By Dan Sadowsky | October 12, 2017 | Culture
Twenty years after the death of Rocky Mountain bard, Aspen honors its musical hero.
Johnny Colorado: A onetime poet laureate of the state, John Denver, who died 20 years ago this October, was the voice of the Rockies.
In early autumn, Aspen’s mountains are aflame with leafy color. As October 12 approaches, we denizens of these hills return from our hikes to find circles of singers in our parks and near the Roaring Fork River, by then a murmuring trickle. International visitors bring guitars and memories of John Denver, who died on that day in 1997. A series of concerts— some with Denver’s surviving bandmates, some by tribute artists, many impromptu—draws full houses and, quite often, tears. This annual ritual, now a full 20 years old, is far too poignant to prompt the derision that Denver himself often suffered in his life. I know. I was among those too hip to dig the granny-glasses-and-embroidered- shirt shtick. Then I heard him sing live.
“I had the same experience,” says Danny Wheetman, a fiddler and backup singer in Denver’s last band. “I couldn’t relate to his recordings. I was playing Bob Wills tunes— I was ‘cool.’ But some performers have an inexplicable live magic, and that was John. We played the Kennedy Center for three nights and added extra shows, sold-out every night. Ten, 20, 30 thousand people singing every word of every song cannot be argued with.” A local artist once scrambling for après-ski gigs, Wheetman found a new perspective on performing during his extensive travels with Denver.
“There were many times backstage after a show, John would greet fans and inevitably someone emerged from a gaggle of autograph-seekers, weeping, to say, ‘Thank you for saving my life,’ or ‘my son’s life,’ or ‘my wife’s life.’ I don’t care how hip you think you are, that’s powerful stuff, and it’s beyond taste.” John Denver felt Aspen’s call long before he settled here. He chose his stage name in his teens, in Texas. “Rocky Mountain High” is one of Colorado’s two state songs and John Denver’s anthem. May you never be too hip to open your heart to the healing that a beautiful voice, an acoustic guitar, and an exquisite mountain setting can bring to your life.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY PAUL NATKIN/GETTY IMAGES (CHICAGOFEST); MICHAEL OCHS ARCHIVES/GETTY IMAGES (COLORADO);
DAVID REDFERN/REDFERNS/GETTY IMAGES (UK); JULIAN WASSER/GETTY IMAGES (HORSEBACK)