He sings of eagles soaring o’er the Rockies and is himself a kind of over-aged Partridge in a pear-face. Yet at a time when the music business has become Kink City, true-blue troubadour John Denver, at 29, has winged six straight gold albums and has emerged this year, by RCA Victor claims, as “the hottest-selling artist in the entire industry.”
A segment of the rock press, unintimidated by his mass success, delights in knocking his Pollyanna perceptions. Surprisingly, the composer and performer of the currently climbing Sunshine on My Shoulders carries a chip there over “that New York reviewer who said he hadn’t seen the world I was talking about since ‘Dick and Jane.’ ” To Denver, such critics are jealous, “unhappy people,” which is why this strange, enchanted, back-to-nature boy generally follows his concert tours with camping retreats in the mountains to recover his high.
The preoccupations of Denver’s lyrics are ecology (The Eagle and the Hawk) and the sadness of relocation (Leaving on a Jet Plane, Goodbye Again). The latter theme is expectable for an air force “brat,” the son of a lieutenant colonel who kept moving the family from base to base during John’s youth. His grandmother taught him guitar on a 1910 Gibson, and that became his way to make friends as he changed schools. He got as far as two-and-a-half years of college, studying architecture at Texas Tech before splitting to California. Working days as a draftsman, John spent his nights knocking around the L.A. folk circuit. It was about then that he changed his name from Henry John Deutschendorf Jr. His first opportunity came in 1965 when he was chosen over 250 other auditioners to replace Chad Mitchell on the then renamed Mitchell Trio. But the Trio, like the folk music fad itself, had already peaked, and not until May 1971 and John’s first solo smash Take Me Home, Country Roads was he able to retire the Mitchell Trio debts of some $40,000 he had nobly assumed when the group broke up.
Denver now seems to have developed a style beyond trends. “The problem with many of the electric groups,” he says with uncommon acerbity, “is that 80 percent of their albums is pure crap. There is no communication with the audience. Groups like the New York Dolls and David Bowie exist only to please the far-out and sick. Alice Cooper entertains a lot of people, but in two or three years he won’t be around.”
There is evidence already of Denver’s staying power and diversified skills. He headlined an ABC variety special this season with aplomb, and has been one of the few designated pinch hitters who could carry Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show (though in his first try Denver did, by Ed McMahon’s count, exclaim “far-out” 19 times in the 90 minutes). As an actor, he has visited ABC’s Owen Marshall and NBC’s McCloud series. As for feature films, he was told by director Sam (Straw Dogs) Peckinpah, “You don’t look like a killer.” More appropriately, Denver is talking with Disney about writing the score and starring in a film on Johnny Appleseed.
Between jobs, John and his wife Annie treasure the first permanent home he’s ever had: a prize-winning redwood and glass structure above Aspen’s Roaring Fork Valley. Though generally reclusive and absorbed in hobbies like astronomy when at home, he also magnanimously comes down from his mountain to perform for local hospitals or causes. “A lot of people think I’m putting out a line of b.s.,” John admits. “They ask, ‘Is he really that nice a guy?’ I can’t answer that. I got nothing to prove. I’m on no ego trip. My life is perfect. There’s not a single thing I would change.”