By 1971, Henry John Deutschendorf Jr or “John Denver”, as he was more readily known, was only 28 but had released three albums. This breakout album and piece of history would be one of 33 albums and would make him a cultural icon.
John Denver was the eldest son of an airforce man and had a rootless childhood that paved the way for the minstrel’s timeless ballads. Having received his first guitar at eleven, Denver barely finished high school as he often hit the road to play music. By the time he enrolled in the local college in Texas in ’65, he was playing clubs and a member of several bands. Four years later, after recording a demo with Peter, Paul and Mary producer Milt Okun (which included a proto version of ‘Leaving on a Jet Plane‘), he had his first solo record deal with RCA, and by 1970 he had two more albums released.
‘Poems, Prayers & Promises‘ is a special album. While it is only thirty-seven minutes, those are sheer joy and heartfelt brilliance. It has a Beatles cover, a song McCartney wrote for his first solo album, a James Taylor song, songs he cowrote with Bill Danoff and even an adaptation of a poem by South African gospel writer Kendrew Lascelles. Over half are original songs, and over half would be recognised up and down the country by people of all ages.
It opens with the title track, a pure singer-songwriter bliss-out with reflective lyrics, then goes straight into the classic ‘Let it Be‘. Side one continues with the raw love song ‘My Sweet Lady‘ and the contrasting socially conscious vitriol of ‘Wooden Indian‘. It concludes with a heart-tearing rendition of Paul McCartney’s thoughtful ‘Junk‘ and country classic ‘Gospel Changes‘. The eclectic mix of material is always held together by the openness of one man and his guitar strumming.
Side two begins with the immortal ‘Take Me Home Country Roads‘, which I can imagine almost all reading this will have sung in a car or after a few wines with friends. A song so universal it showcases the power of music to unite all backgrounds, something not unfamiliar to Americana as a genre by any means. This song is enough to land this album in this feature, but the album is more substantial than this one banger. Denver continues with the acoustic track ‘I Guess He’d Be In Colorado‘ and number one hit ‘Sunshine on My Shoulders‘. Lastly, he adds the songs ‘Around and Around‘ and James Taylor’s song ‘Fire and Rain’.
The album concludes with a spoken version of the anti-war poem ‘The Box’ by Kendrew Lascelles.
The album tours peace, love, home, racism, social justice, whiskey, parents, decisions, and more. His voice is one of a handful from this generation that dared to be beautiful, and his guitar playing similarly so. It is both classic songwriting and classic Americana.