How “Country Roads,” a song about Maryland, became the highlight of an NFL game in Germany
From Sunday goosebumps sing “Country Roads” by around 75,000 fans in Munich, the world now knows that the song is as beloved in Germany as it is in West Virginia. Turns out the tune as it was originally designed had nothing to do with either.
First, let’s relive the moment.
Damn, that’s fantastic. As anyone who’s been to a Bon Jovi show can attest, even the simplest pop song transforms into a profound work of art every time tens of thousands of people sing along to its lyrics.
Bill Danoff is the guy most responsible for “Country Roads”, a song known for John Denver’s 1971 recording. During an interview in 2013Danoff told me how it happened.
Danoff went to school at Georgetown University (class of 1968, alongside Bill Clinton), and a few blocks from campus was a small but legendary DC nightclub, the Cellar Door. As a student, he worked as a doorman and did lights and sound there. National artists spent several nights at the club, and while hanging out after shows, young Danoff got to know John Denver when the sweet, goofy warbler was in a popular folk group, the Chad Mitchell Trio. Contemporary reviews in DC newspapers show that Denver, whose real name was Henry John Deutschendorf Jr., performed songs like “I was not a NAZI polka” with this combo. Denver left the band in the late 1960s and quickly made a name for himself as a solo act, writing and recording hits like “Leaving On A Jet Plane.”
After college, Danoff formed a band called Fat City with his girlfriend, Taffy Nivert, and left the club. But through his connections and his talent, he got a gig opening for Denver for a series of shows the last week of December 1970. (The Washington Post listed Denver openers simply as “Fat”.)
That’s when “Country Roads” was born.
Danoff told me he invited the rising star to come to his $100-a-month Georgetown basement apartment for a post-show jam. Denver arrived with a broken thumb he had in a car accident on the way and couldn’t play guitar, but asked Danoff to scratch some new tunes for him. “Play him that ‘Country Roads’ song!” Nivert told Danoff, referring to an unfinished track that had recently come to him like manna from heaven as he drove through a rather rural stretch of Clopper Road in the suburbs. of Montgomery County, Maryland. While the melody and most of the lyrics were almost entirely formed during their car ride, Danoff said, there was a problem finishing the chorus.
“We couldn’t find a rhyme for ‘Maryland’,” he told me.
Danoff grew up in Massachusetts before leaving for college and briefly tried to make the Commonwealth name work in song, but again couldn’t overcome rhyming obstacles. So Danoff ended up using the neighboring Mountain State as lyrical fodder, pairing it with “mountain mama.” However, there was a sticking point:
“I had never been to West Virginia,” Danoff said.
His only connection to the state came from listening to country music deejays on AM radio station WWVA in Wheeling, WV, 275 miles west of DC “I thought of pictures of West Virginia, coal and rivers,” he said, “and I pretended to be that guy on the radio.
Danoff confessed that he already had high hopes for his song before performing it for Denver and tried to deny it.
“I told him I was trying to get it to Johnny Cash, and you’re not going to like it,” Danoff told me. Cash was already a music legend and at the time had a hit weekly variety show on the ABC television network. But Denver was won over immediately.
“He had this overreaction, ‘Golly! It’s a hit!'” Danoff recalled.
Danoff, Nivert, and Denver then stayed up until sunrise to polish the words and come up with a bridge and arrangement. Denver took Fat City out on that night’s show at the basement door to back him on the song, which he sang while reading handwritten lyric sheets.
“People clapped for five minutes straight,” Danoff recalled. “I’ve never seen that.”
Denver, obviously not wanting to risk the song reaching Johnny Cash first, called their producers that night and scheduled a recording session. Within the week, Danoff and Nivert were at RCA studios in New York as Denver recorded their newborn. It was released in early April on Denver’s Poems, prayers and promises, now recognized as his breakthrough album.
I asked Danoff what his immediate reaction was to hearing Denver’s recording of “Country Roads” for the first time. “I was thrilled, but I thought I wish I had Johnny Cash’s song first,” he said. “And I thought there was too much echo.”
Denver died when an experimental plane crashed off California in 1997. “Country Roads” was the first song mentioned in his New York Times obituary.
Danoff then married and divorced Nivert, and formed another band, Starland Vocal Band, for whom he wrote another radio hit in 1976, “Afternoon delight.”
Danoff, now 76, recovered from having “Country Roads” first recorded by John Denver instead of Johnny Cash, as the song, with all its echo, became a monster in the United States and in the whole world. (This also definitely helped Cash dueted with Denver on “Country Roads” in 1978.) Some spots embraced it with particular vigor. West Virginians, unsurprisingly, were early worshipers. According to West Virginia University, “Country Roads” has been part of the pre-game ritual of every WVU Mountaineers football game since 1972. Denver came to Morgantown to perform the tune in person at a game at home in 1980. “Country Roads” became an official state song in 2014 and has since been used in government-funded tourist advertising campaigns.
However, the strangest and perhaps most fervent stronghold of “country roads” outside of Appalachia might be Germany. Hermes House Band, a Dutch band, recorded the song and that band’s version topped the German charts in 2001. It’s been a staple of Oktoberfest celebrations for decades now. Danoff was invited by the German Ambassador to the United States to play a concert at the German Embassy to DC in 2013 just so he could sing the song.
“They blackmailed me four times,” Danoff told me yesterday from his DC home.
He was also the guest of honor at the Steuben Parade, a sort of St. Patrick’s Day celebration for German Americans held every September in New York City. Danoff didn’t watch the Seahawks-Buccaneers game over the weekend, so he didn’t catch the incredible song in real time. “But a lot of people were telling me about it,” he says.
And many people ask him how the hell his old song is so big in Germany. He tells them what he’s been telling them for years: he has no idea.
“I still haven’t been to Germany,” he says.