John Denver - All Of My Memories: The John Denver Collection
Back in the 1970s John Denver was one of the few non-Nashville and non-Bakersfield performers to sell albums in the country market whilst maintaining a strong pop-rock base of support. There was a ruckus at the 1975 CMA Awards when he was named country music’s Entertainer of the Year, but when you look at the guy’s track record, it was more than deserved. He mastered the art of penning universal, open-range songs and giving them strong country treatments with that lonesome Colorado cowboy vocal whine, intoning an eternity of sadness. In songs like Take Me Home Country Roads, Back Home Again, Thank God I’m A Country Boy and Wild Montana Skies, he was closer to country’s roots than Charlie Rich, who in an inebriated state, set fire to the winner’s form at those CMA Awards.
This latest compilation is a 4-CD set covering all of the singer’s career from his initial forays into the recording studio in 1964 through to 1994. Alongside the big hits—and there were lots of them—you’ll find six previously unreleased tracks, demos, promo rarities, live performances and private recordings. The first CD opens with The Road and Far Side Of The Hill, which were audition recordings produced by the famed Voyle Gilmore in October 1964 for a possible Capitol Records contract. They featured lush string arrangements which sound pleasant with Denver’s unmistakable voice full of feeling … why this didn’t result in a record contract is something of a mystery and some 50 years later they sound mighty good.
By this time, Denver was a member of the Mitchell Trio and was also dabbling with songwriting. He recorded a self-titled album in 1966, which he was using to gain a recording contract with a major label. From that album there are two tracks here—Steve Gillette’s Darcy Farrow and the self-penned Babe, I Hate To See You Go. The latter was re-titled Leavin’ On A Jet Plane and was to become a huge hit for Peter, Paul and Mary. He did land a record deal, with Reprise in 1967 and released the single—Take Me To Tomorrow and The ’68 Nixon (This Year’s Model)—both included here, along with the previously unissued Rhymes And Reasons. It’s interesting to note both Rhymes and Reasons and Take Me To Tomorrow became album titles in 1969 and 1970 when he was on RCA.
It was his move to RCA in 1969 that saw John Denver’s profile rise, though it was to be another two years before his major breakthrough, Take Me Home Country Roads, was to make number two on the American pop charts and number 50 on the country charts. By this time, he’d released four albums on RCA and had built a cult fan base in the UK following his own BBCV TV shows. Though he was becoming something of a prolific songwriter, he would often include songs from other writers on his albums and there are some good early examples here with his stripped-back version of Buddy Holly’s Everyday and John Prine’s Blow Up Your TV (Spanish Pipe Dream).
With such self-penned songs as Aspenglow, Around And Around, My Sweet Lady and Rocky Mountain High, John Denver was regarded very much as a thoughtful singer-songwriter, held in high esteem by those music lovers who didn’t follow the pop charts. But as Denver’s records like Sunshine On My Shoulder, Annie’s Song and Back Home Again began dominating the pop charts, his integrity and credibility with the ‘music snobs’ was called into question. Suddenly John Denver was relegated to easy-listening and it was no longer cool to say that you listened to his music.
Regardless of this, John continued to write and record some superb songs as he successfully blurred the lines between pop, country and folk music during the mid-1970s He was the caricature of the ideal all-American boy; from the clarity and purity of the voice to the songs which all seem to revolve around rocky mountains, being just a country boy and living free. The man had a voice as crystal clear as the subjects he sang about. Alongside the familiar Thank God I’m A Country Boy, Grandma’s Feather Bed and I'm Sorry, you’ll find lesser-known gems like Rocky Mountain Suite, Sweet Surrender and my own particular favourite, Poems, Prayers And Promises.
His success continued into the 1980s, though his material leaned more into environmental issues as he became more of an album artist and the gap between hit singles became increasingly wider. Nevertheless, there are several later hits included here, such as the Nashville recorded Some Days Are Diamonds (Some Days Are Stone), Wild Montana Skies (featuring Emmylou Harris) and Dreamland Express. Then there are some excellent album tracks and singles which failed to chart including Michael Martin Murphey’s Boy From The Country, Joe Henry’s The Flower That Shattered The Stone and a live version of Eagles And Horses. To complete this collection you’ll find And So It Goes with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band from 1989’s WILL THE CIRCLE BE UNBROKEN Volume 2 and a medley of Tumbling Tumbleweeds/Happy Trails with the Muppets.
Of his own songs, Sunshine On My Shoulder still sounds great, almost forty years on from the first time I heard it, I'd Rather Be A Cowboy strikes a personal chord, and Rocky Mountain Suite is so evocative of all that John Denver stood for both musically and personally. The arrangements and production are near perfect, the songs straddle pop, country and easy-listening at just the right angle. To be honest, there has been no one who could handle this kind of material as well as Denver did. For those looking for a mix of his hits, the lesser-known and early rarities this makes for a worthwhile purchase. In addition there’s an informative booklet outlining the John Denver career and his music.