“Take Me Home, Country Roads” reaching new audiences

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Sharing West Virginia with the world, performs “Take Me Home, Country Roads” in London, UK, in 1976.

If you’re a West Virginian who came of age after 1971, chances are you can hardly remember a time when John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads” wasn’t the state’s unofficial anthem. Though not officially adopted as a “state song” until 2014, it was, seemingly, performed at every event everywhere in the state. It did become the theme song for West Virginia University in 1972 and has been performed at every home football game since.

Even if you’re not from West Virginia, chances are you’ve heard the song, which rocketed to the top of the charts the summer of its release and has sold millions of downloads since it became available digitally. It is a favorite song in Japanese karaoke bars, so they say, and has been popularly performed by bands worldwide (several versions of which follow at the end of this article.) It became one of John Denver’s most popular songs and is considered by some to be his signature song.

As recently as 2016 the Country Music Association released a single and music-video titled “Forever Country,” which drew heavily on Country Roads. As of August 2018, its Youtube release had garnered more than 28,000,000 views:

In July 2018, Bethesda Softworks also released a version to accompany its online video game, , and its Youtube release had enjoyed more than 4,000,000 views as of August 2018 as well:

I was in the rotunda in the capitol on March 8, 2014 — on the day Governor Earl Ray Tomblin signed the resolution adopting the song as a state song. (There are now four official state songs — “The West Virginia Hills,” “This Is My West Virginia,” “West Virginia, My Home Sweet Home,” and “Take Me Home, Country Roads.”) Tomblin was joined that afternoon by Dreama Denver, a chief proponent of the song’s adoption.

Dreama Denver, coincidentally, is no relation to John Denver but is the former wife of the late , the actor best known for his role as “Gilligan” in the classic ’60s sitcom Gilligan’s Island. Bob and Dreama had retired to Princeton, Dreama’s hometown, in the 1990s, after which they became philanthropists, encouraging growth across the Mountain State. Mrs. Denver lauded the benefits of adopting the song officially, and the W.Va. Tourism Office obtained the rights to use “Take Me Home, Country Roads” in its marketing efforts in 2017.

Strangely, or perhaps not so, many West Virginians maintain a love-hate relationship for the song. Some grow nostalgic when they hear it broadcast — myself included. Others grow irritated, almost exclusively because of the words employed in the opening stanza:

“Almost Heaven, West Virginia,
Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenendoah River…”

The Shenandoah River sweeps through the Blue Ridge at its confluence with the Potomac. Photo: Rick Burgess.

Why?—ostensibly because the and Shenendoah River are located at the very eastern tip of West Virginia’s eastern panhandle, in an area that some West Virginians consider ill-representative of the state. The Blue Ridge, part of the Appalachian Mountains, courses more than 500 miles southwest-to-northeast across the eastern U.S. from Georgia to Pennsylvania, but the easternmost West Virginia border follows only about 14 miles of its crest.

The Shenandoah, likewise, wanders more than 100 air-miles from its sources to its mouth at the Potomac at , but only the lower 20 miles are located within the state. Denver allegedly sang the song at Morgantown High School in 1977 and changed the wording to “, Monongahela River.”

The circumstances that led to its evocative and troublesome lyrics clearly reveal that its creators could hardly have foreseen its popularity, and why should they, immersed in the native beauty of the Appalachians, have cared about the problems of placenames?

Bill Danoff and Mary “Taffy” Nivert, song-writers and performers, then married, were inspired in 1970 while driving to a reunion of Nivert’s relatives along Clopper Road near Gaithersburg, Maryland. Danoff made up a ballad about the winding roads they were following, briefly considered “Massachusetts” in place of “West Virginia.”

About a month later, the duo opened for Denver at The Cellar Door in Washington, D.C., and after a performance the three headed back to Danoff’s apartment for an impromptu jam. Danoff and Nivert told Denver about the song, which they hoped to sell to country singer , but when Denver heard it, he decided he had to have it, and the three stayed up until 6 a.m., changing words and moving lines.

Denver first performed it December 30 during an encore at The Cellar Door, reading the words from a folded piece of paper. It received a five-minute ovation, one of the longest in the club’s history.

He recorded it in January in New York City, after which it appeared on his LP album “Poems, Prayers & Promises” and was released as a 45-rpm. It broke nationally in mid-April but moved slowly up the charts. After several weeks, RCA Records called Denver and told him they were giving up on the single, but he insisted, “No! Keep working on it!” RCA did, and the single soon leapt to No. 1 on the Record World Pop Singles Chart and the Cash Box Top 100 and No. 2 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100. On August 18, 1971, the Recording Industry Association of America certified it “Gold” after a million copies were shipped.

With the recent release of the Fallout 76 and Forever Country versions of the song, it appears its popularity could extend into another generation. In 2020, the world will celebrate the 50th anniversary of “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” and I, for one, am hoping it remains a classic, a standard, translating the associations I feel regarding the Mountain State to generations for eons to come.

Lyrics: Take Me Home, Country Roads

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.

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

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.

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,
And driving down the road I get a feeling
That I should have been home yesterday, yesterday.

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

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

Take me home, down country roads.
Take me home, down country roads.


World Versions

In 2001, Hermes House Band released a cover of “Country Roads” that became their biggest hit in the United Kingdom, peaking at No. 7 in the UK Singles Chart and No. 1 in the Scottish Singles Chart in December 2001 and January 2002.

In 1973, Jamaica’s Toots & the Maytals released a version that replaces the words “West Virginia” with “West Jamaica.” Other lyrics have been transformed: “True ridge mountains, shining down the river. All my friends there, older than those ridge, younger than the mountains, blowing like a breeze.”

In 2015, Australia’s Emily Joy released a version of “Country Roads,” one of many folk and country songs from the U.S. that she’s covered.

In early 2018 seven-year-old Shaney-Lee performed “Country Roads” in the first round of blind auditions for The Voice Kids UK.

 

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