Take Me Home, Country Roads: John Denver; the Osborne Brothers; Toots & the Maytals

Hello there! This week’s blog entry is Take Me Home, Country Roads. This is a beautiful and moving folk-rock song composed by Bill Danoff, Taffy Nivert and John Denver. We will start with a brief review of John Denver’s career.

Choosing additional artists was not easy, as there are over 150 covers of this song.  I was particularly interested in Ray Charles’ bluesy cover, but could not find a live performance.  So we will discuss covers of Take Me Home, Country Roads by the Osborne Brothers and by Toots & the Maytals.

John Denver and Take Me Home, Country Roads:

Henry John Deutschendorf, Jr. became one of the great folk singer-songwriters of the 20th century. We have become so accustomed to his beautiful high tenor voice and his iconic folk songs, that few people know of his significant struggle before he gained fame in the music industry.

His father, Henry John Deutschendorf Sr., was an Air Force officer, and apparently a genuine hot-shot pilot. He set various speed records in his B-58 Hustler aircraft, and was inducted into the Air Force Hall of Fame.

But Deutschendorf was shuttled from one assignment to another, and Henry Jr. had difficulty making friends and fitting in as he frequently changed school districts. In addition, Henry Sr. was apparently a stern taskmaster, and had difficulty expressing any affection for his children.

Fortunately, Junior’s maternal grandmother encouraged him to take up music. While in high school in Fort Worth, young Henry stole his dad’s car and drove to California, with the aim of living with friends and starting a career in music. His father found him and hauled him back to Texas.

He enrolled in Texas Tech University, planning to be an architect, but in 1963 at age 20, he dropped out and moved to California. He changed his name to “John Denver” after being told that “Deutschendorf” would not fit on a theater marquee.

Denver sang in folk clubs and tried to score a recording contract. However, he flunked an audition and was told “Kid, give it up, you can’t sing.” However, he persevered and in 1965 he stepped in when lead singer Chad Mitchell quit the Chad Mitchell Trio (the group was then re-named The Mitchell Trio).

In 1969, Denver left to pursue a solo career and released his first album on RCA Records. His producer was Milt Okun, who also produced the major folk group Peter, Paul and Mary. Okun took an unreleased song by Denver, Babe I Hate To Go, and gave it to PP&M.

That song, re-named Leaving on a Jet Plane, was a colossal hit for Peter, Paul and Mary in 1969 – it became their only #1 pop hit. Despite the success of Denver’s composition, RCA decided not to actively promote his album, and they declined to sponsor a tour for him.

So John financed his own tour. He took off across the Midwest, promoting himself. He contacted local high schools, colleges, American Legion posts and coffee-houses, offering to give concerts. Some groups paid him, but in other cases his only revenue was derived from sales of his albums, and money from “tip jars.”

Nevertheless, Denver’s one-man tour managed to boost sales of his album. In addition, many people who caught his act at these intimate performances became lifelong loyal fans.

At this time, John Denver also adopted what would be his trademark “look” – long blond hair, granny glasses, jeans and colorful Western shirts. Here is a photo of John Denver from 1979.

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John Denver worked long and hard, often on his own dime, to earn a living as a folk-singer and songwriter. However, in 1971 his career was about to completely turn around with a major album, buttressed by a blockbuster single.

Take Me Home, Country Roads was initially written by Bill Danoff and Taffy Nivert, who were then a husband-and-wife songwriting team. In fall 1970, while they were traveling along small rural roads in Maryland, Danoff drafted a ballad extolling the beauty of the American countryside.

Ironically, Danoff had never even been in West Virginia. He used that state because it fit the tune’s rhythm (according to Danoff, “Massachusetts” would also have worked).

Later that year, Danoff and Nivert were opening for John Denver at the Washington, DC folk club The Cellar Door. After a performance, the three headed back to Danoff’s apartment to jam a bit. Danoff and Nivert played their song to Denver, explaining that they intended to offer it to Johnny Cash.

However, as soon as John Denver heard it, he was entranced – “I flipped,” he said. The three stayed up all night re-writing the song, and moving verses around. The song is filled with nostalgia, listing memorable images of West Virginia.

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.

[CHORUS] Country roads, take me home
To the place I belong.
West Virginia, mountain mama,
Take me home, country roads.

… I hear her voice, in the morning hour she calls me,
The radio reminds me of my home far away.
Driving down the road I get a feeling
That I should have been home yesterday, yesterday.

On Dec. 30, 1970, Denver, Danoff and Nivert performed the song for the first time at an encore following Denver’s set at The Cellar Door.

The song got a terrific reception, and Denver then included it on his next album Poems, Prayers and Promises. The song was released as a single in April 1971. Apparently it started out rather slowly, and RCA Records told John that they intended to suspend promotion.

John Denver insisted to the record executives that the song would take off if RCA would just continue promoting it. Sure enough, it did; Country Roads eventually climbed to #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 pop charts.

And here is John Denver in a live performance of Take Me Home, Country Roads. This is from a 1972 Midnight Special TV show, which Denver hosted.

Isn’t this beautiful? The combination of Denver’s lovely high tenor voice, with the absolutely stunning lyrics and melody, is deeply moving. It’s one of those songs you just love to sing along with.

Bill Danoff and Taffy Nivert collaborated with John Denver on several more of his songs. In the mid-70s they formed the Starland Vocal Band, which had one major pop hit, the 1976 Afternoon Delight.

Not surprisingly, Take Me Home, Country Roads rapidly became an iconic song for West Virginians. In 2014, the state officially adopted it as as one of its official state songs (three other songs share that distinction).

But Take Me Home, Country Roads had been a favorite in WVA long before 2014. Since 1972, the song has been played at the end of every home football game at West Virginia University. In fact, many of the fans remain in the stadium and join the football players in singing along.

How could you not be moved by a song that begins “Almost heaven, West Virginia”? It’s a bit ironic that some of the sights listed in the song are not really WV landmarks. For example, the “Shenandoah River” runs almost entirely through Virginia, with only a tiny portion crossing into West Virginia.

Similarly, the “Blue Ridge Mountain” chain is also almost entirely in Virginia. But no matter – the song is a true classic, and became one of John Denver’s signature tunes.

Mr. Denver shares with Stephen Foster the distinction of having written two different “state songs.” In Denver’s case, Rocky Mountain High was adopted as the Colorado state song (despite a rancorous dissent from one Colorado legislator, who was repelled by the line “friends around the campfire, and everybody’s high”).

Following the success of Poems, Prayers and Promises, John Denver continued on with a stellar career. He eventually recorded over 300 songs, and wrote 200 of those. He was one of the most successful folk singer-songwriters of his time; AllMusic describes him as
one of the most beloved entertainers of his era.

A number of John Denver’s other songs also became classics, such as Sunshine On My Shoulders, Annie’s Song, and Thank God I’m a Country Boy.

For many years John Denver hosted Christmas specials. His Rocky Mountain Christmas program was the highest-rated ABC-TV show at the time, and was watched by over 60 million people.

John Denver was also a passionate environmentalist. His hit song Calypso was dedicated to Jacques Cousteau and his underwater exploration efforts.

After his career took off, Denver moved to Aspen, CO in the 70s. He bought over 900 acres there that he turned into a foundation, Windstar, dedicated to conservation and sustainability efforts. Unfortunately, Windstar has recently closed down and the property sold to an anonymous purchaser. However, we understand that the site contains provisions that prohibit any large-scale development.

In addition, Denver co-founded The Hunger Project. He was appointed by President Jimmy Carter to the President’s Commission on World Hunger, and he donated royalties from some of his concerts to UNICEF.

In the mid-1970s, John Denver reconciled with his father, and Lt. Col Deutschendorf taught his son to fly. This began Denver’s serious interest in flying, with a particular focus on experimental aircraft.

In 1977, John Denver bought an experimental plane, a Long-EZ, that its previous owner had built from a kit. He was flying that plane in October 1997, when it crashed into Monterey Bay, California. Denver was killed in the crash.

There were rumors that Denver’s death might have been a suicide. Denver had been coping with serious depression for some time, and had several drunk-driving arrests; in fact, his flying license had been suspended because of his numerous DUIs.  However, John was not familiar with his plane, having only a one-hour checkout on it before his death.

The Long-EZ had a very serious design defect. The fuel selector, which could shift fuel between the plane’s two fuel tanks, had been installed behind the pilot’s shoulder. And the fuel gauge was located behind the pilot’s seat, so the pilot was unable to see the fuel levels.

In order to switch tanks using the fuel selector, the pilot would have to unfasten his seatbelt and turn completely around. Many believe that Denver lost control of his flight when attempting to switch fuel; when he took off, John had only a small amount of fuel remaining in one tank.

Despite John Denver’s tragic death at the age of 53, he left a legacy of iconic, deeply moving folk songs. He used his fame to advance projects dear to his heart – conservation; sustainability; anti-hunger efforts; and flying.

In 2011, John Denver became the first person inducted into the Colorado Music Hall of Fame. Thanks, John, for enriching our lives with your music.

The Osborne Brothers and Take Me Home, Country Roads:

The Osborne Brothers were a famous country combo that originally came out of Kentucky. Bobby Osborne was born in 1931 and his brother Sonny in 1937.

In the early 1950s, Bobby served in the Marine Corps during the Korean War, while Sonny joined Bill Monroe’s bluegrass band.  After Bobby returned from Korea, he joined up with Sonny and they eventually ended up at the 50,000-watt WWVA radio station. There they became part of the WWVA Jamboree weekly country music broadcast.

The Osborne Brothers; from L: Bobby Osborne; Sonny Osborne; Paul Brewster.

Here is a photo of the Osborne Brothers from 1972. At left: Bobby Osborne, mandolin; center Sonny Osborne, banjo; right Paul Brewster, guitar.

The Osborne Brothers were regulars on the WWVA Jamboree. They became known for their “inverted stacked harmony.” In this configuration, Bobby sang the lead part highest; next was Sonny singing baritone; and the third singer (in the mid-50s it was Red Allen) as tenor sang the lowest notes.

Despite the fact that the Osborne Brothers specialized in traditional folk music, they were nevertheless a ground-breaking band in several respects. They were one of the first bluegrass bands to incorporate both electronic instruments and percussion.

In 1960, they were the first bluegrass group to perform on a college campus when they appeared at Antioch College. And in 1964, the group was inducted as members of the Grand Ole Opry.

Here are the Osborne Brothers in a live performance of Take Me Home, Country Roads.

We get their trademark old-timey country sounds from the Osborne Brothers in a 1972 concert. That is Sonny Osborne on banjo, and Paul Brewster on guitar. One can imagine this song coming straight out of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

In 1967, the Osborne Brothers released what would become their signature hit, Rocky Top. This was a song written by Felice and Boudleaux Bryant, and described a fictional country town in the Smoky Mountains.

In 1973, the Osborne Brothers became the first bluegrass band to perform at the White House. And in 1983, Rocky Top was adopted as a Tennessee state song.

Over the years, the Osborne Brothers had dozens of members. Sonny Osborne retired in 2003, while Bobby Osborne continues to perform with his group Rocky Top X-Press.

In 2013 this group, that includes two of Bobby’s sons, performed at a re-dedication of the Gatlinburg (TN) Inn. This was the location where the Bryants wrote the song Rocky Top.

In 1994, the group was inducted into the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Hall of Honor. To the Osborne Brothers, we send out an affectionate “Yee-Haw” for their decades of performing authentic bluegrass music.

Toots & the Maytals and Country Roads:

We featured Toots and the Maytals in our blog post on the Kinks’ song You Really Got Me. So here is a brief review of the history of that group.

Toots and the Maytals were one of the most famous and enduring reggae groups coming out of Jamaica. They were formed in the early 1960s and featured lead vocalist Frederick “Toots” Hibbert.

In 1966, the Maytals won the first Jamaican Independence Festival Popular Song Contest, and for a brief period it appeared that they were headed for stardom.  But this took an unscheduled detour when Hibbert was jailed for 18 months for drug possession.

However, once Hibbert was released from prison the group’s fortunes took a positive turn. Working with producer Leslie Kong, Toots and the Maytals recorded some of their most famous songs, including Pressure Drop and Sweet and Dandy. The Maytals were the first band to issue a song with the title “Reggae,” so they were certainly in the vanguard of Jamaican reggae music.

In 1971 they were signed by producer Chris Blackwell to Island Records, the most prestigious record company in Jamaica. Their association with Island Records brought international exposure to Toots and the Maytals. Two songs by the group were included in the movie The Harder They Come, a 1972 Jamaican film that features one of the greatest movie soundtracks of all time.

Hibbert’s vocal style has been compared to that of the great R&B performer Otis Redding. I’m not sure I see the precise similarity in style; on the other hand, Toots has the same stature in the reggae community as Otis did in the soul genre.

Toots and the Maytals opened for The Who during that group’s 1975 North American tour. One would have assumed that this would provide the group with tremendous positive exposure. However, the tour apparently did not go well, and the group never achieved anything like the exposure of the archetypal reggae band, Bob Marley and the Wailers.

Below is a photo of Toots Hibbert (back row) with the Maytals, in 1970.

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Toots & the Maytals do a reggae version of John Denver’s signature folk tune, Take Me Home, Country Roads. It is called Country Roads, and here is a live performance of that song.

When I first heard of a Maytals song called Country Roads, I thought “No way is this the John Denver song.” I was wrong! It became apparent when I heard Toots Hibbert sing “Almost heaven, West Jamaica.”

Toots and his band play the song in a slow, steady-rocking reggae cadence. Of course, they changed the locale to “West Jamaica,” but otherwise it is pretty much the same tune.

I have to admit, I got a real kick out of this cover. In the middle of the song, the lyrics are sung by the Jamaican backup singers, while Mr. Hibbert, who is obviously enjoying himself, sings a counterpoint to the melody.

Toots and the Maytals broke up in 1982 but then re-formed in the 1990s. Since then, they have continued with a fair amount of commercial success. Until recently, the band had achieved a rather remarkable longevity, and remained an impressive touring band.

Unfortunately, in 2013 Toots Hibbert was struck in the head with a full bottle of vodka while performing onstage. Not only did he suffer a concussion and require several staples to close his head wound, but the injury left Toots with lasting health issues, including headaches, dizziness, and memory loss.

After that event, Hibbert experienced a debilitating fear of crowds and performing, and he was unable to take part in live concerts.  It was over three years before Toots and the Maytals returned to live performance. However, the Maytals have made a few appearances recently, notably at the 2016 Coachella Festival where they were the second reggae group ever to perform at Coachella.

We wish Toots Hibbert all the best. He has had an exceptionally long career; backed by the Maytals, he has had more hits than any other reggae group. Toots Hibbert was named by Rolling Stone magazine in their list of the 100 Greatest Singers, and he is an inspirational figure to an entire generation of reggae artists who followed him. Rock steady, Toots!

Source Material:

Wikipedia, Take Me Home, Country Roads
Wikipedia, John Denver
Wikipedia, Osborne Brothers
Wikipedia, Toots and the Maytals

About Tim Londergan

Tim Londergan is professor emeritus of theoretical physics at Indiana University-Bloomington. He studies the properties of the quarks and gluons that form the internal structure of protons and neutrons. He also writes a blog "Tim's Cover Story" that compares covers of important songs in rock music history. From 2002 to 2018, he and his wife shared their college-town experiences with two delightful cats, siblings Lewis and Clark, who enormously enriched their lives. Together with his colleague Steven Vigdor, Tim is co-author of a blog "Debunking Denial," that discusses the difference between skepticism and denial as manifested in various current issues. He is also co-founder of "Concerned Scientists of Indiana University," a group that supports evidence-based science, funding for science research, and policies based on the best available scientific information. His hobbies include tennis and ornithology, and he is a life-long fan of the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team.
This entry was posted in Bluegrass, Country music, Folk music, Folk-rock music, Pop Music, Reggae and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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