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John Denver's iconic tune 'Rocky Mountain High' turns 50

John Mathew Smith
Wikimedia Commons
John Denver performing at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., in 1995.

It started as a song about the beauty of the Rockies – and became an anthem for the Mountain West. John Denver’s “Rocky Mountain High” turns 50 years old in October, an anniversary marking the legacy he left in the state of Colorado and far beyond.

Denver, who was born in New Mexico as Henry John Deutschendorf, Jr., had fantasized about living in Colorado long before he wrote songs about it.

Amy Abrams is co-manager of his estate. She said his fantasies led him to adopt the name of his favorite city.

“Seemingly, that name certainly was foreboding of his future in that his love of Colorado and his impact on the state became quite a part of his life and career,” Abrams said.

The idea for "Rocky Mountain High" came when he was 27 years old, while camping at night with friends in Aspen.

“That was the first summer where he spent the entirety camping in the mountains, taking in all of the beauty that the state has to offer,” said G. Brown, who heads the Colorado Music Experience, a nonprofit that preserves the legacy of the state’s music. “And notably the Perseid meteor shower occurred in August … that was one of the more spectacular events that he had ever witnessed. And 'Rocky Mountain High' was the result.”

The song debuted at Red Rocks Amphitheater in mid-1972 and was released in October. But it wasn't an immediate hit. It would take five months for it to reach the Billboard’s Top 10. The lyrics became controversial because some thought the word “high” referred to drug use. Some radio stations even banned the song, leading Denver to testify before Congress about its true meaning.

In a separate interview, Denver said he just wanted to capture the experience of being in Colorado.

“I love the feeling that I have when I've hiked some place up in the mountains,” Denver said. “I'm in the middle of that magnificence, whether it's in the winter or the summer. And I know that that kind of feeling is something that is available to everybody.”

John Denver Rocky Mountain High Lyrics
Emma VandenEinde
Some of the lyrics to John Denver's "Rocky Mountain High" are posted inside the Colorado Music Hall of Fame.

The song gave a new identity to the Rocky Mountain region. Back when the song was released, Brown said, Colorado was a flyover state and Denver was a dusty old cowtown.

“After that song, you could go to New Zealand, tell people you were from Colorado, and they'd say, ‘Oh, John Denver,’” he said. “'Rocky Mountain High' is not just a song or a song title. It became part of the vocabulary of people everywhere.”

People started moving to Colorado in droves, drawn by the nature scenes in Denver’s lyrics. Paul Epstein, who co-chairs the Colorado Music Hall of Fame, said it evoked a certain pride among people who lived in the area.

“John Denver's presence here and specifically writing songs that referenced the beauty of the area and this idealized world that people imagined when they heard those songs, I think it had a profound effect on the way people here felt about the state and felt about themselves,” he said.

Denver’s fans loved him. Dawn Hanawalt was one of them. She recently attended a memorial concert by the Colorado Symphony, and she recalled a memory from one of Denver’s concerts in the '70s.

“I waited till the end of the show, and he'd been sipping on this cup all night,” Hanawalt said. “And I went up to the stage and asked them if I could have the cup and I got it.”

John Denver Rocky Mountain High Album
Emma VandenEinde
The song "Rocky Mountain High" was the title track for one of John Denver's albums. It features Denver standing at Slaughterhouse Falls near the Rio Grande Trail in Aspen, Colorado.

It was just a styrofoam cup, with part brandy and part tea. But it had Denver’s teeth marks on it.

“And I was, you know, just over the moon, thrilled to death,” she said. “So I took it home, put it on my dresser, and my mother threw it away. She thought it was garbage. So, all that I have of that’s a memory.”

Denver had multiple platinum records and gained worldwide fame after playing concerts in Asia, Latin America, Australia and Europe. He dabbled in acting, worked with the Muppets, and hosted both the Grammys and the Tonight Show.

“John's greatest legacy is the amount of people that he touched,” Brown said. “He brought his music to the people and his joy of performance was palpable.”

That legacy stuck, even after his death 25 years ago in 1997. Epstein owned the Twist and Shout Records store in Denver when the singer’s plane crashed. He remembers it having a huge impact on his customers.

“I had never seen anything quite like it," he said. "Sinatra was the closest, and I had never seen all strata of society pour into the store desperate to find recordings by John Denver. There's not that many people you can name, you know, who are in the category of a Frank Sinatra or Bob Marley or Elvis … John Denver is pretty close to being in that class.”

Colorado has commemorated Denver in many ways. In 2007, lawmakers made "Rocky Mountain High" the second state song. He was the first person inducted into the Colorado Music Hall of Fame. And this year, Gov. Jared Polis renamed a trail in Golden Gate Canyon State Park after the song.

John Denver Spirit Statue
Emma VandenEinde
Outside the Colorado Music Hall of Fame stands the bronze "Spirit" statue, commissioned by John Denver's Windstar Foundation and sculpted by Sue DiCicco. It shows Denver smiling with a guitar slung behind his back and an eagle on his arm, which was characteristic of his love for the outdoors.

But Denver’s ”Rocky Mountain High” was not just for applause. Abrams said it was for awareness.

“John felt really passionately about, you know, both the solace and the peace that nature could bring an individual and also the importance of protecting our environment and sustainability in our world,” she said. “Mother Nature was his true love and his true passion for bringing awareness to his fans.”

His music, and his advocacy, continue to touch people worldwide, 50 years later.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

I'm the Mountain West Reporter for KUNC, here to inform you of all the latest news affecting the Mountain West region. From new legislation to climate patterns to invasive species, I'll research what is happening in your backyard—as well as the backyards of neighboring states—and share those stories with you as you go about your day.