A leisurely drive on a country road can offer a chance to leave city stresses behind for a while and enjoy nature’s scenic wonders.
Sometimes, though, such a usually ordinary event can prove to be life-changing.
Near the end of 1970, musicians Bill Danoff and his girlfriend and future wife, Taffy Nivert, motored along a picturesque two-lane Maryland highway called Clopper Road. To pass the time, they batted about some lyrics they felt might fit into a melancholy ode for Johnny Cash. When they got to “almost heaven,” Danoff injected the word Massachusetts, which is where he was from. And while Massachusetts did contain four syllables — what Danoff wanted — he thought the state’s name somehow wasn’t “musical” enough. Back home in Washington, D.C., that night, he and Nivert chose a better-flowing state name: West Virginia.
It was a place neither had ever been.
On Dec. 29, 1970, the 163-seat Cellar Door music club in the Georgetown area of Washington, D.C. offered two relatively unknown acts on stage that evening — Danoff and Nivert (who performed as Fat City) and a struggling folkie friend named John Denver. His lone claim to music-world fame was “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” which had become a chart-topping single for Peter, Paul and Mary, but had left Denver’s name unknown to most music fans.
After Fat City and Denver had finished their Cellar Door sets that night, they agreed to rendezvous at Danoff and Nivert’s place for an impromptu jam. At one point, Nivert said to her partner, “Get out that song you’re writing for Johnny Cash.”
Danoff did as he was told and showed Denver the tune that, at the time, consisted only of one chorus and one verse. But Denver was bowled over by what he heard and asked to have first crack at recording it. The three worked throughout the night, Denver adding the bridge and more words of wistful nostalgia. By dawn, they pronounced the future classic finished.
The next night, Denver played his entire set and an encore, but the enthusiastic crowd demanded one more tune. When the applause died down, he told the audience, “We just finished a brand new song, and I haven’t even learned the words yet.” He unfolded a sheet of paper and taped it below the mic head. Danoff came on stage with Denver, his lead guitarist and bass player. The foursome launched into the first public performance of “Take Me Home, Country Roads.”
The audience rose collectively for a thunderous 5-minute standing ovation when the tune ended. That verified to Denver what he had felt since the night before, when he first heard the unfinished song. This one, for sure, is a winner.
One month later, Denver recorded it as an RCA Victor single, with his Fat City friends providing backup. Upon release, the radio-friendly 45 rpm rocketed to No. 2 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart and finally gave Denver the breakout hit for which he had spent years searching.