s first great hit and signature song, sky-rocketed him to international fame, and almost as quickly became West Virginia’s unofficial state anthem. You didn’t have to be from West Virginia to love the song and identify with it—millions around the globe could testify to that—but West Virginians certainly took it as their own.
So much so, in fact, that West Virginia University has opened and closed just about every home game with it for the past forty years, and in March 2014 the state legislature passed a resolution to adopt the song as an official state song. Loved the world over, West Virginians can sing it with a certain amount of conviction and warmth unique to themselves, of course, and that is why it has become one of the poverty-stricken state’s most highly-prized possessions.
All my memories gather round her, miner’s lady, stranger to blue water
Dark and dusty, painted on the sky, misty taste of moonshine, teardrop in my eye
Nearly a decade after the song’s rise to the top of the charts and the singer’s rise to stardom, Denver visited West Virginia University with Danoff and Nivert to sing “Country Roads” at the dedication of the school’s new Mountaineer Field in 1980. There were more people in attendance that night (60, 000+) than there were residents of the largest city in the entire state. The crowd predictably went wild as John Denver himself led them in singing “their” song, the song which, in their minds, he had given them.
And no state could be more grateful than West Virginia. “Take Me Home, Country Roads” is not simply a song about their state but a song that links West Virginia, in the minds of the millions who hear it, with the things they love best about it: the mountains, the trees, the rivers, the breeze, the sky, the coal mines, the “misty taste of moonshine,” and the dusty country roads to take them all home.
“Almost heaven” sounds just about right.