John Denver had trouble filling a room prior to releasing his 1971 album Poems, Prayers, and Promises. As a solo act, he was virtually unknown. All that changed with the the album's single, "Take Me Home, Country Roads," which launched Denver's career and made him an international star. But the song almost never happened.
Denver first heard "Take Me Home, Country Roads" in the Washington, D.C., apartment of songwriter Bill Danoff. Danoff and his girlfriend, Taffy Nivert — also his writing partner — had met Denver years earlier, first when Danoff was working at the famous Cellar Door nightclub, and again on later tours through Washington.
Later, when Denver was passing through the city, he arranged to meet at Danoff's apartment after a performance. Denver almost never showed. He was injured in a car accident on the way over and taken to the hospital with a broken thumb. But he proceeded to Danoff's anyway.
'That's A Hit Song'
Denver asked to hear what Danoff and Nivert had been working on. Nivert urged Danoff to play the "Country Roads" song, which he'd been working on for several months, but he hesitated.
"I said, 'He won't like that. It's not his thing, you know, because it's for Johnny Cash,' " Danoff said in an interview.
At the time, Danoff and Nivert were only local performers. But they aimed to make it big by writing a hit song for bigger artists.
"So I played him what I had of 'Country Roads,' and he said, 'Wow! That's great, that's a hit song! Did you record it?' I said, 'No, we don't have a record deal,' " Danoff said.
He said Denver told him that they could record it together. And, several months later, they went up to New York City and did it. Danoff's first reaction to the recording was not positive.
"I thought, 'Oh, my God. There's way too much echo on that,' " he said. "I loved the song, but I thought we'd blown the record. And millions of other people didn't agree."
By August, the song had reached No. 2 on the Billboard singles chart.
A West Virginia Anthem
"Take Me Home, Country Roads" became the unofficial anthem of West Virginia and the official song of the West Virginia University Mountaineers. But here's the catch: Danoff had never even been to the Mountain State before writing it, though he'd heard the sounds of the state as a kid growing up in Massachusetts.
Danoff said he listened to "hillbilly music" on WWVA from Wheeling, W.V.
"I just thought the idea that I was hearing something so exotic to me from someplace as far away," he said. "West Virginia might as well have been in Europe, for all I know."
Danoff would go on to write 12 more songs for John Denver. And he would also form the Starland Vocal Band, famous for "Afternoon Delight." Still, 40 years later, Danoff said, "Take Me Home, Country Roads" is his biggest moneymaker — he says he splits 75 percent of royalties with Nivert and gives the remaining 25 percent to the Denver estate.
Danoff said he doesn't regret handing his biggest hit to Denver to record.
"Left to our own devices," he said, "Taffy and I may have never gotten that record cut. It wasn't a country record. We could've beat up Nashville and nobody would've recorded it. One thing I learned in this business is that things turn out other than you planned them to, no matter what it is. And you can't predict what's going to happen."