Did West Virginia Inspire 'Country Roads'? 50 Years Later, Here's What We Know
One night in 1970, Bill Danoff and his then-girlfriend Taffy Nivert were hanging out with John Denver, and they played a few verses from a song they’d been working on. Denver immediately said he wanted to record it.
“It was sort of like an old movie,” Danoff recalled in a 2010 interview with the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame. “You know, ‘why don't we all do it together?’ And I said, ‘okay, well, we got to finish it.’ He said, ‘well, let's finish it.’”
The three of them -- Danoff, Nivert and Denver -- stayed up all night finishing the song. Knowing little about the state, Nivert pulled out an encyclopedia and looked up West Virginia.
“We kept just throwing out lines,” Danoff said. “And then we'd write down the ones that seemed to fit.”
They played “Country Roads” the next night, at The Cellar Door, an iconic intimate venue in Washington D.C.
“The people clapped for about five minutes straight,” Danoff said. “First time they'd ever heard the song. And you knew you had something because that doesn't, that just doesn't happen, you know?”
One of those in the audience was Andy Ridenour, who at the time was a student at Concord College (now Concord University), in southern West Virginia.
“I was on holiday break between Christmas and New Year’s, along with some friends from West Virginia. We all went nuts, with our West Virginia connection. Quite frankly everybody went nuts.”
This wasn’t the first time Ridenour had seen Denver play. A couple months prior to the show at The Cellar Door, Denver played at Concord College. Ridenour believes Denver’s trip to the small town of Athens, West Virginia may have helped spark the hit single.
“He and his band flew into Roanoke, Virginia, and they had to drive over on old US 460,” Ridenour said. “A lot of it was two-lane roads, running parallel to the New River. And when John and his band got out of the car, they commented on the roads. They were happy to have safely arrived.”
When “Country Roads” was released the following year, Ridenour said Denver sent an autographed copy of the album to the Concord radio station. “He said, ‘thanks for the inspiration.’”
The song has been a worldwide anthem since its release in April 1971, and it’s one of the things people across the globe connect with West Virginia. But there’s a debate about whether the song was really even written about the state. The opening verse mentions the Blue Ridge Mountains, and the Shenandoah River, two geographical features that are mostly associated with Western Maryland and Virginia. While the river and mountains do touch a small portion of West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle, Danoff said he wrote most of the song during a drive through rural Maryland.
“I was just driving out in Western Maryland, and it was kind of countryside that reminded me of my home upbringing in Western New England.”
But Danoff said he does have a connection to West Virginia. Growing up, he spent many evenings listening to the Wheeling Jamboree from WWVA.
“In the bridge of that song. there's a there's a line: ‘I hear her voice in the morning hour she calls me/ the radio reminds me of my home far away/ and riding down the road I get a feeling I should have been home yesterday.’”
“I'm thinking of that radio,” Danoff explained. “I'm thinking of WWVA and heading toward that that radio signal. So there really was a kind of an early and subconscious connection.”
And as for the geographical issue, when somebody pointed that out, Danoff came up with this answer, on the fly. “So I thought about it and I said, ‘well, the guy's going home to West Virginia. He's going through Virginia, and he's passing the Blue Ridge Mountains in the Shenandoah River.’”
These details don’t seem to bother most West Virginians.
“I think that we excuse it,” said Sarah Morris, an English professor at West Virginia University who is writing a book about “Country Roads.” She’s scoured the internet and read dozens of threads. People all over the world debate what this song is really about, and which state really gets to claim it.
“And lots of places across the world want to own it, which is why we see bands and musicians taking it up and changing the lyrics to match their homes,” Morris said.
The song “Country Roads” has been recorded in at least 19 different languages, and in countless different arrangements, including the Toots and the Maytails’ version “West Jamaica.” That bands’ lead singer recently died of COVID-19.
But nobody owns the anthem more than West Virginians. The state bought the rights to the song so they could use it to promote tourism. West Virginia University plays it whenever they win a football or basketball game.
When West Virginia Public Broadcasting out a call out on social media, asking people to share stories about this song, and what it means to them, we were flooded with emails from people like Stephanie Ostrowski, of Martinsburg, W.Va., who played “Country Roads” as the last song at her wedding. “Actually it’s become a tradition with a lot of our friends. Everyone gets arm at arm together and sings ‘Country Roads.’ It’s a great way to end the night.”
And Michael Rubin, who lives in Harpers Ferry W.Va., who recalled begging his father to buy the 8 track so they could play it in the car.
Frank Saporito of Wheeling said the song inspired him as a teenager to save all the money he earned so he could afford the same guitar that John Denver played.
Sarah Morris said this song is emblematic of a nostalgia for the past, and a desire for something just out of reach. These themes resonate strongly with many folks from West Virginia.
“There was this huge outmigration of West Virginians to work in industries in the 60s. West Virginia, per capita, lost more people in the Vietnam War than any other state. All of that was happening right around the time the song was released. So there was this overall mood of homesickness, not just for West Virginians, but also for our country. So the song was born into that.”
Homesickness is universal. Maybe that’s why it resonates with people all over the world. Morris compares it to a concept in Welch culture known as “Hiraeth.”
“It's this deep, internal, fundamental longing for a place we can never go. And I think there's an element of that in country roads, too.”
Morris said “Country Roads” is maybe about a longing for a place that never really existed in the first place. A place that our memories changed over the years.
And during the pandemic, that nostalgia has grown even stronger for some people, like Sonya Shafer. She left West Virginia right after high school. She’s traveled the world for work. Lately though, that work has all been remote. So she felt the urge to come back.
“I could feel the magnetic pull taking me taking me back, asking me why I left asking me why I'm not home, asking me why I'm not in West Virginia.”
Shafer hired movers to bring her stuff across the country from L.A. and bought a one-way ticket to Lewisburg, West Virginia, where she grew up. At the airport she recorded an audio memo, in between flights that were taking her home, in which
“Today’s the day I’m on layover here in O’Hare [airport in Chicago] with my cat. Really it’s ‘Country Roads,’ take me home. I’m going home. It’s been a long time coming, and I slept in an empty apartment last night and actually played the song a few times.”
Two weeks after the move, Shafer said returning to West Virginia has been everything she’d hoped. She takes a walk to a nearby creek every day-- and she’s enjoying being called “honey” and “darlin.” And when she called the DMV to get her new license plate, she said her heart flooded with emotion when she heard the hold music, “Take Me Home, Country Roads.”