In today’s musical and entertainment climate, a wholesome and earnest performer like John Denver would never achieve the heights of popularity he did in the 1970s. It was a different world then – not as jaded, not as ironic. During Denver’s peak, he guest-hosted the Tonight Show and the Grammy Awards multiple times, co-starred in a hit movie (1977’s Oh God) and sold millions of albums. He was a born showman, confidant and comfortable in the small coffeehouses of the ’60s where he began, as well as on TV or in front of a crowd of thousands.
His was an image wrapped in sincerity and disarming, if sometimes hokey, charm. On one hand these were his weaknesses – he was an easy target for the critics – but they were also his strengths, as he came across as genuine and honest. Denver’s down-home optimism was the perfect antidote for an America recovering from the hangover of the ‘60s and embroiled in the ongoing Vietnam War and Watergate.
His chosen role as champion of nature, which came into focus with his best-known song “Rocky Mountain High” in 1972, was perfectly in sync with the back-to-the-land movement of the time. In addition, his accessible folk-pop songs of sunshine, mountains, and wilderness were a connection to an alternate lifestyle for the average middle-class dreamer. The ones who weren’t on the fringe, or necessarily looking to be on the fringe.
All of My Memories: The John Denver Collection is the first box set to attempt a serious evaluation of his career, and paints a portrait that reveals a more complex and nuanced artist than is generally remembered. Arranged in rough chronological order, each of his albums is represented (with a stronger focus on the ‘70s, understandably).
The set begins with a couple of 1964 demos from the then 19-year-old aspiring troubadour. Even this early on, he sounds assured and in command of his talents. Denver was soon part of the “great folk music scare” of the ‘60s, doing traditional numbers like “Darcy Farrow” and occasional left-leaning political songs on his own and in a trio format. He was also writing during this time and “Leaving on a Jet Plane”- the song that brought him to wider attention when covered by Peter, Paul, and Mary – is found here in an early recording under the title “Babe, I Hate to Go”.
He hit his stride with 1971’s Poems, Prayers, and Promises and half that album is represented, including signature tunes “Sunshine on My Shoulders” and “Take Me Home, Country Roads”. “All of My Memories”, the box set’s title song, comes from the follow up album Aerie and is one of the lost treasures of the John Denver catalog. A gentle folk blues featuring the harmonica of Toots Thielemans, it’s full of longing for a home and family and salvation through nature.
He chose cover songs astutely as well, and box set highlights “I Guess He’d Rather Be in Colorado”, “Blow Up Your T.V.”, and “Boy From the Country”, though written by others, sound like Denver songs. You could fill an album or two with the number of Beatles covers he recorded in his early years, but oddly none are included here, despite “Mother Nature’s Son” (on Rocky Mountain High) sounding for all the world like it was written especially for Denver.
It wasn’t all forests and flowers. A harder, percussive guitar sound is heard in the bluesy “Prisoners”, a stark anti-war song told through the eyes of a soldier and his stateside wife and child. “Like a Sad Song”, “I’m Sorry” and “Looking for Space” portray an artist sometimes at odds with his bright and sunny image in lines like, “Sometimes I soar like an eagle / Sometimes I’m deep in despair”.
Denver’s late ‘70s series of albums featured members of Emmylou Harris’ “Hot Band”, musicians who had also played with Elvis Presley and Gram Parsons. They add an extra layer of virtuosity to tracks like the finely crafted “Baby, You Look Good to Me Tonight”, the fast country-picking of “Sweet Melinda” and the rock of “Downhill Stuff”.
By the early ‘80s, Denver had become firmly “adult contemporary”, and he’d shed his granny glasses and cut his hair. The music became smoother, though he still managed to find a way to package the slick with the sincere. “Perhaps Love”, a duet with opera singer Placido Domingo, was a hit but in retrospect is an unsuccessful mishmash of two very different vocalists. He didn’t totally leave the mountains behind during this time, with “Love Is the Master” and “Wild Montana Skies” (a duet with Emmylou Harris) being returns to the sound that had made him famous.
All of My Memories works well as an introduction to Denver’s music. And for long-time listeners there are a number of rarities, plus an essay by the director of the Colorado Music Hall of Fame, which help build a more complete picture of the man. In addition, many of the tracks have been remastered. With “Rocky Mountain High” being named one of the two state songs of Colorado in 2007, a recent tribute album featuring contemporary artists, and this box set, Denver is finally getting his long overdue reappraisal.