It’s been recorded and performed by hundreds of artists around the world. It’s been written about for decades. "Take Me Home, Country Roads" was John Denver’s first big hit and became both his signature song and West Virginia's state song.
Like many great songs, there are great stories behind the song as well. Some true, some not so true and some you may have never heard.
Was the song originally inspired by and written for Johnny Cash?
Was the song originally titled "Take Me Home, Clopper Road," inspired by a Maryland road of the same name?
What happened to the original second verse about naked ladies and Jesus?
Bill Danoff, the song's co-writer, is setting the record straight on those questions and more.
A sold-out crowd packed into the tiny Cellar Door nightclub in Washington, D.C., on Dec. 30, 1970. It was the fifth night of a week-long stint for John Denver. The opening act was Fat City, a Georgetown-based band that featured Bill Danoff and his then-wife, Taffy Nivert Danoff.
Bill Danoff had been a doorman at the Cellar Door, and then the lighting and sound tech for years, before he ever performed at the club at the corner of 34th and M streets NW.
“Nobody at the club knew I sang or played anything,” Danoff recalled 50 years later.
The couple would later go on to become half of the Grammy-winning Starland Vocal Band.
But in the late 1960s, the two were struggling songwriters living in a basement apartment on Q Street NW in Georgetown. Their first gigs were at house parties before taking the stage at the short-lived Emergency Club on M Street.
Danoff knew Denver from his times appearing at the Cellar Door, first with the Mitchell Trio and later as a solo act. Denver had already recorded one of Danoff’s songs, "I Guess He’d Rather Be In Colorado," when Denver was booked for New Year’s Eve week at the Cellar Door with Fat City as the opening act.
Denver was looking for more material for an upcoming record for RCA. After the fourth night at the Cellar Door, Denver, the Danoffs and a few friends planned to meet back at the couple's basement to try out some new songs.
Denver didn’t show up.
“After an hour they weren’t there and we were worried,” Danoff recalled.
Then a phone call came from the emergency room of the George Washington University Hospital.
“They’d been in an accident,” Danoff said. "John whacked his hand and broke his thumb on the windshield.” Another passenger broke several of her ribs.
Despite the broken thumb, Denver went straight from the emergency room to Danoff’s home.
“We had some beers and whatever else we were serving at the time,” Danoff recalled with a smile.
Danoff admits that he was eager to get a hit song. But at that point, he hadn’t had any luck.
“I’ve been writing a couple years in the basement, songs I thought sounded like hit songs; unfortunately, people at the record company and nobody else did,” Danoff says.
Taffy suggested they sing "Country Roads" for Denver. Bill didn’t want to. The song wasn’t finished, and he thought it was too country for Denver.
Bill and Taffy had hoped Johnny Cash might want to record it. They didn’t know Cash, but his music influenced the song nonetheless.
“What I liked about the Johnny Cash records, when he came on, they did that same chord and it had a whole lot [of] power,” Danoff said. He reversed the chords and struck gold. “Wow, that’s really cool; that’s like rock 'n' roll, so almost heaven [in] West Virginia.”
Of course, Danoff did play it for Denver, and the three stayed up the rest of the night putting the finishing touches on it.
"John's incredible energy was what made it happen. Left to my own devices, I would have had another beer and played another song," Danoff admitted.
“It took John, who was a ball of fire in those days, to say, 'Well, let's do it now, like an old Mickey Rooney movie; let's put on a show!” Danoff said.
Danoff said that by the end of the night, they all felt like they had a hit song.
“That sounded to me like a hit song when we were writing it: The words were pretty; the chorus was nice; it felt good to sing,” he said.
There was a verse in the original song that Danoff thought would keep it from making the pop charts.
“To get it on the radio, we're going to have to change the second verse,” Danoff said knowingly, “because the second verse wouldn’t make it on AM radio at the time.”
The lyrics that Danoff thought would be too colorful for 1970s radio were as follows:
In the foothills,
Hidin’ from the clouds,
Pink and purple,
West Virginia farm house,
Men who look like Christ,
And a dog named Poncho nibbling on the rice,
The next night at the Cellar Door, on Dec. 30, 1970, Denver called Bill and Taffy to the stage for an encore, where they performed the finished version of "Take Me Home, Country Roads" in public for the first time.
A few days later they were in the studio recording the song. Danoff had to play the lead guitar because of Denver’s broken thumb.
As for the inspiration for the lyrics, Danoff confirms Clopper Road, which runs through Montgomery County, played a significant role. However, Danoff puts to rest the myth that the song was originally called "Take Me Home, Clopper Road."
“Ok, that's gained a lot of popularity around here, but it's not true.” Danoff said.
He and Taffy were driving to a family gathering, with Taffy behind the wheel while Bill played his guitar. Driving over scenic Clopper Road did in fact inspire the title line.
“I just started thinking, country roads, I started thinking of me growing up in western new England and going on all these small roads," Danoff said. "It didn’t have anything to do with Maryland or anyplace.”
Danoff compares his writing process to filing out a crossword puzzle, and trying to find words and lines that fit. Over time he and Taffy would add lines.
“I’m a songwriter. I was looking for words. The words that I loved in that song were Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah River. They’re songwriter words, so that got me to West Virginia," he said.
At the time, Danoff had never been to West Virginia, although he has since been to West Virginia several times and even waded into the Shenandoah River. He’s even proud to have been named an honorary West Virginian -- but the Georgetown University graduate says there are times he doesn’t love hearing the song.
“When West Virginia [Mountaineers] plays the Hoyas in basketball, when they beat us they play my song,” he said.
While he might not like hearing the Mountaineers sing his song, there is one version of which he’s particularly proud.
“Ray Charles,” he said, as his voice cracks as if to hold back a tear. “That broke my heart. Ray Charles is incredible, he’s an idol – he sings one of your songs, it's pretty good.”
Pretty good indeed.