[Image of John Denver]

Laramie Music Scope:
John Denver's Definitive
All-Time Greatest Hits

John Denver's greatest hits,
one more time

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by Robert Roten, Film Critic
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October 12, 2004 -- Here it is, the seventh anniversary of John Denver's death and another John Denver greatest hits album is now in music stores. This makes the fourth Denver greatest hits album, but this one has the distinction as being labeled “Definitive All-Time Greatest Hits.” This two-disc, 24-song release with 20 pages of liner notes and photos does indeed have Denver's greatest hits, among others, as well as some previously unreleased recordings.

The recordings are lean and clean-sounding. Denver's best recordings are those which are not dominated by a lot of orchestration. His strong singing voice easily dominates. The lyrics come through crystal clear. One of the few exceptions is “Calypso” which sounds a little too over-produced. Fortunately, the bonus disc has a fine, lean, previously unreleased, acoustic mix of “Calypso.” This track demonstrates once again that Denver's voice needs no acoustical camouflage. Unlike some modern singers, whose voices are so poor, record producers have to literally bury them in background music, Denver's voice soars like an eagle, especially when he lets it flow. True, at times Denver sounds as if he's breathing breathing helium in between the notes. In the song, “The Eagle and the Hawk,” Denver's voice seems to be straining at the top of his range at times. His voice even seems to break slightly at one point. At other times, his voice is less forced, more melodic, as it is in his monster hit “Back Home Again.”

So what's on the album? Songs are: Disk one, track one, Leaving, On A Jet Plane, 2, Take Me Home, Country Roads, 3, Sunshine On My Shoulders, 4, Poems, Prayers And Promises, 5, The Eagle And The Hawk, 6, Rocky Mountain High, 7, Farewell Andromeda (Welcome To My Morning), 8, Annie's Song, 9, Back Home Again, 10, Sweet Surrender, 11, Thank God I'm A Country Boy, 12, I'm Sorry, 13, Calypso, 14, Fly Away, 15, Looking For Space, 16, Like A Sad Song, 17, My Sweet Lady, 18, Perhaps Love, 19, Shanghai Breezes, 20, Wild Montana Skies.

On disc two, there are just four songs, all previously unreleased versions of popular songs. Track one is a spare version of Denver's first hit (and Peter, Paul and Mary's only number one hit), “Leaving, On A Jet Plane” recorded in Hollywood in 1966. Track 2 is Denver's version of The Band's big hit, “The Weight” recorded by Denver in 1970. Track 3 is an acoustic mix of “Annie's Song,” recorded in 1974. Track 4 is an acoustic mix of “Calypso” recorded in 1974. According to the album notes, both these previously unreleased versions of “Annie's Song” and “Calypso” were recorded on the same day as the popular versions of these songs were recorded. I actually prefer these acoustic versions to the popular, heavily orchestrated versions of these songs.

John Denver's version of “The Weight,” written by Robbie Robertson, is a fully orchestrated, lively version of this solemn, religiously symbolic song, while “Leaving on a Jet Plane” is a solid acoustic version of Denver's first hit song. The bonus disc also has a good acoustic mix of “Annie's Song.” In the acoustic mix, Denver's voice sounds stronger, less muted, than it does in the popular version. “Annie's Song,” dedicated to his wife, is among the most popular love songs ever recorded.

More than just a musician and singer, though, Denver, was most of all a songwriter. His best songs have intensely personal lyrics with universal appeal. From time to time his inner demons come to the surface, as in “Looking For Space” when he sings, “Sometimes I fly like an eagle/ Sometimes I'm deep in despair.” This lyric sums up his bipolar disorder very well. “Like a Sad Song” also reveals Denver's times of despair. Denver was also an alcoholic, a condition which haunted him to the very end. Yet, some of his songs are incredibly joyful and soulful, like “Sunshine on My Shoulders,” “Rocky Mountain High” and the raucous “Thank God I'm a Country Boy.” Perhaps Denver's greatest gift to the world was that he shared his joy with us much more than he shared his pain. He suffered a lot in his life, but his music is overwhelmingly positive, loving and soulful.

Of all the songs on this album, easily the most disposable is Denver's duet with opera star Placido Domingo in “Perhaps Love.” Their singing styles are so different that their duet is like an attempt to mix oil and water. On the other hand, Denver's duet with Emmylou Harris in the lively “Wild Montana Skies” works very well.

It's not enough just to the songs on the album. What is not on the album? Songs not on the album which are found on the other three best of John Denver albums include “Goodbye Again,” “Grandma's Feather Bed,” “This Old Guitar,” “Follow Me,” “Starwood in Aspen,” “For Baby (For Bobbie),” “Love Again,” “Dancing With the Mountains,” “I Want to Live,” “Gold and Beyond,” “Autograph,” “Rhymes and Reasons,” “Seasons of the Heart,” “How Can I Leave You Again?” “Some Days Are Diamonds (Some Days Are Stone).”

So is this really the definitive John Denver greatest hits album? That is up to each John Denver fan to decide, based on the song lists. It is certainly the best John Denver album I've ever heard. For those of you worried about whether or not you can make a backup copy of this album to protect against possible future damage to your disk, don't worry, I checked, and it can be backed up.

Although Denver got his start in the folk tradition, few of his songs concern social issues. Exceptions include a few environmental songs, like “Calypso.” Songs like “Rocky Mountain High” have an environmental slant in the lyrics “more people, more scars upon the land.” Denver's message is subtle. He never bashes the listener over the head with his viewpoint the way some folk singers do.

Born Henry John Deutschendoft Jr. in Roswell, New Mexico on December 31, 1943 (well before the flying saucer crashed), Denver got his big break in show business when he joined the established folk group The Chad Mitchell Trio as lead singer in the 1960s. He then became a solo artist. He went on to become a dominant performer in the 1970s, topping the charts a number of times. For a time, he was the most popular recording artist in the world. He carved out his own musical niche. He wasn't part of any popular musical trend or fad. His music was distinctly different than country, rock and roll or other popular styles of the day. He was the ultimate crossover artist. His first greatest hits album sold 10 million copies. He also became an actor, appearing with George Burns in the popular movie “Oh, God!” He later became more involved in social activism. The number of his recordings dropped steeply after the 1970s.

I've been a John Denver fan for many years. I once attended a concert of his in Duluth, Minnesota about 30 years ago. I had to drive 100 miles to get to the concert, but it was worth the trip. It was the best concert I've ever been to. There was no warmup band, and no delay waiting for the star performer to appear. Denver stepped into the spotlight right on time. There was just Denver and an acoustic bass player. He sang for three hours. He told jokes. He even juggled. The guy was a terrific entertainer. He sounded fantastic and he had a winning personality. He also seemed unusually humble for such a big star. I got the distinct impression that he was a nice guy. It was more than just a slick image. I read a story recently that Denver once showed up unannounced at a hospital and sang for hours to a couple of young victims of an airplane crash in which they were badly injured and most of their family died. He remained friends with those two boys for years after that, right up to the time of his death, Oct. 12, 1997, in an airplane crash.

Hearing this album brought back a lot of fond memories of that Duluth concert, and the many other times I saw Denver on television, in the movies and all the times I've listened to his warmhearted songs and felt a spiritual lift. Denver's songs are the equivalent of a walk in the mountains, the forests, or along a quiet ocean beach. It is comforting to think that although John Denver is gone, and that his generation will be only memories someday, that his music will soar on forever. This album is a fitting chapter in that timeless, healing musical legacy. It rates an A.

Click here for a link to buy this CD at Amazon.com.

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Copyright © 2004 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at my last name at lariat dot org. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]

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