I saw an online article about John Denver's upcoming birthday (it would have been his 70th) and a dam burst somewhere inside of me, setting free a torrent of memories. This piece will be written without respect for continuity, because that's the way memories flow.
It amazes me.
It amazes me.
My first memories of music are of John Denver’s “Back Home Again.” I was only four years old, but I remember. Mom would slide the album out of its sleeve, drop it on to the turntable, and slip the massive headphones over my ears as the music began. The rhythmic strumming of the title track would transport me to the cab of a big rig out on the open road, where I would ride alongside its driver, eager as he was to get back home to his wife, the light in her eyes, and supper on the stove. A montage of love and family would dance through my head as John sang of what it meant to return to the one you loved in the place you called home.
“Back Home Again” took me home, but “On The Road” drove me back out onto that lonesome highway, with my own father at the wheel of an old Mercury V8. It was just the two of us against the world, following the open road, searching for imagined love in the shape of a girl at a truck café. In a family of nine there were few moments that I spent alone in the car with my father, so I had to rely on John to provide me the setting for what I believed would be the greatest road trip I’d never take.
“Grandma’s Feather Bed” was always a fun break from sentiment, with its silly suggestion that it took the feathers of forty ‘leven geese to make it, and that it would hold eight kids, four hound dogs, and a piggy stolen from the shed. The images of laughing cousins, dozing beside the fireplace, and waking up in a giant heavenly bed still linger with me today.
My name is Matthew, and so is one of my favorite John Denver songs. It never fails to evoke memories that I have never lived, paint my mind’s canvas with landscapes that must be experienced, and promise reward in a lifestyle full of challenges that few can fathom. To be like Matthew would be to live a life worthy of a standing-room-only funeral. My father quoted the song when speaking to an audience about me when I was about to leave home for the first time at the age of nineteen. About to serve a two year mission in Paraguay, I was unsure of myself, frightened by all the uncertainty that lay ahead. To hear my dad say that I was made of joy was a rare moment in my life; hearing him suggest that I was something he could be proud of is something I have not forgotten. Indeed, the thought of it carried me through some rough moments over the following two years as I served others, and I was able to find joy in some of my darkest hours in a foreign land.
But the memories don’t end with the songs from “Back Home Again.”
The album “Poems, Prayers, and Promises” can be credited in great part for my propensity to think deeply at a constant clip, more often than not to a fault. As a young boy I hadn’t yet experienced most of what John was singing about, and so my mind was forced to stretch itself in order to grasp how sweet it is to love someone, to the point that their tears belong to you. My maternal grandmother was a member of the Blackfoot tribe, and so dancing about the house to the wild, angry cries of “Wooden Indian” meant something more to me than I could possibly understand at the time, but listening to it I knew that some great injustice had been done to her people. The mournful tones of “Junk” suggested that my father was not so misguided in his passion for antiques, and while we never owned a parachute or a sleeping bag for two, the belief that memories lived within the pieces he collected was not lost to me.
For many years and over many circumstances I considered my three brothers to be prodigal sons of the family, but the words of “Gospel Changes” have since suggested to me that as a firm believer in a higher power I should have been a better example of unconditional love. I hate to think it, but I know that had I been, my little brother might not have taken his life.
We all have heroes, and one of mine was a man named Pete. He taught me how to fire a muzzleloader, the art of a great campfire story, and what it meant to be a good man in spite of shortcomings. We lived in Connecticut, but his heart had never left his family’s farm down in West Virginia. I remember his eyes filling with tears and light whenever he spoke of that little plot of heavenly land. In the cassette player of his Jeep was a tape with “Take Me Home, Country Roads” recorded over and over again on both sides. I don’t recall any other song ever playing through those speakers, and to hear it now dredges up miles of memories that make me smile. I had the chance to drive through West Virginia last year, and in Pete’s memory I played the obligatory song on a loop as I passed through towns where time runs backwards in a good way.
The playlist of songs and the memories and moments they evoke continues…
My father was never a seamstress; he preferred hammer and nails over needle and thread. But I still have the shirt that he gifted to me one Christmas when I was a young boy with dreams of being like John Denver. The shirt looked just like John’s from the cover of “Spirit.” Dad probably pricked his fingers to the point of severe blood loss while embroidering the sunshine onto the shoulder of that little blue button-down shirt. It wasn’t quite finished, but I didn’t care, in my eyes it was perfect. I wore it for our family photos the following summer, and again when I was John Denver for Halloween. It took Dad more than a decade to finish sewing on that sunshine, but when he finally did, he wrapped it and gave it to me for Christmas all over again. Sunshine on my shoulder does indeed make me happy, and then again sometimes it makes me cry.
You know, I’ve always wondered just what a Berkley Woman is, and whether or not there would be hunger in my stare should I see one…
My maternal grandmother may have been a Native American, but that didn’t stop her from marrying a cowboy. My grandfather was the first in my short list of heroes. He slept with a six-shooter under his pillow until he died, wore a cowboy hat with authority, and understood what it meant to be a man. When I take his shotgun up into the mountains behind our home I can’t help but think of him, and in those moments I want nothing more than to be a cowboy, to ride the range, see the high country, and lay down my sundown in some starry field. All of these thoughts play out in my mind accompanied by John’s music, and his lyrics make me believe that my dream is not so impossible after all. Hell, I already live in a rodeo town on the side of a mountain, so the stretch to becoming a cowboy is not that far.
Yes, I live in the mountains nowadays, having left most of yesterday behind me. Every breath at altitude brings the high that John knew and sang about so well. My hope is that my children will look back and remember with fondness the paradise that we moved to when they were young, the place where eagles lived in rocky cathedrals, where they were free to shoot at empty pop bottles with their pistols, and where the days are all filled with an easy country charm. One of the greatest advantages to living in the west is that you can almost always see where you are going, even if you don’t always know where you are headed. Here in the mountains I have enjoyed the blessing of listening to God’s casual reply to my many questions, and I can’t see myself living or dying anywhere else. John’s music means that much more to me now, because I can drive through our valley and see his lyrics living all around me.
I moved to this paradise with my very own Darcy Farrow, whose voice truly is as sweet as sugar candy (most of the time). We have been married almost 21 years, pushing through a share of troubles and strife that are ours alone to know. Not long after our courtship began, Elizabeth discovered that I loved and still listened to John Denver. She later confessed that this fact further solidified her belief that I was the one for her. It does not embarrass me to say that she is my personification of Annie’s Song, and that the barely audible, comfortable sigh of contentment heard after the first line is reminiscent of the way I feel when I think of spending forever with her. I fear that should she leave this life before I do, I will be buried with her on that terrible day, because life without her is something in which I have no interest. I don’t have to experience it to know that it’s a hard life living when you’re lonely.
I started listening to John when I was just two feet high, and today I listen to him standing six feet tall. When I was five, my parents took me to see him perform. Mom still says it was the longest I have ever sat totally still, and that she marveled at how fixated I was on John as he sang songs that I had only heard amid the crackle of my father’s turntable. John’s music truly does make pictures, and for me it will always tells stories. Not one of his songs fail to transport me back through time, to moments when life looked more like a long and comfortable drive down a familiar country road than a four-lane highway congested by the heartbreak, responsibilities, and trappings of adult life.
As a child I would listen to John’s rendition of “It Amazes Me” over and over again. As the song climbed higher, louder, and faster, I would drop to all fours and buck across the living room like a wild bronco, much to the delight of my family. I have never ridden a real bronco, but that hasn't kept me free from the occasional bucking. The music to which I live my life has at times built itself into crescendos of wild wondering and untamed circumstance, and I find that I’ve gotten lost on my way, shouting “where can I hide?”
In moments such as those, I sometimes think that maybe that little boy in the sunshine-shouldered shirt turned out to be a little like John Denver after all.
In “Around and Around,” John confessed to hoping that once he was gone, others would think of him in moments when they were happy and smiling, and that the thought of him would comfort them in moments when they were crying.
I do, and it does.