John Denver’s “Rocky Mountain High” turns 50: Love, censorship and constant tributes define song’s history – The News-Herald
June 18, 2022
This year marks five decades since John Denver’s iconic, occasionally controversial and resolutely pastoral folk anthem “Rocky Mountain High” was released, and Coloradans can celebrate with a major concert — as well as some self-directed excursions.
Colorado Symphony last week announced a Sept. 8 show at Boettcher Concert Hall honoring the song and Denver, a two-time Grammy award winner and former poet laureate of Colorado. He’ll be present, in a way, via archival footage of him performing songs from the 1972 “Rocky Mountain High” album and other hits.
While John Denver tribute shows have been common in Colorado since his 1997 death at the age of 53, the show will also feature members of his band performing live and telling stories about the singer-songwriter. Tickets, $15-$98, are on sale now at coloradosymphony.org.
On June 8, Gov. Jared Polis also marked the song’s 50th anniversary by renaming the Mountain Lion Trail in Golden Gate Canyon State Park to Rocky Mountain High Trail.
“Here in Colorado, we’ve always known that our majestic mountains, our bright blue skies, our starlit nights and our forest and streams were the stuff of legends — but John Denver made them the stuff of song lyrics, too,” Polis said in a statement. “And not just any lyrics, but world-famous lyrics that span genres and generations.”
Released on Oct. 30, 1972, “Rocky Mountain High” became a chart-topping hit in 1973 and a staple of Denver’s live sets. He had moved to Colorado three years prior, according to Red Rocks and the Colorado Music Hall of Fame (the latter of which inducted Denver in 2011), and his time living in the fast-changing mountain town of Aspen — now synonymous with glitz and unaffordability — inspired him to see Colorado through itinerant eyes.
“When he first came to the mountains his life was far away,” he wrote in the gentle, melodically intoxicating song. “On the road and hanging by a song / But the string’s already broken and he doesn’t really care / It keeps changing fast and it don’t last for long.”
Denver had just debuted at Red Rocks Amphitheatre on June 21, 1972, about four months before “Rocky Mountain High” began climbing the charts, according to the Castle Pines Connection. That kicked off a run of 16 concerts that would position Denver as the first-ever artist to play four consecutive nights at the venue. His final show there was in the summer of 1989.
Even when he was alive, “Rocky Mountain High” had come to symbolize Colorado’s musical identity for many in the state, and was approved by legislators as the state’s second official song in 2007 (the first is “Where the Columbines Grow” by Dr. Arthur John Flynn).
It’s also become shorthand for Colorado culture to many people outside of our state, its name borne on craft beers, art exhibitions, theater productions and other public culture. Denver’s pioneering eco-activism is now often synonymous with Colorado.
“Denver used his popularity to promote his favorite cause: the environment,” Colorado Music Hall of Fame officials wrote upon his induction. “He founded the Windstar Foundation in 1976 in Snowmass as an education and demonstration center dedicated to a sustainable future.”
The song, however, was not always universally loved. At both the time of its release and during its 2007 induction as a new state song, critics charged the “high” in the song referred to drug use. In the early 1970s, some radio stations even banned it. Denver would probably have been flummoxed in 2007, as well, when his so-named sanctuary in Aspen removed “scandalous” lines from his songs in a bout of hasty censorship, according to The Aspen Times, including “Rocky Mountain High.”
“My brother didn’t write it that way, and he never sang it that way,” Denver’s brother told the newspaper. “He’d be pissed like I’m pissed. It’s just not right.”
Denver had already experienced and in many ways anticipated future reactions before he died.
“This was obviously done by people who had never seen or been to the Rocky Mountains …” Denver told Congress as part of the Parents Music Resource Center in 1985, according to Eric D. Nuzum’s 2001 book “Parental Advisory: Music Censorship in America.”
The fact that Colorado has successfully pioneered legal, recreational cannabis in Colorado since 2014 is something Denver might have found amusing, given his defense of the lyrics and the fact that openly admitting to smoking pot in the 1970s was still problematic (at best) for a musician, even a top-charting one.
Denver was no saint. Ex-wife Annie Martell said Denver choked her and cut their bed in half with a chainsaw near the end of their marriage (they were divorced in 1982). Denver owned up to that — sort of — in his autobiography “Take me Home,” confirming but toning down the events. He racked up DUIs, including one after crashing his car into a tree in Aspen. Before he died in a plane crash in 1997, he had defied a court order that kept him from flying his plane. (To be sure: there was no evidence of alcohol involvement in his death, according to NTSB public meeting notes.)
Regardless, fans of the song and Denver can mark the 50th anniversary in their owns ways by hiking his newly, so-named trail, learn more about him via the Colorado Music Hall of Fame (cmhof.org), or check out the exhibit on him at Red Rock’s Trading Post (free and open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. every day), where his stately “Spirit” statue now resides. It never stops looking forward.