Few popular music performers have been as polarizing as John Denver was. The man sold tens of millions of albums and was adored by fans of pop, adult contemporary and country. At the same time, he was downright reviled by many rock fans and music critics, especially urban ones, who considered his music bland and soulless and resented his massive success. He was often derided for such songs as the mushy “Annie’s Song” and the almost-goofy “Thank God I’m a Country Boy,” tunes that made him a household name on Top 40 radio but an outcast among supposedly hipper FM listeners and country purists.
Though it didn’t sell as much as songs that would follow, “Rocky Mountain High” may well have been Denver’s most important song. It was embraced by a generation just coming off the Woodstock era, people who were beginning to raise families, who were searching for meaning in nature and perhaps looking for some quieter, less frenetic music. This song about a man in his 20s who finds himself by communing with the outdoors was a welcome relief to those who were tired of FM rock and the somnolence of Roberta Flack, who ruled AM for a couple years. Some stations initially balked at the song because of the line Friends around the campfire and everybody’s high, until programmers realized that Denver was singing about being high on life in the wilderness. The irony was that marijuana smokers who might not have liked Denver for his squeaky-cleanness began to listen to him because they thought he smoked pot (which he admittedly and unabashedly did).
Nashville session guitarist Pete Huttlinger was a member of Denver’s touring band from 1993 until Denver’s death in a plane crash in 1997. “I grew up playing and singing ‘Rocky Mountain High,'” Huttlinger says, “so it was pretty special to play the song with the guy who wrote it while the guy himself was singing it.”
Huttlinger says that Denver was reluctant to talk about his work, preferring to let songs like “Rocky Mountain High,” which was a little abstract for pop music, speak for themselves. “John really didn’t discuss his songs at all,” Huttlinger says. “By the time I joined him he had already talked about them as much as he wanted to. Anytime I asked him what a song meant, he’d ask me, ‘Well, what do you think it means?’ He was one of those writers who didn’t want to shape your opinion about a song by telling you what it meant.”
“I think he wrote about himself in the third person a lot,” Huttlinger says. “In ‘Rocky Mountain High,’ when he sang He climbed cathedral mountains, he saw silver clouds below, I think he was talking about a trip he took to the mountains himself. But then again, who knows? He would never say.”
The song’s opening guitar figure and other parts of the music were actually written by onetime-Denver lead guitarist and collaborator Mike Taylor, who died in North Carolina in 2010. Huttlinger verifies that the key to playing the progression and guitar figure the way they were originally recorded is to play in dropped D tuning with a capo at the second fret, playing from a D chord formation, which puts the song in the correct key of E.
In 2007 “Rocky Mountain High” was named one of the two state songs of Colorado. A new version of the song, performed by up-and-coming soul singer Allen Stone, can be heard on the new ATO Records album The Music Is You: A Tribute to John Denver, which also features Train, Old Crow Medicine Show and other artists. So Denver is finally seeing the respect he was once denied from a new generation that appreciates what he meant to popular music.