Happy Birthday John Denver: Remembering the Country Icon’s Best Moments

by Emily Morgan

In honor of what would’ve been John Denver’s 77th trip around the sun, Outsider is taking a moment to remember some of the late country roads singer’s best moments. 

The music of the late John Denver is distinct in that it continues to stand the test of time— regardless of the music industry’s trends that seem to come and go. For many, his beloved music makes listeners yearn to travel back in time to the romantic, dreamy setting of the 1970s. 

Here are a few of Denver’s best moments to celebrate a life well-lived and a musical legacy, unlike any other. 

The Story Behind “This Old Guitar”

“This Old Guitar,” a beautiful ballad from Denver’s 1974 LP Back Home Again, which went on to be a number one country album of 1975, includes a sentimental story from Denver’s childhood. 

The song tells the story of a 1910 Gibson guitar, which belonged to Denver’s grandmother as a young girl. In a 1974 TV special, the singer explains that his grandmother gave him the antique guitar when he was about 12. He also recalls getting hit on the head with the guitar at a lumber camp in Washington. 

“The fellow was not a Hank Williams fan at all,” he says with a chuckle. Having once lost the guitar and fearing he’d never get it back, Denver recalls how excited he was to be reunited with the instrument a few years earlier. The reunion is what inspired the song. After Denver’s untimely death, his family donated the guitar for an exhibit honoring the legend in Phoenix, Arizona.  

Kermit And John Denver’s Duet

During the 1979 TV special, John Denver and the Muppets: A Christmas Together, Denver performed alongside Kermit the frog. Denver, who portrayed himself as a toy soldier, told the story of Jesus’ birth, complete with a muppet version of the iconic infant. 

The album associated with the special includes additional songs that didn’t make it into the special, such as “When the River Meets the Sea,” a song written by Paul Williams for the 1977 Muppets holiday special Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas. The Kermit-Robin-John Denver version is a sweet yet sad song that promises us we’re all going to find a feeling of peace in death — a pretty odd theme for a kid at Christmas. Yet, its themes are warm and uplifting, and Denver is the perfect person to perform the song. 

John Denver’s Philanthropic Ventures

It’s evident in Denver’s albums like Almost Heaven that his music reflects that of a concerned citizen. He was someone who worked to improve the quality of life for all people environmentally and politically. Besides making records, Denver was asked to serve as a member of the Presidential Commission on World and Domestic Hunger. He was one of the founders of The Hunger Project, an organization committed to ending chronic hunger. The Hunger Project and UNICEF also recruited Denver to be a member of the fact-finding delegation, which toured African countries affected by drought and starvation. Due to his effort and dedication, Denver was awarded the Presidential “World Without Hunger” Award. 

“My music and all my work stem from the conviction that people everywhere are intrinsically the same,” Denver said in a 1995 interview, “When I write a song, I want to take the personal experience or observation that inspired it and express it in as universal a way as possible. I’m a global citizen. I’ve created that for myself, and I don’t want to step away from it. I want to work in whatever I do…towards a world in balance, a world that creates a better quality of life for all people.”

He also founded “Plant-It 2020,” an environmental foundation that encourages people to plant as many indigenous trees as possible.

John Denver Released Rocky Mountain High In 1972

An album considered to be Denver’s defining work. The record retains the freshness and purity today that it had when he released it in 1972. His poetic lyricism and voice transcended folk music and set new standards for the genre. The song of the same name went to No. 9 on the “US Hot 100” in 1973. Denver told audiences in the mid-1970s that the song took him a long nine months to write. On April 10, 2017, the song was certified Gold by the Recording Industry Association of America for 500,000 digital downloads. Members of the Western Writers of America also chose it as one of the Top 100 Western songs of all time.