John Denver: Country Boy
Airs Saturday, Jan. 30, 2021 at 9 p.m. on KPBS TV + Sunday, Jan. 31 at 6:30 p.m on KPBS 2 (not available to stream)
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At the peak of his fame in the 1970s, John Denver was the most popular singer in America. He performed at sold-out concerts, his albums sold more than 100 million copies, his TV specials got top ratings, and he was named poet laureate of his adopted Colorado.
Yet this man, who brought happiness to millions, was filled with insecurity, suffered from depression, and was savaged by the music critics.
Exploring the private life and public legacy of America’s Everyman, this intimate profile includes exclusive accounts from those closest to him, including former wives and managers, his son and brother, the musicians who toured with him for decades and the friends who knew the real John Denver.
On the face of it, John Denver was a wholesome country singer who penned pleasant songs with lyrics that some ridiculed for their simplicity.
There were extremes to Denver’s character — from the incredible highs reflected in his music to the more private lows with which he grappled. He loved touring and could not live without an audience, yet dreamed of the perfect home and family life that his mobile childhood denied him.
He may have written one of the greatest love songs about his first wife Annie, but she filed for divorce on their 15th wedding anniversary.
The BBC actually gave Denver his first television break with a primetime six-part series in 1973. In Britain, he learned to feel at home in front of a camera and his music took off.
It became the soundtrack of a generation, when ideals of the ‘good life’ and living off the land spurred families to move to the countryside.
To his British fans and millions of others around the world, the appeal of his music was its accessibility, but critics dismissed him as “contrived and controlled Americana,” “Mr. Clean” and “Plastic Pollyanna” — just a few of the epithets that stung him.
A complex man who wrote uncomplicated songs, Denver was often at odds with the saccharine image presented to the world. In this documentary, viewers re-discover a lost musical icon of the 70s and the enduring power of his music.
Participants featured in the program include:
- Annie Denver – John’s first wife.
- Zak Deutschendorf – John’s son.
- Cassandra Delaney Denver – John’s second wife; they divorced in the early 90s.
- Jerry Weintraub – The movie mogul was a close friend and Denver’s manager from 1970 to 1984.
- Ron Deutschendorf – John’s younger brother, who was drafted to Vietnam as John sung protest songs at a peace rally in Washington.
- Tom Crum – close friend and co-founder of Windstar Foundation.
- Jean Michel Cousteau – friend and son of one of John’s eco-heroes, Jacques Cousteau.
- James Burton – musician who toured with John and had also played with Elvis.
- Hal Thau – Denver’s long-term finance manager.
- Connie Reeder - longtime friend.
- Milt Okun – renowned producer who gave John his first break when he auditioned as Chad Mitchell’s replacement in the Chad Mitchell Trio.
- Mike Kobluk – sang with John in the Mitchell Trio.
- Paul Prestopino – musician in the Mitchell Trio.
- Taffy Nivert – co-wrote “Country Roads” with John and her husband Bill Danoff.
- Peter Yarrow – member of the trio Peter, Paul and Mary who had enormous success with John’s song “Leaving on a Jet Plane.”
- Stanley Dorfman – produced the John Denver BBC 1973 series.
- G. Brown – Colorado music journalist.
This program is no longer available to stream on demand.