October 16, 2023 | J. Clarke

Gloomy Facts About John Denver, America’s Favorite Country Boy


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. 

American musician John Denver performs a private concert at the George R. Moscone Convention Center on March 20, 1984 in San Francisco, CaliforniaTom Hill, Getty Images

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.

Photo of John Denver from 1974RCA Records, Wikimedia Commons

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.

Chad Lowe as  John Denver in movie looking at the cameraGranada Entertainment, Take Me Home: The John Denver Story (2000)

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.

Photo of John Denver from the television special An Evening With John DenverABC Television, Wikimedia Commons

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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.

Chad Lowe as  John DenverGranada Entertainment, Take Me Home: The John Denver Story (2000)

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.

Musician John Denver attends the Opening Night Exhibitions of John Denver's Photographs and David Armstrong's Paintings on December 1, 1980 at Hammer Galleries in New York CityRon Galella, Getty Images

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.

Chad Lowe as  John Denver in suiteGranada Entertainment, Take Me Home: The John Denver Story (2000)

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.

American singer-songwriter and musician John Denver (1943 - 1997) performingMichael Putland, Getty Images

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.

Chad Lowe as  John Denver in suiteGranada Entertainment, Take Me Home: The John Denver Story (2000)

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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.

Chad Lowe as  John Denver in suiteGranada Entertainment, Take Me Home: The John Denver Story (2000)

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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.

John Denver in shirt and glassesHeritage Images, Getty Images

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. 

John Denver in white t-shirt and glasses holding guitar and looking at the cameraEllen Graham, Getty Images

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.

American singer and guitarist John Denver (1943-1997) performs live on stageGijsbert Hanekroot, Getty Images

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.

Chad Lowe as  John Denver in suiteGranada Entertainment, Take Me Home: The John Denver Story (2000)

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. 

John Denver preformingSteve Kagan, Getty Images

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.

Chad Lowe as  John Denver Granada Entertainment, Take Me Home: The John Denver Story (2000)

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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.

Chad Lowe as  John Denver performing on stageGranada Entertainment, Take Me Home: The John Denver Story (2000)

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. 

American musician John Denver (1943 - 1997) performs on stagePaul Natkin, Getty Images

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. 

Charlie Rich 1973 in white shirtEpic Records, Wikimedia Commons

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.

Chad Lowe as  John DenverGranada Entertainment, Take Me Home: The John Denver Story (2000)

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.

Chad Lowe as  John Denver  speaking on phoneGranada Entertainment, Take Me Home: The John Denver Story (2000)

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. 

Chad Lowe as  John Denver Granada Entertainment, Take Me Home: The John Denver Story (2000)

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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.

Chad Lowe as  John DenverGranada Entertainment, Take Me Home: The John Denver Story (2000)

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.

Chad Lowe as  John DenverGranada Entertainment, Take Me Home: The John Denver Story (2000)

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.

One of the most popular country music recording artist's of the 1970s, John Denver with entertainer Bob HopeBettmann, Getty Images

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. 

John Denver On StagePaul Natkin, Getty Images

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.

Chad Lowe as  John Denver Granada Entertainment, Take Me Home: The John Denver Story (2000)

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.

Singer/Actor Frank Sinatra and Musician John DenverRon Galella, Getty Images

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. 

Chad Lowe as  John DenverGranada Entertainment, Take Me Home: The John Denver Story (2000)

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.

Chad Lowe as  John DenverGranada Entertainment, Take Me Home: The John Denver Story (2000)

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.

Chad Lowe as  John DenverGranada Entertainment, Take Me Home: The John Denver Story (2000)

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.

Jerry Weintraub, U.S. film producer, holding a model of a dogSteve Morley, Getty Images

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.

John Denver looking at cameraJohn Mathew Smith, CC BY-SA 2.0 ,Wikimedia Commons

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.

Chad Lowe as  John Denver Granada Entertainment, Take Me Home: The John Denver Story (2000)

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. 

Willie Nelson at Farm Aid 2009Larry Philpot, CC BY 2.0 , Wikimedia Commons

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. 

Chad Lowe as  John Denver in shirtGranada Entertainment, Take Me Home: The John Denver Story (2000)

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. 

Musician John Denver during an appearance on the Muppet ShowBettmann, Getty Images

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.

John Denver at airportMirrorpix, Getty Images

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. 

Musician John Denver and wife Cassandra DelaneyRon Galella, Getty Images

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.

John Denver and his Australian bride-to-be CassandraFairfax Media Archives, Getty Images

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.

Musician John Denver and wife Cassandra DelaneyRon Galella, Getty Images

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.

Chad Lowe as  John Denver outside Granada Entertainment, Take Me Home: The John Denver Story (2000)

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.

Chad Lowe as  John Denver at hospitalGranada Entertainment, Take Me Home: The John Denver Story (2000)

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.

American musician John Denver appears at the PMRC senate hearingMark Weiss, Getty Images

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.

Image of the Rutan Long-EZ N3R operated by NOAANOAA, Wikimedia Commons

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.

Chad Lowe as  John Denver pilotingGranada Entertainment, Take Me Home: The John Denver Story (2000)

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.

John Denver in ConcertSteve Broer, Shutterstock

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.

Denver's plane crash siteHardyfam44, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

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. 

American Folk, Pop, and Country musician John Denver (1943 - 1997) performs during a rallyConsolidated News Pictures, Getty Images

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.

Country musician John Denver on the set of The Muppet ShowTV Times, Getty Images


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