A few weeks ago, I decided to write an article about songs that are horrible for various reasons. This week I decided to go with songs that are wonderful. Noteworthy for lyrics, harmonies, riffs, the moods they evoke….essentially, the music I love and why. It was going to be this awesome article, peppered with humorous tidbits and soft, sentimental recollections that would tug at the readers’ heartstrings. In theory, it was a great idea. I quickly realized, however, because I really do have a LOT to say about the music I love, that one article would be way too long. I would submit it, and it would never see the light of day, because the powers that be here at Exo would execute me upon submission in some horrible medieval way. Nobody has the time to edit something like that, and I have no interest in spending my final moments in an iron maiden. The only way Iron Maiden will figure into my final moments is if someone is standing by my deathbed blasting it at full volume so I can rock out of this world – literally. And how awesome would it be for my great grandchildren to see that? “My Gramma is so cool, she died rocking out to Number of the Beast!” So I have decided to split this out over several articles, covering specific genres, specific performers, and specific songs that really speak to me.
Today’s featured artist is one who falls into several different genres, depending on who you ask, and is truly a voice that speaks volumes about the appreciation of the beauty all around us and the precious gift that this life is. It’s all the more moving when you consider how early his own life ended. He was a poet, a conservationist, a lover of the land, and a wordsmith with the ability to make you fall in love with mountains, and snow, and trees, even if you have never seen any of those things. His name was Henry John Deutschendorf, Jr., but he gained recognition under the name of John Denver.
Okay. I know what you are thinking: John Denver? Seriously? Yeah, John Denver. A man who had a lot to say with his music and did it the old fashioned way, playing free shows and showing up at radio stations to play on the air, just to get his message and his music out there. A man that many equate with gentle loving kindness, who was prone to bouts of binge drinking, infidelity, and the occasional violent outburst that left those around him cautious and uncertain of who exactly they were dealing with at times. He was a tortured soul in many ways, and it’s usually those kinds of folks, with that much of a starkly contrasting duality in their personalities, that produce music that really speaks to us on a primal level.
Here is why I, personally, love him: It’s not the music, although I find the acoustic guitar very soothing, and being a guitarist, I have a lot of appreciation for some of his later arrangements, novice though I may be. It’s the fact that he gets it. He gets natural beauty. He personified the slow down and live mentality. He captures everything that I feel about life: the sappy sentimentality, the highs and lows, the feeling that our individual lives are fleeting, but time is much slower in nature and nature endures.
Here is my John Denver story. As you all know by now, I grew up in Appalachia. I have always had an appreciation for natural beauty, the rivers and rolling hills, the trees. Unfortunately, industry has blighted a lot of that. This is not a political statement; it is simply a fact. And I grew up in a small valley, where I knew everyone. I traveled throughout the west as a child, and I was always struck by the vast, open feeling I had crossing the Great Plains, and the feeling of being really small in the presence of the mountains. I always wanted to move out west, but as I got older, a lot of my memories had become hazy with time, I had not forgotten those feelings, but I had forgotten just how powerful they can be.
In the summer of my twenty-seventh year, I came home to a place I’d never been before. Those of you familiar with the song Rocky Mountain High will recognize the significance of that statement. I moved to Longmont, Colorado, just a tad north of Denver, when I was twenty seven years old to start over, or more accurately, to begin my life. Up to that point, I felt that I hadn’t really lived, that I hadn’t fully blossomed into the person I was destined to be. I had spent literally all of my life knowing very little about myself, and just trying to be the person I thought my parents and family thought I should be. It was a bland, hollow, soulless experience, and in many ways, it prevented me from experiencing true happiness and fulfillment as an adult. As a mater of fact, I was listening to John Denver singing the song “Sweet Surrender”, pondering my feeling of stagnation and lack of direction, when I made the decision to move to Colorado. This particular verse spoke to me:
“There’s nothing behind me, and nothing that ties me
To something that might have been true yesterday
Tomorrow is open. Right now it seems to be more than enough to just be here today.
I don’t know what the future is holding in store
Don’t know where I’m going
I’m not sure where I’ve been
But there’s a spirit that guides me, a light that shines for me
My life is worth the living I don’t need to see the end.”
In the pine trees at Beaver Creek State Park in Rogers, Ohio, after talking a solitary walk through the rain-soaked woods, I listened to that song in my car and my mind was made up. Not long after, I packed up and set out across the country, like so many Americans before me, to find my future in the West.
Upon arrival, I spent the first few weeks in complete awe of the lifestyle there. For the first time, I met people that didn’t move to a place for work, they moved to a place for its beauty. Careers and titles didn’t define them, their hobbies and hopes and dreams did. The lifestyle there was laid back. It was about taking your time and taking in everything around you. I rapidly made friends, and of course most of my first outings with them were this hike or that reservoir, this canyon or that butte. And always, in the back of my mind, I was thinking, “Now I get him. I get John Denver.”
He wrote about all of the things that we feel and experience with a sense of wonder and awe. Even the stage name Denver was a deliberate choice; Deutschendorf doesn’t exactly fit on a marquee, so he chose Denver, the capital of what would later become his adopted home state. He wrote songs about love, and friendship, and life, and he made sure to mention the feel of the sun on his face, or the joy of pondering a mountain lake, or the silent serenity of the snowfall, all in the context of how those things are a part of our life experiences, just like our emotions are. Sure we feel things, but we see and hear and taste and touch them, and often we move too fast to fully appreciate the joy inherent in our sensory experience of the world.
I spent almost seven years in Colorado, but as another singing John famously pointed out, “life is what happens when you are busy making other plans.” I moved to Texas, and it was the right move for our family. It’s temporary, hopefully; I have every intention of moving back to Colorado as soon as we get the chance. In the meantime, here we are in Austin, a town that has an absolute wealth of independent music and film talent. It’s called the Live Music Capital of the nation for a reason, and while I am here, there is plenty to see and do and share with you all. But sometimes I am homesick for my adoptive home state. I have to consciously remind myself of the huge life lesson I learned when I started this journey: Slow down. Breathe. Not past, not future. Just be here now, today, in this moment. Feel the sunlight, admire the stars scattered across the heavens, and listen to the crickets as you drift off to sleep. Hear the birds above the noise of traffic, and commit the shapes of the clouds overhead to memory; they will never look the same exact way again. If you blink, you will miss it. I stand in the rain until I am soaked to the bone, and I walk outside and stand with my face to the gusty Texas winds that so often sweep over the hill country. I sniff them like a bloodhound, listen to the sounds they carry, and take in the experience in every way possible. And when I am feeling down, or out of place, or like I can’t stand another minute away from that life I loved so much, I remember that there is “nothing that ties me to something that might have been true yesterday”. I am here, this is now, and if need some help getting over the hump, I put on my headphones and listen to John Denver. I go for another solitary walk in the woods, or take a ride through the countryside, all the while listening to him sing about the little joys in life. It’s a welcome reminder that everything is beautiful, if you know how to look for the beauty, and that my mountains and the experiences I had there are as close as my playlist, thanks to his music. I will continue to appreciate the beauty around me here, and enjoy the simple yet profound songs that could be a soundtrack to the last nine years of my life. I yearn for my own “Starwood in Aspen”, and I know now how he must have been feeling when he wrote that song. My friends are also the snow covered hills, and I am grateful to him everyday for the gift of his music. Right now the number one song on that playlist that defines me is I Guess He’d Rather Be In Colorado, but someday soon it may be Rocky Mountain High for good. And until that day comes, I will see my beloved mountains through his eyes, and remind myself that the mountains are timeless, and they will wait for me. And in the meantime, I will take his words to heart and be the best me that I can in the here and now, and strive to be better every day:
I am the eagle, I live in high country
In rocky cathedrals that reach to the sky
I am the hawk and there’s blood on my feathers
But time is still turning they soon will be dry
And all of those who see me, all who believe in me
Share in the freedom I feel when I fly
Come dance with the west wind and touch on the mountain tops
Sail o’er the canyons and up to the stars
And reach for the heavens and hope for the future
And all that we can be and not what we are…..” – John Denver