He wrote many of the best and most-loved songs, from the hauntingly romantic “Anne’s Song”, to the fan favorite “Take Me Home, Country Roads”. He also wrote plenty of great but underrated songs, like “Singing Skies and Dancing Waters” and “Higher Ground”. Read on and know more about his songs.
“I believe that we are here for each other, not against each other. Everything comes from an understanding that you are a gift in my life – whoever you are, whatever our differences.” These are words uttered by John Denver.
For those who adore him, John Denver was more than your country and folk superstar. He was a storyteller, an environmentalist, and a philanthropist. His songs aimed not only to get radio airplay but also spread awareness and spark action – no wonder such masterpieces became classic.
But, if you are someone who has been born in the late 90s and earlier, you might be unfamiliar with him.
Who is John Denver?
John Denver: Artist Background
With a phenomenal four-decade career, John Denver won the hearts of many not only through his music but also through his acting, philanthropy, and environmentalism. Rightfully so, the legend had transcended across genres and trends and bagged accolades in the process.
Henry John Deutschendorf Jr. (most widely known through his stage name John Denver) was born to a military family with his father being a U.S. Air Force officer. Such a setup allowed him to move from place to place as he grew up. At age 11, Denver’s passion for music blossomed – as he inherited his grandmother’s acoustic guitar.
After which, Denver proceeded with taking guitar lessons. On top of this, he also joined a boys’ choir. At college, he traversed through different local pubs in hope of getting his talent recognized (eventually, having his last name altered after the capital city of his favorite state). And recognized Denver was when we were chosen as the lead singer of the Mitchel Trio in 1965 – this is among 250 talented musicians who also vied for the opportunity!
During these years he pursued folk music, but little did he know that he was destined for greater things.
In 1969, he pursued his solo career after three albums with the Mitchel Trio. This time was enough for him to develop the songwriting chops that he would be globally renowned for. This year, he released his first studio album as a solo artist Rhymes & Reasons which featured the single Leaving On A Jet Plane – which was a massive commercial success, claiming Denver’s first number-one single on the US Billboard Hot 100.
During the 1970s, Denver solidified himself as an industry staple, being one of the decade’s most popular and best-selling artists. This was kick-started by the 1970 studio album Take Me to Tomorrow, with a track list studded by the title track, Carolina in my Mind, Amsterdam, and Forrest Lawn. The moderately successful album was quickly followed up by a cover album released in the same year.
In the third consecutive year, Denver released another studio album Poems, Prayers & Promises (1971). The project was a modest success compared to its predecessor, climbing up to the 15th spot in the Billboard 200. This was quickly followed by another album Aerie that features singles such as City of New Orleans and Everyday. The project was not at par with his previous works in terms of commercial reception, peaking at 75.
It was apparent that Denver worked tirelessly, releasing a massively successful album in 1972 – Rocky Mountain High. The album entered the Billboard 200 Albums Chart top five at number four, with the help of singles such as the title track, Paradise, and Mother Nature’s Son. At this stage of his career, Denver’s passion for environmental protection and conservation was becoming more and more apparent.
This was quickly followed by the 1973, top 20 album Farewell Andromeda. By the following year, this project was, again, quickly followed by Denver’s biggest album during the time – Back Home Again. “Biggest” would be an understatement as the album clinched the top spot in the Billboard 200, claiming Denver’s first number-one album (just within the first five years of his solo career). The album eventually sold over 2 million copies with the help of promotional singles such as the title track and Annie’s Song.
In 1975, Denver reached new career peaks with the release of another massively successful studio album Windsong. Just like its predecessor, the project peaked at the top spot of the US charts. The studio album boasts the tracks Calypso and I’m Sorry.
By his tenth studio album entitled Spirit, Denver started facing a steady decline in commercial sales – with the said project peaking at 45 following its chart-topping predecessor. This was soon followed by the top 40 albums Autograph (1980), Some Days Are Diamonds (1981), and Seasons of the Heart (1982). From 1983 to 1986, Denver was still able to put up albums that reached the top 70 of the US Hot 200 – still a marvelous feat.
Denver was indeed a well-known and commercially successful performer and composer. this legend’s ambition to contribute to the emergence of a larger public space cleared the door for forays into novel artistic and geopolitical realms. Moreover, he was one of the few musicians who was able to make many records chart and win honors and accolades for his performance in the music industry.
Denver had 33 albums and singles certified by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). He was able to release almost 300 songs, roughly 200 of which he created himself, with over 33 million units sold.
On top of all of this, Denver was also among the first musicians to utilize their music to convey a message on environmental awareness and protection. The Soviet Union of Composers, also, asked him to appear in the USSR in 1985, marking the first time an American musician had performed there since the Cold War ended.
His career may have been cut-off early due to his unforeseen passing, but he surely left an unfillable niche in the music industry.
Best John Denver Hits of All Time
As we’ve mentioned earlier, with 33 RIAA-certified albums in the US, Denver was able to put out nearly 300 tracks – two-thirds of which are self-written. These songs spanned a decade, transcending through trends, genres, and styles. Not to mention, many hold deep messages in line with Denver’s values and principles.
Narrowing these down to a top 12 was nearly impossible, but made it happen. Below are our top 17 John Denver songs (in no particular order):
1. Fly Away
Fly Away is a song from John Denver’s Windsong from 1975, featuring Olivia Newton-John. The song implores a nostalgic folk and country vibe. It pays homage to the desire for simpler days and wanted freedom of loneliness. It depicts the possibility of living a gentler existence.
The violin along with the acoustic guitar are much incorporated in the song. Denver and Olivia Newton-John have great chemistry, with their soaring harmonies. The song reached number 13 on US Billboard’s Hot 100.
2. Thank God I’m a Country Boy
The track is a single from the 1974 album Back Home Again. John Martin Sommers wrote the track, which remembers serenity, pleasure, and contentment. The words to the song are lively, full of enthusiasm, and have a country feel to it.
The fiddle and the acoustic guitar are used, as well as handclaps for percussion. The live rendition was released as a single and spent one week at the top of the Billboard Hot 100 in the United States.
3. I’m Sorry
Another powerful track from Denver’s Windsong, which stood as twilight in-between pop and country (with a hint of ballad). Commercially, the song can be considered as one of Denver’s best – topping the US Billboard Hot 100, country, and adult contemporary charts.
The track conveys heavy emotions, recalling regret over unrequited romance. It features feelings of owning up to one’s mistakes, which perfectly complements the way, stripped-back feel of the song.
4. Take Me Home, Country Roads
Surely a fan favorite. The track implores the signature John Denver country sound, that is well-established in the album that this song belongs to – Poems, Prayers and Promises. It congregates themes of the desire to have a fruitful life in the rural county. It featured an addicting acoustic guitar that will surely get you dancing, regardless of your musical preference.
The song set a milestone in Denver’s career, giving the legend one of his few tastes of massive commercial success.
5. Back Home Again
Of course, we can’t forget this lyrical masterpiece and title track from one of Denver’s most memorable studio albums. The track gained both critical and commercial accolades – by bagging the Song of the Year award from the 1975 Country Music Association, while simultaneously topping the country charts.
The said award, however, was filled with controversies – which would be better discussed in a separate article. Still, the song aged beautifully and ended up as a fan favorite.
6. Annie’s Song
Despite being a country artist, Denver still managed to break through borders with this youthful hit – scaling up the UK charts. It displays lyrics that divulge Denver’s affection towards his wife and the joys he experienced during his marriage. As a little trivia, the name “Annie” was actually never mentioned across the duration of the song.
It is no surprise that the song eventually became a wedding staple for many. It is also said that the song was only written in 10 minutes, making it the fastest that Denver has composed.
7. Sunshine on My Shoulders
We cannot leave out Denver’s debut song as a solo artist for all the good reasons. The song was released as a single amid an incredibly challenging period in the US, which made the song a beacon of joy and inspiration to many.
The folk track highlights Denver’s yearn for sunlight – where the sun displays a metaphor for a better life. It was written about depression but from an inspirational perspective. It became Denver’s first number-one hit, showing the public that he’ll be here to stay.
8. Don’t Close Your Eyes Tonight
The adult contemporary track is surely a highlight in Denver’s Dreamland Express album. Lyrically, the ballad with a classic 80’s flare talks about wanting a woman to experience freedom with him.
During the track’s release, Denver was facing a decline in commercial success. The single was an effort to gain back his popularity by using sounds that were popular at the time – and it resulted in a masterpiece.
9. Poems, Prayers and Promises
Of course, we have to hand out proper props and recognition to the title track of Denver’s debut solo album. The laid-back, folk song centers around maturity and growing up – in a way of recollecting memories as we look forward to what’s to come. The song feels heavier, knowing that Denver never really reached the ripe age that he was singing about.
Sonically, the song features a rich and lush string interlude that makes folk music more appealing to the mainstream. These sounds also went well with Denver’s tender and sweet vocal lines – no vocal acrobatics, just raw story-telling.
Yet again, another hit from Denver’s massively successful Windsong album. What’s “Calypso” anyways? Well, it is the name Jacques–Ives Cousteau’s research ship that sailed across the globe. The fact that it is written about such subject matter tells that we may never hear a similar song in our lifetime.
The ballad is a testimony to Denver’s versatility and creativity, departing from his usual country and folk sounds. If you’d listen to the song’s intro carefully, you’d even hear ship bells! The song also boasts an actual orchestra, making the track seem as grandiose as an intercontinental venture.
11. Some Days Are Diamonds
Undeniably one of Denver’s most “country-sounding” songs, thanks to the extremely apparent warm, earthy tones. Again, the song was released during the steady decline of Denver’s commercial success, but sure enough, it did not affect the quality of the song. It was produced by no other than Larry Butler.
12. Rocky Mountain High
Rocky Mountain High, as we’ve mentioned earlier, is a single off of an album with the same name. The hit track perfectly blends elements of folk, country, and rock music. It stands as a perfect example of Denver’s environmentalist value, tackling how mountains are being destroyed due to over-tourism. However, the song also shared some controversy with sources stating that the song referenced drug use.
Despite the fiasco, the track was able to climb into the US Billboard Hot 100, peaking at 9. The RIAA officially certified the track Gold for surpassing a whopping 500,000 units sold – a commendable feat especially for a country or folk artist during the time.
13. Leaving on a Jet Plane
“So kiss me and smile for me, tell me that you’ll wait for me, hold me like you’ll never let me go…” John Denver sure wears his heart on his sleeve with this classic that’s been covered by many artists throughout the years. Originally called “Babe I Hate to Go” (his producer convinced the singer-songwriter to change the title into one that we know today), this song talks about the heartbreak of having to leave his girlfriend behind as he embark on an extended tour.
14. To the Wild Country
John Denver sings about a very relatable state we all find ourselves in once in a while. This song especially rings true in these modern times (when society seems to get crazier)! This sad but hopeful song is about finding himself at a crossroad, trying to figure out what he wants to do and where he wants to go. And then, in the wild country, he found solace.
15. Singing Skies and Dancing Waters
Another poignant ballad penned by Denver, the song takes on that familiar lair of feeling lost after a loss (whatever that is—it’s up to you to decide based on your own journey). But just like how there is a silver lining in every dark cloud, a spark of hope is there when you know where to look. “I could see you in singing skies and dancing waters, laughing children, growing old, and in the heart and in the spirit, and in the truth when it is told.” Beautiful.
16. Higher Ground
This song is as country as country can get, with a melody and message resonating the heart of the genre. John Denver was singing about those who “are giving up their lives for something that is less than it can be” and how he is aiming to play it differently by living up the dream in him, following his heart, and “reaching for higher ground”.
17. Raven’s Child
One of Denver’s most underrated songs, it peeks into social issues, what is going on in the world and how it is destroying the human spirit and this one place we all live in at the same time.
Fun Fact: John Denver got the name Raven from a boat that was cleaning the waters after an oil spill accident in Alaska in 1989. He did his research on who Raven is, and he found out that in Indian and Eskimo mythology (and other Aboriginal groups around the world), Raven is the one who brought human beings to the earth. So, yes, in that context it makes him Raven’s child; and you, Raven’s child; and so are others.
Transcending Borders With Music: Final Thoughts
That was a long ride, but who can we blame? John Denver, indeed, has a roster of hits with nostalgic vibes and a message worth hearing. Denver came a long way from the country boy that inherited his grandmother’s guitar. From playing in local pubs, he went on to conquering American radios and selling millions of records.
In this article, we took a deep dive into Denver’s musical career and his profile as an artist, from childhood to superstardom. Of course, we tried our best to narrow down his roster of masterpieces to 17—with subsequent reason on why we gave them extra props. You might find some that you like and maybe, add to your playlist.
Indeed, music is powerful. It transcends generation, borders, language, and religion. It makes people listen and feel. It makes people act. John Denver was able to maximize such a powerful tool with his message for the environment and fellow human beings.