Friday, April 8, 2011

On its 40th birthday -- NPR on "Take Me Home, Country Roads"

A couple sings "Country Roads" at the Geiselwind Trucker and Country Festival in Germany, 2007. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

In Europe, "Take Me Home, Country Roads" -- John Denver's 1971 mega-hit -- is probably the most popular (and most covered) country-style song by local singers.  To mark its 40th birthday, America's National Public Radio (NPR) ran an interview with the song's writers -- no, not John Denver (born Henry John Deutschendorf, Jr. in 1943), who died in a plane crash in 1997, but songwriter Bill Danoff and his girlfriend and writing partner Taffy Nivert.
"Take Me Home, Country Roads" became the unofficial anthem of West Virginia and the official song of the West Virginia University Mountaineers. But here's the catch: Danoff had never even been to the Mountain State before writing it, though he'd heard the sounds of the state as a kid growing up in Massachusetts.
Danoff said he listened to "hillbilly music" on WWVA from Wheeling, W.V.
"I just thought the idea that I was hearing something so exotic to me from someplace as far away," he said. "West Virginia might as well have been in Europe, for all I know."

Danoff would go on to write 12 more songs for John Denver. And he would also form the Starland Vocal Band, famous for "Afternoon Delight." Still, 40 years later, Danoff said, "Take Me Home, Country Roads" is his biggest moneymaker — he says he splits 75 percent of royalties with Nivert and gives the remaining 25 percent to the Denver estate.
Here are the three of them:

 "Country Roads" touched a chord: it's omnipresent, everywhere.

"My first country song which I heard was  'Almost Heaven, West Virginia,'" a German truck driver told me in 2004. '… Henry John Deutschendorf... it was fantastic, yeah? And so I fell in love with country music. [...] He gives us beautiful songs. John Denver. His grandfather was German, and he was one of the best. But he died too early."

Here's Denver singing "It's Good to Be Back Home Again," -- in Germany. It's about a truck driver coming home.

I find "Take Me Home Country Roads" incredibly sappy; sugary sweet and bland at the same time.

But audiences in Europe love the song -- they invariably sing along, swaying and smiling. The idea of "home" translates into a sense that we (they) are all at home in America -- or the America of dreams, where is here. Other  songs popular in the European country scene also play on this sense of the universal "home" somewhere in the mythical West (or South) -- "Sweet Home Alabama," for example.

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