The Working Waterfront

John Denver: No longer a guilty pleasure

Songs that Dad passed onto me live on in my heart

Kris Osgood
Posted 2015-11-23
Last Modified 2015-11-23

Back in October, I took my dad to see the Portland Symphony’s tribute to John Denver. We were celebrating his birthday a little bit early before he went back to California, where I grew up, for the winter. Thanks to my dad, I have been a lifelong John Denver fan, though until now I have been reluctant to admit it. Going to this concert made me realize that I have finally reached the point in my life when I am beyond caring what other people think of my idiosyncrasies.

My love of John Denver’s music began before I can even remember. When I was very young, my father would retire to the living room after supper and play John Denver records while he worked in his chair. I listened to the music and danced around the room, unconsciously memorizing the lyrics to every song.

When I was in first grade my parents took me to the local university to see John Denver in concert—my first real concert. I remember “riding on my daddy’s shoulders” through the dark crowds of people, much like Denver’s uncle did in the song “Matthew.” I was up way past my bedtime, but this was a special occasion, one that made a life-long impression.

Each June, our family left California and headed east for the summer. We’d fly to whichever locale would get us most easily to my grandparents’ house in Vermont where our old station wagon was waiting for us. After a few days visit, we’d pile into the wagon and drive up to Maine. It wouldn’t take long for my mom to reach under the front seat and dig out a John Denver cassette for us to listen to on the drive. By now we all knew the words, even my little sisters.

Eventually I reached junior high school and the age of 1980s pop. While my friends and I listened to Madonna, Michael Jackson and Billy Idol, I still held a quiet, secret place in my listening library for my favorite Country Boy. I got a Walkman, and when I asked for a John Denver tape for Christmas or my birthday I knew I would not be disappointed. However, unlike my collection of Top 40 music, those tapes would reside behind closed cupboard doors so that my friends would be sure not to see them when they came over. Junior high is a time in one’s life when there is incredible pressure to fit in and to try to be cool. Singing songs about “Grandma’s Feather Bed” is not cool.

High school found me singing “The Eagle and the Hawk” quietly to myself as I walked home from school each day. I waited until no one was around, singing just to prove I was not as vocally challenged as some might think.      

We continued to spend our summers in Maine, and each year when the season came to an end, “Leaving on a Jet Plane” would come to mind and make me sad. And when I was back on the west coast, hearing “Calypso” would always remind this California girl of her island summer home.

Now that I have made that island my year-round home, I can find many similarities between the country life Denver sings about and rural island life. I find myself changing his lyrics from “my days are all filled with an easy country charm” to “an easy island charm.”

When the news of John Denver’s fatal plane crash came in 1997, I was devastated. So when the opportunity arose to hear his music again, live at the PSO, I knew I had to take it, and I knew my dad would love to come too. While no one will ever match John Denver’s lilting tenor, vocalist Mike Eldred was successful in bringing tears to our eyes as we reminisced and sang along with him.

And now that the holiday season is upon us, I am reminded that John Denver and the Muppets, A Christmas Together was always one of my favorite Christmas albums growing up. Maybe it’s a good year to download it and share it with my kids.

Kris Osgood lives on Vinalhaven with her family.