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'To the place I belong'

Lawrence Pierce
Trees begin to show their fall colors along a winding road in West Virginia, bringing to mind the strains of John Denver's "Take Me Home, Country Roads."
The Associated Press John Denver (right) highlighted opening ceremonies of the new Mountaineer Field on Sept. 8, 1980, as he, Bill Danoff and Taffy Nivert led the crowd in "Country Roads."

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."

Early days

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.

Wedding march

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.

Swiss miss

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.

Childhood memories

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."

Fighting words

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.

Surprised students

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."

No rest for the beery

Mary Rayne, of Elkins, wasn't pleased to hear the song years ago during a backpacking trip in Europe. "One night as I was trying to sleep in a youth hostel that was above a bar in Ghent, Belgium, I heard the entire bar united in singing 'Take Me Home, Country Roads.' At the time I was annoyed, trying to sleep. Now it's just funny," Rayne said.

G'day, Mountain Momma

When a rainforest tour guide in Australia realized Dennis and Suzie Legg, of Wallback, were from West Virginia, he surprised Suzie by calling her a "Mountain Momma." He told her he was learning to play the guitar was working on "Country Roads" and sang some lyrics.

"As with any true Mountaineer, my heart was filled with pride that our unofficial state song had also touched the heart of an Aussie deep in the rainforest of Kuranda, Australia," she said.

Youthful notes

Katie Felitsky's five years singing with Appalachian Children's Chorus included an Irish tour on which she noticed that everyone in Ireland seemed to know "Country Roads."

The chorus recently performed for the United Nations in New York, along with many international groups. "There were many different countries that knew 'Country Roads' as well as I do, such as Tobago, South Africa, Norway, Canada, Luxembourg and Australia. When we had our solo in front of these choirs in Hard Rock Café in New York, the refrain was sang by everyone," said Felitsky, of Scott Depot.

Oompah style

Martha Ranson, of Scott Depot, was visiting her daughter and son-in-law, who was serving at an Army base in Frankfurt, Germany. She heard "Country Roads" twice while she was there -- once at the airport and once in a McDonald's.

"They were speaking German all around. It was nice to hear the song from home," she said.

Erika Collins attended a Volksfest in Germany with her daughters and grandchildren for an oompah band concert. "We were surprised when the first song they played was 'Country Roads.' I don't know if they did this because they heard us speak English or not. It was hilarious and, needless to say, we all sang along with them loudly. This made our day," Collins said.

Fond farewell

"I was in Munich in October of 1996. The last night before heading home we went to the Hofbrauhaus for dinner," said Sherrie Stover, of Charleston. "I was sad about leaving Germany, but when their band started playing 'Country Roads,' I knew it was time to go."

In the Land Down Under

When Billy Joe Peyton, of Charleston, attended the first rugby World Cup in Australia in 1989, he entered a bar in Brisbane to the sounds of "Country Roads" playing on the jukebox. "It brought a smile to my face, and I heartily joined in on the chorus," he said.

He's also heard it in Germany, Tanzania, Peru and Wales, where it is well known.

Welcome back

Steve and Linda Winkel, of Elkview, hadn't been to their large family reunion in Michigan for a few years. When their daughter-in-law's Polish father heard the West Virginia relatives were coming, he worked on a surprise to welcome them.

"He learned the words and to play the song on his guitar. He sang 'Country Roads' in a Polish accent. We loved the way he pronounced the words and that he worked so hard and learned it just for us. We were so pleased," said Linda Winkel of Walter Bilski's rendition of the song.

Asian connection

Linda Myers, of Parkersburg, traveled to China in 1984 with one of the first tour groups allowed in the country. "One of the highlights was visiting an elementary school where they greeted us with John Denver's 'Take Me Home, Country Roads.' At first it was very difficult to know what they were singing until they sang the chorus and then we all knew," Myers said.

Adam Thompson, of Morgantown, studied abroad in China in 2006 in Nanjing. The first time he heard "Country Roads" was from the radio of a passing car. "I was pleasantly surprised hearing it, but what really surprised me was, someone walking past me started singing it," Thompson said.

During his two months in China, he usually heard the song at least once a day -- on the radio, over the public address system in parks and by a Chinese student in a school play.

Jennifer Waggener, of Charleston, said her husband was serenaded with the song at a bar in Beijing. "When I was in high school, my family went to Hawaii. My dad requested it one night at dinner and the whole place broke out in song. It was awesome," said Waggener.

On the high seas

Anne Summers, of Charleston, was on a cruise in the Bahamas when a member of the staff asked her, "Where you from, mon?" When she told him West Virginia, he said, "'Country Roads'? Could I go home with you?"

"I was shocked. We were on a cruise ship in the middle of nowhere, and he knew that song," Summers said.

Lucky lady

Gianna Fioravante, of Charleston, was gambling on the slot machines in Las Vegas when she hit 20 free spins. A man from Rio de Janeiro sitting next to her asked where she was from. She didn't think someone from Rio de Janeiro would have heard of West Virginia, and was surprised when he hopped up on his chair and sang the song at 3 a.m. in the casino.

"He told me, 'Who doesn't know "Country Roads"?' And he did, every word. So not only did I have it performed for me in Nevada but also by someone visiting from a whole different country," said Fioravante.

Ringing in the new year

Bunny Crockett, her husband and friends celebrated the turn of the century with a trip to Greece and Crete. Toward midnight of a New Year's party in a Mediterranean resort, the German band played 'Country Roads.' Crockett, of St. Albans, took the stage and sang along.

"To my heartfelt surprise, all those foreigners joined in. I led the last refrain with tears in my eyes, realizing that everyone in the world loves the song about our love for our home state," said Crockett.

Venetian serenade

A gondolier in Venice crooned the song to Debbie Martin, of League City, Texas, as he steered his gondola through the waterway. At the time, Martin lived in St. Albans and was chaperoning her son's high school trip.

Cancun connection

Anna-Marie Ward and her husband heard the song on their honeymoon in Cancun earlier this year. As the walked into the resort's lobby, the band started playing "Country Roads."

"Total coincidence, but it stopped both of us in our tracks," she said.

First fan?

Carolyn Saul, of Charleston, first heard "Country Roads" 40 years ago on an Illinois radio station. She called the radio station and asked the name of the song and the performer.

"I went to my local record store and asked them to order the 45 for me. I went back a few days later and picked it up. I always felt my little contribution might have helped make it famous," she said.

Longing for home

John Fox, of Renton, Wash., left his West Virginia home in 1961. He returns to visit family here, but not as frequently as he would like.

"When I hear the song I get homesick. But I also get a strong feeling of pride. I see it as Almost Heaven," Fox said. His wife, a Reno, Nevada, native, loves John Denver, and West Virginia by extension, although she'd never visited until they were married 18 years ago. "Her greatest desire was to see the Mountain State."

Kim Rundstrom, of Maine, moved away from West Virginia 17 years ago. "When I hear 'Country Roads,' I literally do get a teardrop in my eye. That song moves me as much as 'The Star-Spangled Banner,'" Rundstrom said. "Beautiful song for a beautiful state."

'Mountain Stage' creator witnessed first performance

Covers of 'Country Roads' range from cute to criminal

'You all want to meet John Denver?'

Dreama Denver pushes to make 'Country Roads' a state song

Reach Julie Robinson at julier@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1230.


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