John Denver‘s “Take Me Home, Country Roads” was released as a single almost fifty-years ago today. The song was from his 1971 album “Poems, Prayers & Promises.” Songwriters Bill Danoff and his wife, Taffy Nivert, originally started writing the song for Johnny Cash. But, when Denver learned about the track, he offered to help finish it and decided to include it on one of his records.
But did you know that West Virginia isn’t John Denver’s home, and his co-writers have never even been to the state before they wrote it? In fact, the song was inspired by another state.
Here’s how this song whose heartfelt lyrics have resonated deeply with people both in and outside West Virginia became an icon of the Mountain State.
Behind the Success of “Take Me Home, Country Roads”
It was late in 1970, when Billy Danoff and Taffy Nivert were driving to a family reunion along Clopper Road in nearby Montgomery County, Maryland. To pass the time, the couple made up a song about winding roads in the country. The only problem was that the three syllables of Maryland did not fit the rhythm of the song. Danoff then thought that the four-syllable Massachusetts might work, but then, West Virginia would sound even better.
The fact that Danoff had never been to the state did not matter, and he just assumed that they had beautiful mountains and winding roads too. “I just thought the idea that I was hearing something so exotic to me from someplace as far away,” Danoff said. “West Virginia might as well have been in Europe, for all I know.”
At the time, Danoff and Nivert were both struggling musicians, but they were aiming to make it big in the industry by writing a hit song for more prominent artists. Until one day, they opened for Denver at a club called Cellar Door in Georgetown, Washington, D.C. After the show, the couple hanged out with Denver. They played “Take Me Home, Country Roads” to Denver, and he absolutely loved it. The trio stayed up until six in the morning, re-writing and re-arranging the song until they created a masterpiece.
John Denver first sang the song at the Cellar Door on December 30, 1970, and the country legend received a five-minute standing ovation. “When we first sang the song together,” said Danoff, “it seemed as though the audience would never stop applauding. Next show, same thing. We knew we had a hit.”
Denver then went on to record “Take Me Home, Country Roads” on the album “Poems, Prayers & Promises.” It was released in the spring of 1971 — and the rest is history.
‘Country Roads,’ Crossing Continents and is adapted for many cultures,
“Take Me Home, Country Roads” was a hit almost from the moment it premiered. It peaked at No. 2 on Billboard’s U.S. Hot 100 singles after its release on April 12, 1971. By August 1971, the song was already certified gold for shipping more than a million copies. Of course, the beauty and pride expressed in the classic song was an immediate hit in West Virginia too.
In 1972, West Virginia University in Morgantown started using the classic song as a pre-football game anthem. The song is also played in other athletic events and university functions, as well as after football games. The fans are then encouraged to stay in the stands to sing the song along with the team.
Any native of the Mountain State can attest how West Virginians love John Denver’s song natives. It’s quite impossible for anyone to be driving across the state line without belting its chorus. The state has even included the song’s lyrics in its official slogan. So it’s no longer a surprise when the song became one of the four official state anthems of West Virginia in 2014.
But the West Virginians aren’t alone. Ever since the song’s release almost 50 years ago, “Take Me Home, Country Roads” has become and still a global sensation today. Over 150 artists have covered the song in at least 19 languages. Olivia Newton-John’s version in 1973 was among the most popular ones. It reached No. 6 in Japan and No. 15 in the U.K.
“Take Me Home, Country Roads” has indeed become more of a song, but as well as a cultural phenomenon.
And of course, it absolutely launched John Denver’s career. Denver, who used to have trouble filling a room, achieved great fame and popularity until his death in October 1997 due to a plane crash in Northern California.
“In the wee hours of the morning, sometime between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, in their basement apartment in Washington, D.C., we wrote ‘Take Me Home, Country Roads.’ It became my first Number One record.” Denver wrote in his 1994 autobiography, “Take Me Home.”