Muppet Maestros: John Denver

Hilarie Mukavitz – Once, when I was a teenager, my friend Ben was giving me a ride somewhere.  As I got in the car he didn’t say a word, and just turned on the tape. The song was John Denver’s “Grandma’s Feather Bed.” As soon as it got to the refrain I joined in: “It was nine feet high and six feet wide…” Ben broke into a huge grin and said “That was a test. You passed!” Ben had also uncovered my deep dark secret: I was a closet John Denver fan.

I was a teenager in the cynical, irony-infested 1990’s. With the majority of my group of friends, liking someone as corny as John Denver just was not going to fly. So when I bought a John Denver CD as a Christmas gift for my mother one year, I felt the need to point out to the cashier that it was a present for somebody else. Even though, at that very moment, my hard drive was loaded with John Denver songs I had gotten from Napster.

Then two things happened that changed my point of view. The first, like happens to so many of us, was I got my butt kicked by adulthood and dealing with the real world. I struggled to find work my first few years out of college, and wound up spending a chunk of time underemployed and living with my parents. The experience deflated the rather snobbish attitude I’d had until then. One December, my mother and I were watching the Osmond Family Christmas special together. Mom and I found ourselves both getting misty-eyed, and laughed at ourselves for getting choked up by the Osmond Family. However it was then that I realized life is too short to like what you are “supposed” to like. I stopped hiding the fact that there’s a part of my personality that is quite sentimental and a little bit corny.

The second thing that happened was a road trip. In the summer of 2008, I was going to go to Iowa for a writer’s workshop and then do a small road trip through the Dakotas and Minnesota. That happened to be a year of major flooding in Iowa. The workshop was cancelled. I now had an extra week free. So I called a friend who had recently moved to Colorado. “Could you use a visitor? I can be there by Sunday.” Thus began a 5000 mile road trip I took through the western states. Until that time, I had been kind of perplexed by people who were enthusiastic about nature. However, driving across Colorado, Utah, Idaho and Montana… like Fozzie Bear I felt the urge to start belting out a chorus of “America the Beautiful.” Later when I talked about the trip to my mother she said “You had a John Denver experience!”

John Denver was born Henry John Deutschendorf on New Years Eve, 1943, in Roswell, New Mexico. With a father in the military, his family moved often, and John found it difficult to make friends. When he was 12, his grandmother gave him a Gibson guitar. John didn’t show a lot of interest in the guitar, until Elvis Presley started playing on the radio. He began playing in folk music groups. Eventually, he dropped out of college to pursue music full time. He changed his name to Denver, because of his love of Colorado, and because he was advised that “Deutschendorf” was too long to fit on a marquee.

In 1969 he had his first major success when Peter Paul and Mary covered his song “Leaving On a Jet Plane.” In 1971 he had his first breakout hit as a solo artist: “Country Roads.” In 1972 he released “Rocky Mountain High” which would later become one of the official state songs of Colorado. Denver would continue to have a string of hits such as “Annie’s Song,” “Sunshine on My Shoulders” and “Thank God I’m A Country Boy” throughout the 1970’s.

Denver’s first collaboration with the Muppets was in 1979 when he guest starred in Season 4 of The Muppet Show. He was featured singing “The Garden Song” (a David Mallett song that would later be covered by Kermit and Rowlf) and “Grandma’s Feather Bed.” Two other John Denver songs were performed on The Muppet Show by other guest stars; Jim Nabors sang “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” and Cheryl Ladd sang “Sunshine On My Shoulders.” All of these songs can be seen on our John Denver on The Muppet Show YouTube Playlist.

1979 was also the year when John Denver and the Muppets: A Christmas Together, both the TV special and the album, were released. The entire television special can be seen on another YouTube Playlist we’ve put together. When I was growing up, we had two copies of the album. One copy I was allowed to touch.  The other copy was my mom’s, so that we could listen to it without any scratches. The album features two John Denver compositions: “A Baby Just Like You” (about John Denver’s son Zachary) and “Alfie the Christmas Tree.” Besides the Muppet humor, and John Denver’s crystal clear tenor, one of the greatest pleasures of this album for me is that you hear some songs that you rarely hear anywhere else during the holidays such as “The Peace Carol,” “The Christmas Wish,” “When The River Meets the Sea,” and “It’s In Every One of Us.” 

In 1983 the Muppets and John Denver did another TV special called Rocky Mountain Holiday, which also included another album they recorded together. While not as well-remembered  or delightful as the Christmas special, it does have some great songs, and classic Muppet moments like the giant man-eating chicken. again, you can check it all out on our Rocky Mountain Holiday YouTube Playlist.

After the 1980’s, John Denver’s musical popularity began to go downhill.  He began to focus most of his time on political causes such as fighting for the environment. John Denver passed away when he crashed in an experimental aircraft in 1997.

While many celebrities have worked with the Muppets over the years, John Denver had a special chemistry with them. John Denver tapped into the Muppets’ innocent, idealistic, and gentler side in a way few others could. The only others that spring to mind are Julie Andrews, Paul Williams, and Harry Belafonte. One of the things I liked best about The Muppets movie was that I felt it was the strongest we have seen this aspect of the Muppets in years. While, sadly, John Denver and Jim Henson are no longer with us, they left us a Christmas gift that we’ll treasure for many years to come.

The Muppet Mindset by Ryan Dosier,

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