Country roads converge again for ‘family reunion’ at John Denver celebration in Aspen
The John Denver Celebration turned 25 in Aspen this week, just before the anniversary of the singer’s death on Oct. 12, 1997.
After news broke of Denver’s death in a plane crash in Pacific Grove, Calif., his friends, fans and fellow musicians gathered in Aspen to celebrate his life and his music.
Kim Bailey was one of them. As a fan, she came to Aspen looking for community and compassion, and found such a sense of connection here that she returned for each of the annual gatherings.
“After he passed, … we were all looking for someone, you know, who understood,” she said.
At the John Denver Shrine in Rio Grande Park on Oct. 5 to kick off this year’s celebration, Bailey stood among people she considers family — people, she said, who understand that this isn’t just a gathering of groupies and that John Denver wasn’t just another famous musician.
“His posts were so timely, and boy, would they be timely today,” she said. “He was a man ahead of his time. … He had a philosophy that resonated with so many people.”
Stephanie and Jim Horn know this as well as anyone.
Jim Horn, a woodwind player, has performed and recorded with Denver for years and performs at the Wheeler Opera House during John Denver’s celebrations.
Horn first came in 1998 to perform in one of the tribute concerts and says the gathering is a testament to the singular impact Denver has had on music and its listeners.
“He was one of a kind, nobody in the world like him,” Horn said. “He was the only one who did what he did. Nobody else sang or sounded like John. Nobody wrote songs like him.
Horn says he and Denver have become like brothers. Horn has countless stories to tell about their friendship and the time they spent together.
He loves to share them over breakfast at the Mountain Chalet – or, say, during an interview in the hotel games room before the evening songs start.
It’s not easy to tell these stories, he says, but it’s worth it.
“The first night I broke down, started crying and stuff, and it’s hard to tell people about someone you loved and (who’s) gone now, and not have a little tears, you know,” Horn said. “And it was tough, but I got through it. But (the people at the celebration) all loved (the stories), you know?”
The Mountain Chalet – which Horn called a “nest” and a place of “heart” – is where the celebration fills with life and the community of people united by their love for John Denver.
It’s the center of gravity for the annual celebration, where guests sometimes stay up until 3, 4, or 5 a.m. singing Denver songs after returning from other concerts and events.
There is a feeling, however, that times are changing and that John Denver’s celebration, as people know, may not exist next year as the Mountain Chalet changes hands.
Last year, the family-friendly, affordable accommodation at the base of Aspen Mountain was sold to a partnership specializing in boutique hotels and upscale restaurants.
The Melville family who have owned the property throughout its seven-decade history have continued to operate it ever since.
Craig Melville said in a phone call on Tuesday that they would remain at the helm until at least May 2023, but the chances of them still running the place next October are “not great”.
Stephanie Horn shares her gratitude for the hotel that has been their second home – and says the changes that may soon be coming will add another emotional layer to this year’s gathering.
“We’re all human beings, and you have love for someone and, and that person is gone, and you want to keep sharing that love, but sometimes you get emotional about it,” she said. . “And it’s like coming here and thinking, ‘This is our house in Aspen, and our house has been sold. “”
“We’re just grateful to be here this year,” she added.
This uncertain future prompted Laurie Stowers to encourage people to start their own celebrations elsewhere.
“You look at the age level of people attending, most of them live on fixed incomes,” she said. For those attendees, $300 or $400 per night — the going rate at some other Aspen hotels — “just isn’t doable.”
“So it’s very likely that if the mountain lodge isn’t available next year for us, it would be our last year,” she said.
There is no official organizer for the John Denver celebration, but Stowers is close, running the Aspen Facebook page in October, where people can get updates on the schedule and events.
During the meeting at the John Denver Sanctuary last week, Stowers hinted at the idea of a cruise or other events in different cities.
“We will definitely continue in one form or another – it may not be in Aspen,” she said.
She first came to the celebration 20 years ago, for what she thought was a “once in a lifetime” experience.
Then she kept coming, year after year, and found love and family — and her husband — in Aspen in October.
Stowers emphasizes that this is a celebration, filled with joy, hugs and reconnection.
“Some people think it’s a sad event, and it’s not a sad event to come here and share this with friends,” she said. “We get to know all these friends from all over the world, … and it becomes our family reunion.”
On the lively Sunday night party, you could see the joy on people’s faces – and hear it in their voices.
Jim Connor wrote the song “Grandma’s Feather Bed,” which Denver recorded in the 1970s. Connor has come to this celebration from time to time.
He says these types of memorials generally diminish after 25 years, and he’s also aware of the changes coming to the Mountain Chalet.
But he’s optimistic about the future of this gathering, and he thinks people will find other places to keep their spirits alive.
“I thought the 25th might be the last, but there’s so much excitement here every night for a week,” he said.
He thinks it will last “at least a few more years”.
And Denver’s music, according to Stowers, will last even longer.
“My granddaughters are 6 and 8 and they sing ‘Rocky Mountain High’, they sing ‘Country Roads’,” she said.
Generations of family share her songs, she said, as grandparents pass on her work to their children and grandchildren.
“We’re just going to keep John’s music that way,” she said.
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