|Bill Danoff, pictured here to the left with his former wife Taffy Nivert and John Denver, perform "Take Me Home, Country Roads" at the official dedication of Mountaineer Field in 1980.
|WVU Sports Communications photo
Bill Danoff can’t put a number on how many times he’s been asked to explain how a guy from Massachusetts could write such a beautiful song about a state that he has hardly ever visited.
Danoff, of course, penned the song that all West Virginians, as well as millions of others throughout the world have come to know and love: Take Me Home, Country Roads.
For Danoff, it was a song of his childhood growing up in Springfield, Mass., and of his young adult life making road trips through this part of the country as a Georgetown University student.
“Up in New England you get five minutes out of the city and you are in the country, at least it used to be when I was a kid,” said Danoff from his Washington, D.C. home earlier this week. “It was all dairy farms, turkey farms and stuff like that, with a little mountains in the background. Then I came down here to Georgetown and we would go on drives to Maryland on the weekends and the mountains were much bigger down here.”
Danoff says some of his late 1960s excursions to Western Maryland with his girlfriend (and later first wife Taffy Nivert) provided the genesis for the song, as well as a subsequent trip down Interstate 81 on his way to Roanoke, Va.
“We were driving down Highway 81 and there were the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Shenandoah River,” he recalled. “Up in Springfield, we have the Connecticut River and on one side of the river it’s Springfield and on the other side it’s West Springfield, so I just assumed the other side of the river was West Virginia.”
At the time, Danoff was only 24 when the words to the song were first formulating in his mind. The part that is quintessential West Virginia, to Danoff, is the verse “I hear her voice in the morning hour she calls me, the radio reminds me of my home far away.”
Danoff says that comes directly from his childhood in the 1950s listening to the program Saturday Night Jamboree on Wheeling’s WWVA.
“It was a powerful station and we got it clearly in Springfield at nighttime,” he said. “We used to call it hillbilly music in those days, and I think the people who did it called it hillbilly music, too.”
It was during his subsequent drives to Maryland that the phrase Country Roads began to stick with him.
“I just couldn’t get that phrase out of my head, so that’s where that phrase stems back from,” he said. “My whole life I’ve enjoyed being out for rides on those roads, and I thought this is probably a universal experience.”
Danoff had some other West Virginia associations to draw from as well. He became friends with actor Chris Sarandon, a Beckley native who was once married to actress Susan Sarandon, as well as a group of hippies from a West Virginia commune who used to sit in the front row of the little clubs in which his band used to play.
“They brought their dogs and were a very colorful group of folks, but that is how West Virginia began creeping into the song,” Danoff said. “I didn’t want to write about Massachusetts because I didn’t think the word was musical. And the Bee Gees, of course, had a hit record called Massachusetts, but what did I know?”
Danoff continued to work on the verses to the song, arranging and rearranging them like a jigsaw puzzle until the pieces began to fit. The only unfinished part was the bridge when Danoff first met a guy named John Denver at the Cellar Door - D.C.’s most popular club back in the late 60s. The Cellar Door’s slogan was “The Smallest Room With the Biggest Names” and it was D.C.’s equivalent to the Troubadour in LA, the Bitter End in New York City and the Hungry Eye in San Francisco.
Danoff worked there first as doorman and then as the sound guy before starting his own band.
“That’s where I really learned about show business,” he said. “As the light and soundman you have to watch shows diligently and be alert for all the cues.”
After one show that featured Denver and his band the Mitchell Trio, Danoff hooked up with the young singer backstage and they began to talk.
“We’d close this big black curtain and just hang out,” Danoff said. “We’d sit there and drink beer or whatever people were drinking or doing back then until the wee hours of the morning.”
Later, when Danoff’s group Fat City was becoming popular around the D.C. club scene, local promoters thought it would be a good idea to put Denver and Danoff’s band together to attract larger crowds.
“We drew pretty good crowds and nobody really knew John Denver outside of the Mitchell Trio, so they booked us together at the Cellar Door the week between Christmas and New Year’s, and we ended up packing the place all week with half of our fans and half John’s fans,” he said.
Denver had penned a hit song for the group Peter, Paul and Mary called Leaving on a Jet Plane, but he was searching for some songs to record on a new album that he was making. He liked a song Danoff had written (I’d Guess I’d Rather Be in Colorado) and asked him if he could use it on his album. “Damn right,” Danoff said. "That’s what we’re trying to do (write hit songs).”
One night, following another performance together, Denver was over at Danoff’s Georgetown apartment hanging out and he asked him if he had any other songs to play. Taffy suggested he play the song that he had been working on during their drives out to Western Maryland.
Danoff demurred, explaining that it was too country for Denver. He was actually saving that one for Johnny Cash, even though he didn’t know him at the time.
“(Cash) had a big television show then and he was a huge star and I thought, God, if we can somehow get a song to Johnny Cash we’ve got it made,” said Danoff.
But Taffy was persistent, so Danoff began strumming the melody on his guitar. Denver loved it.
“Did you record it?” Denver asked.
“No, we don’t have a record deal.”
“Well, I have a record deal. Why don’t we record it together on my record?” Denver said.
The bridge to the song was still missing, so the three of them, fueled by a little 60s late-night inspiration, began finishing the song in the living room of Danoff’s apartment. Taffy got out an encyclopedia to learn a little more about West Virginia, and the first thing that came up was the Rhododendron, the state flower, so she kept trying to work the word Rhododendron into the song.
“We didn’t elect to go with that,” Danoff laughed (Rhododendron was actually the title that Taffy had written down on the lyric sheet, which they later sent to ASCAP).
By six in the morning they had the song finished to their satisfaction, and when they first played it they knew they had something pretty special on their hands.
“Years later, people would ask me what John’s contribution to the song was and I remember once doing an interview with someone backstage after a show, and John’s road manager, Kris O’Conner, was there at the time. I asked Kris if he could remember anything John had contributed and he said, ‘Not a damned thing,’” Danoff laughed.
Actually, Danoff believes the phrase “all my memories” has John Denver’s fingerprints all over it.
“He had a song All My Memories so he probably wrote that line because we were tossing out things just to see what would fit,” Danoff said.
Once the song was completed and they had performed it a few times at the Cellar Door to gauge how their fans would respond to it (they loved it) Denver called RCA Studio in New York City to book some time to record the song for the album that was to become known as Poems, Prayers and Promises.
“He told them, ‘I’m bringing up my friends Bill and Taffy because we’ve got a hit record,’” Danoff said.
Bill and Taffy took the train up to New York City, recorded the song with Denver and it eventually hit No. 2 on the Billboard chart in 1971.
||John Denver - Take Me Home, Country Roads
Danoff actually had a bigger hit in 1976 with the song Afternoon Delight from his group The Starland Vocal Band (the song comedian Will Ferrell has since revived in his two Anchorman movies), but even Afternoon Delight hasn’t transcended generations the way Country Roads has.
“When people would ask me if I knew it was going to be a hit, well, I was trying to write hit songs,” said Danoff. “It’s got a great chorus and a nice melody, but I thought it would be a very short-lived hit because it was too localized about West Virginia. But the opposite was true.”
Not only has Country Roads become an anthem for an entire state, to this day the song still has worldwide commercial appeal, Danoff noting that most of the royalty money he receives from the song these days comes from Germany and Austria.
Danoff also witnessed firsthand in 1988 how far-reaching his song has become while on his second honeymoon in Yugoslavia, of all places. The newlyweds were walking back to their hotel in Dubrovnik when they noticed a large outdoor beer garden with some live entertainment going on. They decided to have a nightcap and when the group began another set, the first song they played was Country Roads – HIS SONG!
“It just freaked me out, but they only knew one verse,” Danoff said. “I kept thinking, geez, should I go up there and help them because they are only singing the same verse all the time. So I got up my courage to go and talk to them, and the only guy who spoke any English was the bass player.”
There have been countless other occasions through the years when Danoff has been somewhere and Country Roads comes up on the jukebox and the entire place breaks out into song.
Today, Danoff is aware that West Virginia University students sing Country Roads after all home victories – and that it has also been adopted by a state that he has only been to a handful of times. He says he is genuinely moved to know that West Virginians have attached such great meaning to his song.
In 2010, Danoff watched West Virginia beat his Hoyas for the Big East men’s basketball championship. Naturally, he sank down in his seat a little bit more when Country Roads came on as he watched the Mountaineer players on the floor celebrating their big victory.
“You guys won and they played my song!” he said. “The guys gave me so much (grief) about that - my West Virginia friends and my Georgetown friends – and I said, ‘Well, I’m just going to tell them that the guy who wrote Country Roads is a Hoya!’”
Danoff said the late Denver always loved that song and would usually save it for one of his encore performances during his shows.
“It was his first record that ever got on the charts,” said Danoff. “People associated John Denver with Country Roads. That was the one that kicked him off, and if you mention John Denver around the world they are going to say Country Roads.”
Danoff said the last time he ever saw Denver, about three weeks before his tragic death in plane crash in 1997, he was playing a concert in Baltimore. And this time Denver actually opened his set with Country Roads.
“I thought that was interesting,” Danoff said. “It actually worked beautifully because people aren’t expecting it right off the bat, and it just set the tone for the entire evening.”
As for his references to the Blue Ridge Mountains and Shenandoah River, which, naturally, are more prominent in the state of Virginia than in West Virginia, Danoff has a ready answer.
Of course, he’s been asked this question a million times, too.
“When I first did the song somebody came up to me in a club afterward and he said, ‘Do you know the Blue Ridge Mountains and Shenandoah River really aren’t in West Virginia?’ They are (mostly) in Virginia.’ I said, ‘Well, the guy is going home and he’s going through Virginia on his way to West Virginia’ so that seemed to satisfy him.”
That also explains why Country Roads has such great meaning to those displaced West Virginians who have left the state for one reason or another.
This Friday evening, Danoff will be in Morgantown taking part in Bob Huggins’ annual Fish Fry event that benefits Remember the Miners and its flagship Scholars Program, as well as the Norma Rae Huggins Cancer Research Endowment Fund at WVU’s Mary Babb Randolph Cancer Center.
This year’s event will take place at the Hazel Ruby McQuain Event Center at Morgantown’s Mylan Park. Danoff will receive a proclamation honoring him on behalf of all West Virginians from Secretary of State Natalie E. Tennant.