As he drove down a two-lane road lined with silos, farms and a pasture filled with black-eyed Susans, Bill Danoff says an idea for a song began to bloom.
The spark that late summer day in 1970 would become “Take Me Home (Country Roads)” – a No. 2 hit for John Denver and the globally recognized anthem for West Virginia ever since.
And it happened on Clopper Road in Montgomery County, Md., at a time when Danoff had never so much as driven through the Mountain State.
When the words “country roads” popped into his head, he was thinking instead of his childhood in Springfield, Mass.
“I thought that would be a pretty song,” Danoff explained in an interview from his D.C. home. “I was thinking of my own experience and that a lot of people could share that – traveling down these country roads.”
The song that begins “Almost heaven, West Virginia” is special to all West Virginians, but it hits home for residents of the Eastern Panhandle in particular.
It famously describes the state’s Blue Ridge Mountains and Shenandoah River – geographic features found just in this small corner of West Virginia.
It was weeks after the idea for the song first came to him that Danoff began to play around with thoughts of West Virginia. That inspiration came during the drive down Interstate 81 to Roanoke, Va., where he had a singing gig.
Seeing the Shenandoah reminded Danoff of the Connecticut River, which serves as a border between Connecticut and Massachusetts.
“I just assumed this river was the boundary between the states,” Danoff said. “I was on the Virginia side and the other side was West Virginia. Of course, that was not correct, but it made me think I had been to West Virginia.
“And so the summer went on, getting into fall, and I was fooling with this song and adding lines. It’s like birds building a nest, bringing a little bit at a time.”
As Danoff continued to work on his “Country Roads” idea, he envisioned the tune as ideal for Johnny Cash, who at the time hosted a TV variety show on ABC.
Danoff then was working at Georgetown’s Cellar Door as a doorman who also handled lights and sound. The byproduct of the work was the opportunity to see shows by a range of rising and established artists, including Joni Mitchell, Judy Collins, Steve Martin and Jay Leno, even Thelonious Monk and other legends.
Sometimes he and Taffy Nivert, then his girlfriend and later his wife, would take the stage as Fat City.
“It was a cool thing,” Danoff said. “You had to watch every show in its entirety so you could make color changes, highlight solos. I did that for a couple of years and got to see all the great acts. That’s where I learned to perform.”
During that time, Danoff got to know Denver, a folk singer who had just left the Chad Mitchell Trio. In 1969, a song Denver had penned, “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” had become an enormous hit for Peter, Paul & Mary, and the New Mexico-born singer was on the rise.
“That gave John a few bucks and that enabled him to go and travel as a solo act,” Danoff said. “So he was getting ready to do an album and he came into town. He was visiting someone and the roommate brought him to the bar where Taffy and I were playing.”
Denver liked the duo’s work and a friendship took hold as he worked to select songs for “Poems, Prayers and Promises,” his album scheduled for release in early 1971.
Then, on a fateful night just before New Year’s, a mishap led to a brand-new song for the album, a hit that would boost the careers of not only Denver but also Danoff and Nivert, who would go on to form the Starland Vocal Band and have the No. 1 hit, “Afternoon Delight” in 1976.
Fittingly, the path that brought the completion of “Country Roads” began on the road. As Denver accompanied a Cellar Door employee to the bank to make the night deposit, a fender bender left him with a broken thumb.
A few hours later, Danoff remembers, he and Nivert found themselves up in the middle of the night with Denver, wide-awake on painkillers after a trip to the emergency room.
“He said, ‘Play something,’” remembered Danoff, who started to perform the song about country roads he’d been working on.
Denver liked what he heard.
“[He said], ‘Wow, golly, that’s far out! That’s a great song! That’s a hit song.’”
He asked Danoff and Nivert if they’d recorded the tune. “I said, ‘We don’t have a record deal.’ And he said, ‘I’ve got a record deal. I’d love to do that song.’”
First, they had to finish it.
The three began to work on the second verse, which starts off with, “All my memories gathered ’round her.”
“At that point, it was like doing a crossword puzzle, coming up with the words and filling in the lines,” Danoff said. “I knew where the spaces were. I never had been to West Virginia and Taffy had been through it on her way to college, so we started throwing out anything we could think of that had to do with West Virginia.”
Finally, at 6 in the morning, the trio considered the song finished and gave it a trial run, with a pleased Denver using the fingers on his good hand to snap along.
“It just sounded terrific,” Danoff said.
The three didn’t wait long to share the finished product. That very night, after Denver played his set at the Cellar Door, he brought on Danoff and Nivert and “Take Me Home, Country Roads” had its introduction to the world.
“The crowd just loved it,” he remembered.
Not long after “Take Me Home” became a huge hit, a woman approached Danoff in Washington and informed him that she knew just where the muse had struck him.
“She said, ‘We found the exact spot you must have been when you wrote ‘Country Roads,’” Danoff said. “I didn’t have the heart to tell her it was in a basement apartment three blocks away. So I said, ‘Where was this?’ And she said, ‘Harpers Ferry, West Virginia.’”
That led Danoff and Nivert to drive to Harpers Ferry to check it out. When they got there, Bill waded in the waters of the Shenandoah River and took in the breathtaking scene of the nearby Blue Ridge Mountains.
“Walking back up to town, I passed a group of girls sitting on some blankets for a picnic. They had a couple guitars and as I walked by them, they were singing, ‘Country Roads.’”
The girls had no idea that the songwriter was standing right there.
“I stopped to listen a bit with a tear in my eye.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: West Virginia native Mary Wade Burnside, once a journalist based in Charles Town, now lives in Fairmont, where she works as a reporter, editor and freelance writer. Send feedback on this column and ideas for future “Happy 150!” ideas to the Spirit’s editor, Robert Snyder, at email@example.com.
1971 tune still a hit all over the globe
MARY WADE BURNSIDE Special to the Spirit
“Almost heaven, West Jamaica”?
That’s the first line in Toots & the Maytals’ adaptation of “Take Me Home, Country Roads.”
And that’s just fine with the song’s creator Bill Danoff.
Iconic Hawaiian singer Israel “IZ” Kamakawiwo’ole, known for his sweet, ukulele-driven “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” also took a crack at “Country Roads,” changing the song to reflect his homeland, West Makaha, a part of Honolulu.
Danoff calls that interpretation “a cool one.”
“I love when other artists do my songs,” he said. “When they change them around a little to make them more personal for their audience, I think it’s flattering. There are so many versions in many other languages.”
For instance, you can search “Siva Pot” on You Tube to hear “Country Roads” in Slovenian.
Danoff knows firsthand that his song hits home with other people, some of whom, like him, do not have a close association with West Virginia.
Once, a fellow parent at his son’s school told him how much “Take Me Home” meant to her and how she had grown up singing it on the beach by a huge bonfire.
The woman turned out to be from Papua, New Guinea.
The song is popular in Japan, as evidenced by Olivia Newton-John’s version as well as one by Japanese-Brazilian bossa nova singer Lisa Ono.
The cover that moved Danoff most was by Ray Charles, whose version appeared on the 1972 album, “A Message From The People.”
“ When I heard his voice sing my song, I cried. It was unbelievable.”
Younger generations still show an interest. Carrie Underwood performed it during her 2010 Play On Tour.
“Country Roads” has been sampled on such diverse TV shows as “The Office,” “The Sopranos” and “Dharma and Greg” and even was a plot point in an animated Japanese film, “Whisper of the Heart.”
Danoff has given a lot of thought to the worldwide appeal of his song and has come up with a theory:
“If you write something universal, it doesn’t mean anything to anybody. By making something specific, it can be more universal. People can draw from it what they need to.”