John Denver: The Essential John Denver

John Denver
The Essential John Denver

Monty Python might have joked about him being strangled to death, but Henry John Deutschendorf, Jr. had far more than that 15 minutes of fame. Better known as John Denver, the singer evokes images of a laid-back countryside that looks out through the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. When the singer died in a plane crash in 1997, he was merely 53 years old and perhaps, like so many of his contemporaries, would have soon been recognized by a new generation. But it was not meant to be. Instead, several collections and greatest hits albums have been released and re-issued in that time. This two-disc set is no different but is perhaps one of the better two-disc compilations to come out in a long time. Trimming all the needless fat and getting to nothing but hits and high points, the album does Denver justice.

Packaged nicely and with liner notes from David Roy, the first disc leads with “Sunshine on My Shoulders”, with Denver’s simple timbre painting an image as vast as the scenery and nature he often used in lyrics. Even greater are the string arrangements, which are just soft enough to avoid a stuffy and bloated effect. The fact Denver was able to take songs like this one and stretch them out for nearly five minutes without boring you to tears is a remarkable achievement. “Back Home Again” keeps this swaying, toe-tapper feeling going which could almost put you to sleep. That’s meant in a good way, though. The lyrics also tend to resonate on a back porch or in venues Denver performed in hundreds of times over. The yokel anthem that is “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” was Denver’s signature tune for those less than familiar with his catalogue. This track also had a Celtic influence with its piano and fiddle, resembling Natalie MacMaster or the Rankin Family.

Another early gem is “Leaving on a Jet Plane”, which was later covered by Chantal Kreviazuk on the Armageddon soundtrack. A somber piano track is a love ballad but far from the likes of cheesy ’70s groups like REO Speedwagon and that ilk. A few of the middle tracks aren’t quite as popular but they are just as strong, showcasing Denver’s singer/songwriter foundation, as on the gentle lullaby “Perhaps Love”. The same is evident on another signature tune “Take Me Home, Country Roads” which talks about mountain mamas and West Virginia. The conclusion in hindsight, however, is a bit too rich and stringy. “Rocky Mountain High” is a better tune that tells a straightforward story which should still be part of a Colorado tourism commercial if it’s already not. It’s also the first of his quasi-yodel efforts, something he would perfect on a later tune. One of his soppier songs is “For You”, although Denver does deliver the goods on the ballad. And the first disc ends with the warm and melodic “Annie’s Song”, which has much in common with “Morning Has Broken” by Cat Stevens.

Nature and his environs always intrigued Denver, particularly when the sea and the skies are often part of the songs. “Windsong” is such an example with a light percussion in the background as a cello is used to create a rich aura for the acoustic number. The tune could be compared in some respects to “To Live Is to Fly”, one of the many jewels penned by the late Townes Van Zandt. Denver’s arrangement gets a bit stagnant by this time though, especially on the sweeping orchestration of “Cowboy’s Delight” which doesn’t shine at all. Rather, it brings the Moody Blues to mind far more than Denver. And don’t even get me started on the hillbilly meets John Williams mess that is “Spirit”.

Wyoming was another favorite spot of the musician as “Shipmates and Cheyenne” and “Song of Wyoming” will attest. But the productions of each song aren’t exactly as timeless thanks to the needless orchestrations that attempt to color the tunes. A high moment comes during “Late Nite Radio” with its earthy, downhome feeling void of any inane arrangements. “Love Is Everywhere” continues this plan as Denver sings about life being perfect. “Open your eyes to the joy and pain,” he sings as fiddle and guitar keep things moving along. “I’m Sorry” is also another sleeper tune that doesn’t really get the attention or praise it should. And the strings are kept to a bare minimum. One personal favorite, though (strings be damned), is “Calypso”, a song Denver wrote with Jacques Cousteau in mind. The high yodels make it all seem worthwhile. Overall, there are no hidden or bonus tracks to lure fans in, which should be applauded. What you see is what you get, and you get a pretty good slice of one of America’s finest.