From Sunday’s goosebumpy singalong of “Country Roads” by about 75,000 fans in Munich, the world now knows that the song is as beloved in Germany as in West Virginia. Turns out the tune as originally conceived had nothing to do with either.
First, let’s just relive the moment.
Dang, that’s fantastic. As anybody who’s been to a Bon Jovi show can attest, even the simplest pop song turns into a profound work of art whenever tens of thousands of people sing its words at the same time.
Bill Danoff is the guy most responsible for “Country Roads,” a song best known for John Denver’s 1971 recording. During a 2013 interview, Danoff told me how it came about.
Danoff went to school at Georgetown University (class of ’68, alongside Bill Clinton), and just a few blocks off campus was a small but legendary D.C. nightclub, the Cellar Door. As a student, he worked as a doorman and did lights and sound there. National acts did multiple-night stays at the club, and while hanging around after shows young Danoff got to know John Denver when the sweet, goofy warbler was part of a popular folk act, the Chad Mitchell Trio. Contemporary reviews in D.C. papers show that Denver, whose real name was Henry John Deutschendorf Jr., performed songs like “The I Was Not A NAZI Polka” with that combo. Denver left the band in the late 1960s and quickly made a name for himself as a solo act, writing and recording hits like “Leaving On A Jet Plane.”
After college Danoff formed a band called Fat City with his girlfriend, Taffy Nivert, and quit the club. But through connections and talent, he got a gig as Denver’s opening act for a run of shows in the last week of December 1970. (The Washington Post listed Denver’s openers merely as “Fat.”)
That’s when “Country Roads” was born.
Danoff told me that he invited the burgeoning star to come to his $100-a-month Georgetown basement apartment for a post-show jam. Denver arrived with a broken thumb he’d gotten in a car accident on the way and couldn’t play guitar but asked Danoff to strum some new tunes for him. “Play him that ‘Country Roads’ song!’” Nivert told Danoff, referring to an unfinished tune that had recently come to him like manna from heaven while driving through a rather rural stretch of Clopper Road in the suburbs of Montgomery County, Maryland. While the melody and most of the lyrics were almost fully formed during their car ride, Danoff said, there was a problem finishing the chorus.
“We couldn’t come up with a rhyme for ‘Maryland,’” he told me.
Danoff grew up in Massachusetts before leaving for college, and briefly tried to make the commonwealth’s name work in the song, but again couldn’t get over the rhyming hurdles. So Danoff ended up using the neighboring Mountain State as lyrical fodder, coupling it with “mountain mama.” There was one sticking point, however:
“I’d never been to West Virginia,” Danoff said.
His only connection to the state came from listening to country music deejays on AM radio station WWVA out of Wheeling, W.V., 275 miles west of D.C. “I thought of West Virginia images, coal and rivers,” he said, “and pretended I was that guy on the radio.”
Danoff confessed he already had high hopes for his ditty before playing it for Denver, and tried to neg him.
“I told him I’m trying to get it to Johnny Cash, and you won’t like it,” Danoff told me. Cash was already a music legend and had a hit weekly variety show on the ABC television network at the time. But Denver was wowed immediately.
“He had this exaggerated reaction, ‘Golly! That’s a hit!’” Danoff recalled.
Danoff, Nivert and Denver then stayed up till sunrise tweaking the words and coming up with a bridge and an arrangement. Denver brought out Fat City at that night’s show at the Cellar Door to back him up on the song, which he sang while reading from handwritten lyric sheets.
“People clapped for five minutes straight,” Danoff recalled. “I’d never seen that.”
Denver, obviously not wanting to risk the song reaching Johnny Cash first, called his producers that night and scheduled a recording session. Within the week Danoff and Nivert were at RCA’s studios in New York as Denver recorded their newborn brainchild. It was released in early April on Denver’s Poems, Prayers & Promises, now recognized as his breakthrough album.
I asked Danoff what his immediate reaction was to first hearing Denver’s recording of “Country Roads.” “I was thrilled, but I was thinking I wish I had gotten the song to Johnny Cash first,” he said. “And I thought there was too much echo.”
Denver died while crashing an experimental plane off the coast of California in 1997. “Country Roads” was the first song mentioned in his New York Times obituary.
Danoff went on to marry and divorce Nivert, and formed another band, Starland Vocal Band, for whom he wrote another radio hit in 1976, “Afternoon Delight.”
Danoff, now 76 years old, got over having “Country Roads” recorded first by John Denver instead of Johnny Cash, as the song, with all its echo, became a monster smash in the U.S. and around the globe. (It also surely helped that Cash did a duet with Denver on “Country Roads” in 1978.) Some spots embraced it with particular vigor. West Virginians, not surprisingly, were early worshipers. According to West Virginia University, “Country Roads” has been a part of the pregame ritual at every WVU Mountaineers football game since 1972. Denver came to Morgantown to perform the tune in person at a 1980 home game. “Country Roads” became an official state song in 2014 and it’s since been used in government-funded tourism ad campaigns.
The oddest and maybe the most fervent “Country Roads” stronghold outside of Appalachia, however, might be Germany. Hermes House Band, a Dutch act, recorded the song and that group’s version shot to the top of the German charts in 2001. It’s been a staple of Oktoberfest celebrations for decades now. Danoff was invited by Germany’s ambassador to the U.S. to play a gig at the German embassy in D.C. in 2013 just so he could sing the song.
“They made me sing it four times,” Danoff told me yesterday from his D.C. home.
He’s also been a guest of honor of the Steuben Parade, a sort of St. Patrick’s Day celebration for German Americans held each September in New York City. Danoff didn’t watch the Seahawks-Buccaneers game over the weekend, so he didn’t catch the amazing singalong in real time. “But lots of people were telling me about it,” he says.
And lots of people are asking him how the heck his old song is so big in Germany. He tells them what he’s been telling them for years: He has no idea.
“I’ve still never been to Germany,” he said.