John Denver wrote and sang some of the American countryside’s most famous ballads, but while his songs sang life’s praises, his own life often withered behind the scenes.
1. He Couldn’t Find His Place
Denver had a traditionally strong family unit with his father, mother, and younger brother all in the picture. Unfortunately, though, his father’s “stable” US Air Force job made for a very unstable childhood. He spent his childhood being relocated over and over again. But that didn’t end up being the only obstacle in his way.
2. He Had Daddy Issues
In later reports, Denver actually deemed his father incapable of expressing love to him and his brother in their youth. His father kept the family in order with strict rules, and his oldest son often isolated himself as a result. By his junior year in high school, things got so bad for Denver that he made a drastic decision.
3. He Made A Run For It
The teenager took his father’s car and ran off to California. He had family there, but he’d also begun playing guitar and wanted to pursue his career. He didn’t get too far, though. His father literally flew out to bring him home himself. He reluctantly returned to his schooling—but it wasn't long before his father couldn’t hold him back anymore.
4. He Went Big Time
Denver made his official move in 1963, dropping out of college and moving to Los Angeles. Without his father obliged to come get him this time, he found his own gigs and went to work making a name for himself playing in clubs. Not too long after his move, he found his way into a rising music group, but not without a cost.
5. They Changed Him
John Denver's first big chance came with the folk music group The New Christy Minstrels. Denver did well on stage, but they found one issue with him—his name. While John Denver is the name we know him by now, his parents named him John Deutschendorf Jr. In our contemporary times, it’s easy for us to see why that might not work. For him then? Not so much.
6. He Fought Back
All daddy issues aside, Denver reportedly pushed back on changing his name. The group insisted, though, stating simple facts—his name didn’t fit on their sign. “Denver” came from the name of a song they were working on at the time, and it stuck. He continued his work with them until a major career move thrust him into an unusual place in the spotlight.
7. He Got Political
Just two years after his move to Cali, Denver became a member of The Chad Mitchell Trio. The music group specialized in satirical songs that poked fun at politically conservative ideals, groups, and icons. While he probably didn’t make many conservative friends during that time, he did make a connection that changed his course entirely.
8. He Saw Her From Afar
Denver first laid eyes on college sophomore Annie Martell in the mid 1960s during a concert The Chad Mitchell Trio played at her university in Minnesota. He didn’t have instagram or facebook to work with back then, but he seemingly got up to some serious sleuthing. They didn’t talk in person, but Martell received a letter from him about three weeks later.
9. He Played The Long Game
In the letter, Denver asked to get together with Martell for a chat when he came back into town. Judging from the scenic lyrics that eventually made him famous, I’m guessing he added something romantic and enthralling in there. There’s no clear evidence of that, but either way, he delivered on that request one year later.
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10. He Met His Match
Denver didn’t forget about Martell when he was away. When he returned to Minnesota, he called Martell up and swept her off her feet. In what likely felt like a whirlwind for the two, still in their very early twenties, they married the very next year. With his new partner on his arm, he turned his full attention to the crazy grind it took to make it in music.
11. He Wanted The Limelight
Life with the Chad Mitchell Trio continued for Denver, but seemingly became less satisfying as time went on. He began writing more music, and even put together his own album in 1967. Without a record deal for distribution, he sent it out himself as a Christmas gift to his loved ones. It came at a sad time, for both his family and the nation.
12. He Didn’t Say Goodbye
A few years had already passed since the United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War began when it touched Denver directly. His younger brother got sent out to join the troops in 1968. Denver, however, didn’t wish his brother farewell. Instead, he performed at a peace concert while his brother shipped out.
He’d started to make his own way, regardless of the optics.
13. He Did His Own Thing
Two years after his marriage, Denver decided to officially hit the road on his own. He left the band, and did his own gigs while in search of management and a record deal. Just about that time, one song on his self-made album got into the right hands. The song, “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” topped the music charts at the end of the 1960’s. It didn’t make things easy, though.
14. He Struck Out
Denver worked with his producer at the time, Milt Okun, to find a record company willing to sign him. Rock began to grow in popularity around that time. Thusly many record companies turned their nose up at the singer-songwriter, everything but a rock star. Eventually, though, he found himself in the right place at the right time.
15. He Got His Chance
RCA Records signed Denver in 1969, and produced his first (non self-made) album, Rhymes and Reasons. It featured his first big hit, as well as other pieces he wrote. Unfortunately for him, his contract with the company didn’t automatically mean he had it made. He still found himself hustling for every opportunity he could get his hands on.
16. He Did It Himself
Denver did his own promotion for the album. He set up his tour, finding local spots across the Midwest to let him play his music live. He handed out his posters and set up his interviews. That kind of ground work could discourage anyone, especially when he might’ve expected that support from his record deal. Eventually, though, his grind paid off.
17. He Hit It Big
Denver built up his community of folk music fans. When he published his next album in 1971, Poems, Prayers & Promises, his single “Take Me Home, Country Road” skyrocketed up the charts. He followed up with another album, Rocky Mountain High, featuring a single of the same title. It caused quite the stir, though not necessarily in the best way.
18. They Censored Him
Some critics insisted the “high” in the nature ballad referred to the use of illicit substances. That wouldn’t make a ripple in today’s music economy, but in the 1970s, some radio stations refused to play it for that very reason. The song still succeeded commercially, even though some big names didn’t care for him much.
19. He Made A Scene
Among several other awards, Denver won Entertainer of the Year at the CMAs in 1975. Singer Charlie Rich presented the award, though only after reading Denver’s name on the slip of paper and setting it on fire. Some claim he did so because Denver didn’t seem like a traditional “country” artist.
This might have been the least of Denver’s worries, though.
20. Things Got Sour
His speedy romance and wedding aside, life for Denver and his young wife had to carry on under the weight of his unexpectedly quick rise to fame. Like many young couples, they exchanged their fair share of disagreements. After making up following one of these squabbles in the mid 1970s, Denver wrote one of his all time most famous songs.
21. They Went Through It
Allegedly Denver penned this masterpiece, a love tune called “Annie’s Song” in about ten minutes. The romantic song continues to be a folk favorite. And although the details of the particular argument and makeup that inspired it remain private, other news of their life together revealed they likely had much to disagree about.
22. They Couldn’t Have A Family
Not the traditional way, anyway. Reportedly, Denver and Martell tried for several years to have a baby themselves. After years of trying, they decided to adopt. They welcomed a son and daughter into their family in the mid-1970s. This completed their traditional American family, but it did nothing to keep their marriage afloat.
23. The Cracks Started To Show
In a 1979 interview, Martell gave evidence that her marriage to the folk star might be in danger. She mentioned that his fame brought great challenges to them, saddling her with insecurity. Denver later expressed that his busy schedule caused distance to grow between them. Perhaps that explains one notorious escape.
24. He Ran Away (Again)
As the two struggled to make it work, Denver found himself at the end of his rope. In one instance, he left his wife for nearly an entire week, going all the way to Switzerland. Martell later confessed, “It was only six days, but felt like three months. I would get up at 4 am and start crying and continue until I went to sleep that night".
However, this brief separation didn’t mark the end of the relationship, as Denver returned to his wife after an emotional call from Martell. But his marriage wasn’t the only thing breaking him.
25. They Didn’t Think He Was Cool Enough
As a folksy artist with a unique style in a time when rock climbed the charts, Denver faced criticism from many music reporters. His fan base stayed solid, but demeaning comments like those referring to him as the “Mickey Mouse of Rock” shook his confidence. It’s no wonder he went looking for salvation in an untraditional place.
26. He Tried Weird Coping Mechanisms
Denver tried the self-help process coined Erhard Seminar Training (EST) to help him manage his issues. The program claimed to help improve the lives of its participants through rigorous, hours-long training. Many considered the whole thing just another crazy fad. Either way, it didn’t keep Denver from experiencing the greatest losses he’d known.
27. He Kept It Undercover
Although it wouldn’t come out until he published his autobiography in the nineties, Denver continued to wrestle with multiple vices behind the scenes of his success. His writing didn’t get into much detail, but he admitted to being unfaithful during his marriage. He also admitted to being more physical than he should have been, and not in a romantic way either.
28. She Gave Up
After over a decade of marriage, Denver and Martell filed for divorce in 1982. They did so upon Martell’s request. There’s no news on the exact state of their marriage when Martell asked to officially end things, but it didn’t at all go over well with Denver. When the two met up to split their assets, things took a dangerous turn.
29. He Put His Hands On Her
Even though his music and activism made him out to be a peace-loving hippie, Denver allegedly got publicly belligerent during this time. In fact, he attempted to choke his soon to be ex wife during their divorce proceedings. We can only imagine what transpired during the actual marriage, considering his next bizarre move.
30. He Went Crazy
By many reports and his own admission in his autobiography, Denver brought a special accessory to their meeting to divide property—a chainsaw. Luckily for Martell, he used it to saw their bed in half instead of her. Still sounds entirely terrifying, though. Tragically, that scene proved to be only a small part of a terrible year for the music star.
31. He Lost His Hero
In that same year, Denver’s father passed unexpectedly. Although the two found it difficult to connect during his younger years, they’d grown much closer in adulthood. His father taught him how to fly planes, and the two bonded over their love for the air. His wife and father gone, another loss nearly did him in completely.
32. It Didn’t End Well
Denver likely ended up wanting to forget the entire year, as he ended things with another close friend in 1982. This time he chose it himself, ending his deal with his manager, Jerry Weintraub. Weintraub didn’t take it well, though. In fact, he accused Denver of Nazism. Seems odd, considering he supposedly stood for everything but.
33. He Cared Too Much
While his own life came apart at the seams, Denver continued to be a proponent of all things green and peaceful. He made a point of being a pacifist, as well as supporting multiple causes to help those in need all over the world. His charity won him several awards, but he still got snubbed from one major humanitarian moment.
34. They Snubbed Him
Several celebrities joined forces in 1985 to record the single “We Are the World”. They made it in support of Africa, with the proceeds going to charities to help those in need there. As a passionate activist, Denver thought himself a natural addition. Unfortunately, its producers didn’t agree, and neither did some of the record’s stars.
35. He Didn’t Fit In
Seemingly, Denver’s stardom was already on the decline when the producers claimed his participation would bring down the message of the song. One comment made by celebrity Willie Nelson cut deeper, “If a bomb hit this building, John Denver would be No. 1 again". Ouch. Even worse? Everybody laughed, including Michael Jackson and Kenny Rogers.
He later confessed in his autobiography, "It broke my heart not to be included". Ousted from music popularity, he turned to other passions.
36. He Tried To Get (Far) Away
If you’re thinking Denver a bit of an escape artist, you haven’t seen anything yet. Denver found himself enamored with space explorations, avidly supporting the nation’s efforts to explore the beyond. Perhaps trying to recoup his terrible year, Denver trained to go into space in 1985. It didn’t at all go as planned.
37. Tragedy Held Him Back
When the Challenger space shuttle tragically exploded in 1986, it took several lives and Denver’s chances of exploring space any time soon. He responded like he did to most things, with a song. He dedicated “Flying for Me” to the astronauts on board the ill-fated shuttle. Meanwhile, things in his own career exploded as well.
38. They Dropped Him
After several music hits and stints in both film and television, Denver’s stardom seemingly started to wane. By 1986, RCA records dropped him completely. Reportedly, this had more to do with a shift in leadership and less to do with Denver’s potential. Either way, he continued to perform while turning his attention to love again.
39. She Didn’t Know Hm
While on a trip to Australia, Denver first brushed shoulders with actress and singer Cassandra Delaney. By Delaney’s own account, they met gazes in a moment of “love at first sight”. She didn’t recognize the star, though. And when she asked one of her bandmates who he was, she figured there wasn’t any point in trying.
40. They Moved Fast
Even though she seemed hesitant at first, Delaney did actually make Denver’s acquaintance—and eventually much more. In another quick romance, the two married in 1988. She became a staple of his life both as a music artist and activist. The love likely burned too hot and too fast, though, as it ended almost as quickly as it started.
41. They Didn’t Make It
A few years after marrying, the two separated in 1991, eventually divorcing in 1993. While the details regarding their end remain vague, Denver expressed his discontent with the marriage. He noted that, during their relationship, “she managed to make a fool of me from one end of the valley to the other”. He didn’t necessarily need the help, though.
42. They Caught Him
John Denver started to come apart rather publicly after the end of his marriage to Delaney. In 1993, authorities pulled him over for driving after drinking too much. They let him off relatively easy, placing him on probation. This could have been a great wake up call for Denver, but his actions the very next year showed it to be anything but.
43. He Crashed
Not even an entire year later, Denver got into a major car accident in his Aspen hometown. He collided with a tree in his Porsche, and upon further investigation, authorities discovered he was again driving intoxicated. Clearly the probation didn’t suffice. This time, they took his consequences up several notches.
44. He Got Punished
Violating his probation landed Denver in the hands of the court. The jury couldn’t agree on his ruling, forcing the case into a retrial at a later date. Unfortunately for Denver, however, the infraction did result in a limit on his flying, as the Federal Aviation Administration banned him from flying until he could stay sober. He never really got the chance.
45. He Had A Freak Accident
In the fall of 1997, Denver headed out to take a self-piloted flight in his own small, special made aircraft. By this time, Denver could confidently consider himself a well-trained pilot. He flew frequently, and after being trained by his father, he was quite skilled in doing so. Tragically, his skill didn’t prove enough to save him.
46. The Plane Wasn’t Normal
While Denver boasted far more than novice flying skills, his plane didn’t necessarily meet the usual guidelines. The builder placed the handle for the fuel valve behind the pilot seat. This made it difficult for the pilot to switch fuel tanks during flight. Denver figured he could handle it, and flew anyway, even when he wasn't supposed to.
47. He Wasn’t Supposed To
As you’ll remember, the FAA banned Denver from flying in 1996, nearly a year before his final flight in October 1997. Still, Denver headed out for a routine flight and tragically never returned home. His plane crashed in Monterey Bay, California. Upon retrieving his body from the wreckage, it became clear that it was too late to save him.
48. It Wasn’t His Fault
All issues aside, authorities determined his accident and passing a result of both not having enough fuel and not being able to effectively switch his fuel tanks. No prohibited substances were found in his body. A memorial remains at the place of his tragic accident, with fans still visiting each year. Interestingly enough, he left one final surprise.
49. He Had Secret Hobbies
Denver made many of his passions public. He shared his love for nature, flying, and even painting with his fans. His private hobby, photography, didn’t reach the public's knowledge until 2014. An entire exhibit featuring his unreleased photos opened to the public, inviting them to him in new ways. His music, though, carried his legacy.
50. His Songs Live On
While his life ended unexpectedly, Denver’s music continues to be a part of the classic music of America today. Two of his hits, “Take Me Home Country Road” and “Rocky Mountain HIgh” became official state songs. He remains the only music artist to ever have his songs made into an official song for more than one state.