“Take Me Home, Country Roads,” John Denver’s beloved signature song written along with married songwriting pair Bill Danoff and Taffy Nivert back in 1970, remains one of the most blissful country tunes ever sung. And it doesn’t get old.
Every time I hear that first wisp of steel guitar, Denver’s sturdy tenor and mention of his “mountain mama,” I’m smacked with a bittersweet sense of peace. I’m from Alabama, not “West Virginia,” but this song may as well be about traveling along any sliver of southern highway, beelining back to the “place I belong,” because it always imbues me with deep emotions and an appreciation for our region’s natural surroundings. But you don’t need to be Southern to appreciate this classic. Whether you hail from the innermost corner of one of America’s biggest metropolises or the same Appalachian foothills so eloquently described in the song, there’s just something undeniably comfortable about “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” It is not your American duty to respect our president, but it is your duty to respect the hell out of this song, no matter where you’re from. I don’t make the rules.
“Take Me Home, Country Roads” has been famously covered by Phil Collins, Ray Charles, Toots and the Maytals and Olivia Newton-John (whose version puzzlingly, but effectively, appears in Studio Ghibli’s Whisper of the Heart), but, recently, musicians of a different generation have taken a liking to Denver’s musings on the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Shenandoah River. Chicago rockers Whitney recently teamed up with Waxahatchee’s Katie Crutchfield for an especially groovy indie-folk version, and last year the Americana trio Mountain Man covered it, in their characteristically stripped-down fashion, for their Mountain Man Sings series (complete with Alexandra Sauser-Monnig posing as a be-speckled Denver in the album art).
It’s not just popular in indie music, either: Boho fashion brand Free People is currently selling a t-shirt emblazoned with the song’s title for the decidedly ridiculous price of $78. Perhaps this is in response to the song’s resurgence on the app TikTok, where, alongside other rock and pop songs from the 1970s and ’80s like “Mr. Blue Sky” and “You Make My Dreams (Come True),” it has become a popular overdub (as well as this very strange slowed version from Kingsman: The Golden Circle, which, befuddingly, teens are using for more comical scenarios).
Maybe “Take Me Home, Country Roads” was the song your dad played on a cassette player in the car while you were growing up, or maybe you just happen to be from West Virginia and you’ve heard it a million times during WVU games, but this earnestly pure song has officially superseded its corny reputation and reentered the indie zeitgeist and even the more zany Gen-Z-dominated corners of the internet. And it has done so during a time when folk-rock music from Denver’s era seems to be making a sort of comeback.
How so, you ask? Well, fellow folk-rocker beloved by dads everywhere James Taylor, whose classic 1968 song “Carolina In My Mind” is spiritually akin to “Country Roads,” recently released his latest album American Standard to surprisingly favorable chart success. Meanwhile, here at Paste, I, for whatever reason, fell under the spell of Jim Croce (certified dad music by almost any standard), another of Denver’s contemporaries. This is not to say that Jim Croce is considered “cool” by the music community at large (in fact, it’s safe to say he’s probably thought of as the opposite), but I’d still urge anyone who’s read this far to revisit his 1972 breakthrough You Don’t Mess Around With Jim. I’ll be damned if there aren’t some roots-rock bangers on there. Perhaps you’ll even be moved to listen with your dad this weekend on Father’s Day, at which time he’ll probably back me up on this.
This week we also received new albums from some of Denver’s more prominent peers: Bob Dylan and Neil Young. And both albums, at least according to Paste, are critically sound. Dylan’s Rough and Rowdy Ways, like much of his greatest works, resists any easy categorization, and Young’s Homegrown (originally recorded in 1975 but shelved thereafter) is an essential chapter in his legacy, according to our critics. Everything old is new again.
It’s doubtful that Dylan or Young will find adoration among young Zoomers in the same way that “Take Me Home, Country Roads” has, but this particular moment gives us all good reason to revisit John Denver’s long and often underrated catalogue. Remove the images of his dusty vinyl records stacked in the for-sale section of your favorite record store or your mom’s cassettes stowed away in a box of stuff from college in a sad corner of the attic and remember Denver for what he truly was: one of the great country-pop singers of his time. “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” “Rocky Mountain High” and “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” are just the tip of the iceberg (or, should I say, the tip of one very fine peak on the Blue Ridge).
Denver tragically died in a plane crash 1997, so he’ll never get to see these well-meaning TikToks or hear a shaggy indie-rock band from Chicago sing his song (or Mark Strong in Kingsman, which is maybe for the best). But his legacy is inextricable from “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” So the next time it plays on your dad’s car speaker (or your own), don’t skip to the next station. Let it play until you feel something.
Ellen Johnson is an associate music editor, writer, playlist maker, coffee drinker and pop culture enthusiast at Paste. She occasionally moonlights as a film fan on Letterboxd. You can find her tweeting about all the things on Twitter @ellen_a_johnson.