RELATED: Covers of "Take Me Home, Country Roads," from the cute to the criminal.
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- John Denver probably knew his popularity in West Virginia would soar when he recorded "Take Me Home, Country Roads" more than 40 years ago. The poignant lyrics about the timeless beauty and character of the oft-maligned Mountain State really did bring teardrops to the eyes of those who loved her.
But who knew how popular the song would be outside the state. Way outside the state, as in other continents.
Our request for readers' stories about where they'd heard the song brought responses ranging from baggage claim in a Chinese airport, by a gondolier in Venice, in an amusement park in Australia and on a boat in Mexico. They heard it sung in the lobby of a hotels in Switzerland and Cancun, at a German football game and in bars all over the world. Lots of bars.
Sometimes the song would be played coincidentally as background music over a public address system or on a radio station, surprising West Virginians traveling abroad. More often, it was sung by friendly hosts in foreign countries in response to the answer to the question "Where are you from?" And they'd launch into "Almost heaven ..."
Its emotional appeal to anyone who calls West Virginia home has prompted its singing at funerals and weddings. It's played before and after West Virginia University football games.
WVU's Mountaineer Marching Band introduced "Take Me Home, Country Roads" into the pregame routine in 1972, one year after John Denver recorded it. Dr. James Miltenberger composed the arrangement, which is still performed by the band today.
"It's been a staple of pregame ever since," said WVU Director of Bands John Hendricks.
Hendricks was in the marching band in 1980 when John Denver stood on the field and sang "Country Roads" to dedicate the newly constructed football stadium.
"It was great. He sang it while the band formed the outline of the state of West Virginia. It was a special way to open the stadium," said Hendricks.
Today, crowds remaining after home football games sing every verse, some fueled, perhaps, by the misty taste of moonshine.
"It means so much to the people of the state. It's amazing that wherever you go, you find people that know that song. It may not mean as much to them as it does to West Virginians, but they know it. It's an enjoyable song that's fun to sing," Hendricks said.
Road to the song?
Bill Lester, of Prosperity, was attending Concord University in 1970 when he heard his first reference to John Denver. His roommate Steve Finley, formerly of Charleston, returned to their dorm room after a late-night stint at the student center, where up-and-coming musicians frequently performed.
Finley and some friends invited the featured musician to share a few drinks after the performance. Enjoying his evening with Finley and friends, the singer said, "You know this is really a neat place. I ought to write a song about it."
Bill Danoff, Taffy Nivert and Denver wrote the song.
Lester doubted his friend's late-night story until he was listening to the radio six months later. "I hear someone singing about 'mountain momma' and moonshine and thought, Oh my God, I had the opportunity to meet the guy who sang 'Country Roads' and I missed it," Lester said. "I wish I'd been there."
Steve Finley lives in Akron, Ohio, now, and remembers a little differently some of the details of the story his former roommate tells, but confirms that he and his friends did take Denver out for a few beers after the performance.
"He was quite talented, obviously, and a down-to-earth country boy," Finley said. "He was a fabulous performer."
Parris and Patricia Maynard, of Ripley, were dining in a German restaurant in Connecticut featuring a strolling accordionist playing German and Alpine music. "That really made our day" when he began playing "Country Roads," Patricia Maynard said.
When she lived in Michigan, Maynard once heard a young John Denver interviewed. He spoke about a new song he was preparing to record and he sang a bit of "Country Roads."
"I was so moved by it and always knew from that point on that someday those country roads would bring us home. We've been back home for 16 years and have seen a lot of places, but none as special as our 'Almost Heaven, West Virginia,'" she said.
Make new friends
Rachel Coffman, of Charleston, recently traveled with 27 strangers from around the world who were excited to know she was from the place they knew from the song "Country Roads." They serenaded her.
"It was awesome to be over 5,000 miles from home and still feel so close to home, but that's what 'Country Roads' is -- a reminder of how special these mountains are, no matter where you are," Coffman said.
Adopted Irish anthem?
Harold Edwards, of Charleston, was in a pub in Tralee, Ireland, that advertised traditional Irish music. "'Country Roads' was the second song the musicians played," he said.
Bob and Jean Schumacher had a similar experience in southern Ireland as they walked past a small pub and heard a guitarist singing "Country Roads." Their daughter rushed into the pub and sang along with the musician. She told him they were from West Virginia and were pleased and surprised to hear the song of their homeland.
"It's not John Denver's 'Country Roads.' It belongs to us. We've sort of adopted it as another national anthem," the singer replied.
Hearing "Country Roads" at her 1983 wedding reception in Philadelphia surprised Mary Crigger, of Charleston. "At some point during the reception, someone quietly requested that the band play the song. Before I knew it, dozens of West Virginia ball caps were distributed and the dance floor was filled with West Virginians and West Virginia wannabes. The reception had been hijacked, but in the best of ways," Crigger said.
Streets of San Francisco
Caryn Gresham, of Charleston, and some friends rode a streetcar in San Francisco to its famous pier, where they disembarked to a familiar song. "A blind man was playing John Denver's song on a guitar. To our surprise, the entire streetcar burst into song -- in English, Japanese, French, German and maybe a few other languages," Gresham said.
Dave and Patti Hamilton, of Charleston, were in Zurich, Switzerland, enjoying fondue and live music from an oompah band. As she chatted with a group of young South Africans, the Swiss German-speaking band broke into "Country Roads" in English.
Their new friends were excited for the Hamiltons and danced and sang along. Soon all the bar patrons joined in. "After the band finished their set, I spoke to the lead singer and tried to tell her I was from West Virginia and loved their version of the song. She clearly had no idea what I was talking about, as they sang it completely phonetically," Patti Hamilton said. "I didn't realize until telling this story to others that this is a worldwide phenomenon."
Steve Crislip and his wife, of Charleston, also heard an unexpected chorus of "Country Roads" in Switzerland. As they stepped into their hotel lobby in Zermatt, "the German-speaking DJ said 'John Denver' and then proceeded to play 'Country Roads.' It is hard to organize that kind of entrance," Crislip said.
Behind the Iron Curtain
John and Jo Ellen Yeary, of South Charleston, honeymooned in Vienna in 1984 and ventured into Budapest, Hungary, for a tour behind the Iron Curtain. As they walked above the Danube River, they saw two young Hungarian folksingers and were astounded when they sang "Country Roads."
On a visit 18 years later, they told a tour guide in Budapest the story and he told them "Country Roads" was a protest song during the Communist era.
In 2002, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Yearys also heard "Country Roads" at an NFL Europe League football game in what had been East Berlin. The German fans were loudly enthusiastic about American football and all sang along when "Country Roads" was played over the loudspeaker at half time.
Arianna Kincaid, of Charleston, moved back and forth between Indiana and West Virginia when she was a child. In fifth grade, she attended Girl Scout camp in Indiana where the girls gathered around a campfire for a sing-along. All the girls sang "Country Roads," prompting Kincaid's first song-inspired teardrops.
"I was thinking, 'Hey, I used to live there! This is my song!' and was singing along enthusiastically, not even using the songbook like others were," Kincaid said. "When we got to the bridge, 'I hear her voice, in the mornin' hours she calls me ...,' I just started bawling. It's so wistful and longing. Even if someone's not from West Virginia, they can identify with that feeling."
One of Kincaid's adult experiences with "County Roads" happened at a Charleston bar when a band was playing a punk/ska version of the song. The entire audience yelled the lyrics along with the band, much to the disgust of the headliner band, from Iowa, whose members were sitting off to the side and rolling their eyes.
"A friend of mine turned and asked one of them, 'How many songs are there that people sing about Iowa?' They backed off the mocking pretty quickly," Kincaid said.
While studying abroad in England in 2010, Erika Smith, of Parsons, traveled with some friends throughout Europe during spring break. One evening in Florence, they stopped to listen to a man playing acoustic guitar and singing in a busy square.
"I took my chances and requested 'Country Roads.' He jumped on the request without hesitation," she said. Smith and her friends were surprised when all the people on the street sang along. "Such a beautiful and proud moment for us."