Wednesday, August 27, 2014

TMFW 51 - Almost Heaven, Maryland Backroads

John Denver is so associated with his song "Take Me Home, Country Roads," that he used "Take Me Home" as the name of his autobiography.  The song is a beautiful tribute to the Mountain State: in addition to specific call-outs for the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Shenandoah River, Denver notes that "all [his] memories gather round her," he recalls the "misty taste of moonshine," and he calls it "my home far away."  The chorus is even more on the nose:
"Country roads, take me home, to the place I belong
West Virginia, mountain momma, take me home, country roads"
Despite the clear suggestion, though, Denver was not actually from West Virginia.  He was born in Roswell. New Mexico.  Denver never lived in West Virginia, either: he was an "army brat" who grew up in Tucson, Arizona, Montgomery, Alabama, and Fort Worth, Texas.   In his adult years, he lived in Minnesota with his first wife Annie Martel (the "Annie" of "Annie's Song") and then in Aspen, Colorado.  In fact, when he made the song popular, it is alleged that Denver had never even been to West Virginia
So where did the song come from?  Well, as it turns out it was primarily written by the songwriting team of Bill Danoff and his then-girlfriend Taffy Nivert.  "OK," you are thinking.  "Now I get it.  Danoff and Nivert were from West Virginia and wrote the heartfelt tribute to the home they loved so much."  Well, that's not true either.  Danoff and Nivert had also never lived in West Virginia.  In fact, when they wrote the song, they themselves had never even been to West Virginia.
As the story goes, the two started work on the song during a road trip from D.C. to Maryland, where Nivert was from and where she was to attend a family reunion.  Inspired by the pretty backroads leading to the reunion spot, they crafted the refrain about "country roads, tak[ing them] home."  The two initially planned to sell the song to Johnny Cash, but after opening for Denver at a show in Washington, D.C., they played him the unfinished song.  Denver loved it and wanted it for himself, and the three set about finishing the song together.   
Understanding that Maryland had little in the way of wistfulness (viewers of The Wire can attest to this), they decided to dress the lyrics up.  Nivert had a friend (or maybe a fan - stories vary here) who was a resident and admirer of West Virginia, and used to write Nivert about the state's natural beauty.  Those writings inspired the lyrical location, and the rest is history.
So today's True Music Fact is that the most famous song about West Virginia and its beauty was written by three people who had never once stepped foot in the state.  For their part, the good people of West Virginia do not seem to mind that imposters wrote their signature song: earlier this year, it was named one of the "official state songs" of West Virginia.
BONUS FACT: As it turns out, Danoff, Nivert, and Denver's sense of geography was not that great.  The vast majority of both the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Shenandoah River are outside of West Virginia.  (The Shenandoah is in West Virginia for only 8% of its length and the Blue Ridge Mountains are not really in the state at all.)  A more geographically fitting lyric would have been "Appalachian Mountains, Monogahela River."
BONUS FACT 2:  On the subject of misleading personal lyrical connections, Barry Manilow has written a number of big hits, including "Copacabana (At the Copa)" and "Could It Be Magic."  But ironically, he didn't write his 1975 #1 hit called "I Write The Songs."  The song was written be Bruce Johnston of the Beach Boys.
BONUS FACT 3:  After their songwriting success with Denver, Danoff and Nivert went on to form the Starland Vocal Band, who had a #1 hit in 1976 with the classic sex-in-the-daytime anthem "Afternoon Delight."  The group earned the 1977 Grammy Award for "Best New Artist," beating out (among others) future TMFW subject Boston.

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