God He Wrote Country Boy!
John Sommers doesn't believe much in pure luck. But he frequently calls himself fortunate and blessed, in his life and career.
When he moved to Aspen in December of 1969, he intended to stay the proverbial one winter. He was just coming off a five-year hitch as a Navy pilot and was on his way from his home in Southern California to Kansas City, where he intended to enroll in TWA's flight training program. After making a stop in Aspen, to visit his Navy buddy Sandy Munro, Sommers fell in love with the mountains enough to put off flight training for a few months. He called in sick, telling the TWA people he had contracted mononucleosis, and that he would be there in the spring.
By winter's end, the airlines were in a financial crush. And not only had Sommers come to think of Aspen as home, he had also begun to establish himself in Aspen's thriving music scene. Two weeks after settling in Aspen, Sommers and Munro, who had played folk and bluegrass together throughout their time in the Navy, called up their fellow flyboy/picker, Cash Cashman, and summoned him to Colorado. The threesome reconvened their acoustic trio, the Clark County Coon Catchers Quartet, eventually changing the name to Wildwood Sunday, and became a fixture at the Happy Hearth Inn, current site of Truscott Place.
"It was a great music scene: Bobby Mason and the Dirt Band and Chris Cox and Steve Peer. Black Pearl was the band in town," said Sommers. "You had the Gallery and Jake's Abbey and Danny's and the old Holiday Inn and the Inn at Aspen. And Steve Martin was opening for the Dirt Band. That was a great time."
Sommers never made it to TWA's flight training.
But Sommers never counted on John Denver to intervene in his small-town plans. Sommers, of course, knew of Denver, who was living in Aspen in the early '70s but was quickly rising to the ranks of a national musician. Sommers, though, had never met Denver when the singer showed up at a Liberty gig. Denver arrived in time to hear Liberty play The River of Love, a Sommers composition that was the only original tune in the band's repertoire at the time.
"He came up and introduced himself and said he loved the song and wanted to record it," said Sommers. "We said, 'Yeah, sure.' That was the first conversation I had with him.
A couple of months later, he flew us to New York, and we recorded the song with him for his album Farewell Andromeda. It was Liberty playing, except instead of me singing, it was John."
After the album went on to become a hit, Denver invited Liberty to open a series of shows for him. At the end of 1973, with his career skyrocketing, Denver invited Sommers to join his band. Sommers played one local gig with Denver, at the Wheeler Opera House, without a rehearsal or much of an idea of what his place was in the band. Soon after, Sommers made what he considers his first real appearance as a member of Denver's band - on "The Tonight Show," which Denver was guest-hosting for the first time.
One of the tunes Denver sang on that first "The Tonight Show" appearance, in addition to Annie's Song, was Thank God I'm a Country Boy. It was a tune that Sommers wrote, in an inspired state, just a few weeks before the "Tonight Show" appearance.
"I had been at an all-night Christmas Party at Bobby and Peggy Mason's house, with lots of musicians, Bobby Carpenter from the Dirt Band," recalled Sommers. "It was just a wonderful night. That next morning, I hopped into my car and drove to Los Angeles, to do John Denver's first television Christmas special, and there was a special mood in my head. It was just a real great day, the day before Christmas. And the phrase 'Thank God I'm a Country Boy' came into my head. When I got home, I had a pretty fair idea of the melody."
But Sommers had no idea just what Thank God I'm a Country Boy would become. He thought it would end up on a planned Liberty album, a recording that ended up not getting made. The last thing he envisioned was his boss, John Denver, recording it.
"Not even in my wildest dreams did I think of giving it to John Denver," said Sommers. "The person who kept popping into my head was [late folksinger-fiddler] John Hartford - not for him to record it, but I just had this image in my mind of a fiddle player."
But history repeated itself. Just before joining Denver's band, Sommers had a few Liberty dates still to play at the Blue Moose in Aspen. Denver came to see the band play, and witnessed the first performance of Thank God I'm a Country Boy.
"People really liked it, and John said he'd like to record that one," said Sommers. As with The River of Love, Denver was as good as his word. He recorded Thank God I'm a Country Boy, with Sommers on fiddle, for the 1974 Back Home Again" album. The album was a major hit, but Thank God I'm a Country Boy was not one of the singles. That honor was reserved for such Denver classics as Annie's Song and Grandma's Feather Bed.
Sommers would have to wait until 1975, and the live album An
Evening with John Denver,
God I'm a Country Boy
to be released as a single. The wait was well-rewarded: Thank
God I'm a Country Boy hit No. 1 on the country charts,
and a week later, was also No. 1 on the pop charts.
Sommers' song would become not just a momentary pop sensation, but an enduring piece of American music. Mark Belanger, shortstop for the Baltimore Orioles whose wife, Dee, was a John Denver fan, pushed to have Thank God I'm a Country Boy played over the P.A. at Orioles games at Memorial Stadium. From the mid-'70s through today, the song has been played at most every Orioles home game; whenever the practice has been interrupted, fans have made enough of a clamor to have the ritual reinstated. The song has helped make Baltimore a John Denver hotbed. In the Babe Ruth Museum, near Baltimore's Camden Yards ballpark, there is a Thank God I'm a Country Boy display, complete with Sommers' original handwritten notes for the song, scratched out on paper.
A funny thing about the success of Thank God I'm a Country Boy, and The River of Love before it, is that Sommers is not much of a songwriter. Over his whole career, he has written only a handful of songs, and has paid much more attention to his instrumental skills than his writing efforts.
"I don't even consider myself a songwriter," said Sommers, who played fiddle, mandolin, guitar, banjo and harmonica in Denver's band. "To me, a songwriter is someone who's continually writing, and I've never done that. I've just been incredibly fortunate with the ones I've written."
Even apart from his unexpected songwriting fortunes, playing in Denver's band was a blast. When Sommers started with the band, early in 1974, Denver was just beginning his rise, still playing small and mid-size theaters. It was mainly a weekend gig for Sommers, who also played locally in the Bluegrass Salad Boys. Within a few years, Denver was playing some of the biggest venues imaginable, and Sommers was on the road for weeks at a time.
"It was like this family on the incredible journey - not knowing what was ahead, but having amazing things happen around every corner," said Sommers. "Like a bunch of kids going on a trip."
"That thing about being in the right place at the right time
- that happened to me. I'm blessed in more ways than I can count in
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For Sommers, it was the end of the big time, but not of the good times. He recorded on Aspen Skyline, singer Wayne Stewart's 1979 classic local album; the album gave Sommers the opportunity to play twin fiddles with fiddle legend Vassar Clements. In the early '80s, Sommers joined Stewart in Area Code 303. He played in Easy Pickins' and helped found the Flying Dog Bluegrass Band with his old friends Munro and Cashman. He formed the duo Sommers & Biff with string ace Chris "Biff" Phillips.
For the last four years, Sommers' main gig has been a duet with singer-guitarist Twirp Anderson. (The two first met during Sommers' first winter in Aspen. Sommers and Munro collided coming down Aspen Mountain; Anderson was the ski patroller who came to the rescue.) The twosome has been a fixture at the Snowmass Rodeo, at various events on Aspen Mountain, and on the Snowmass Village Mall. This winter, Sommers and Anderson will continue their winter-long weekend gig at the Silvertree Hotel in Snowmass Village.
Sommers should get a star turn this weekend, as the Musical Tribute to John Denver hits the Wheeler Opera House stage Friday through Sunday, Oct. 12-14. Sommers has appeared at the previous John Denver tribute concerts, and his rendition of Thank God I'm a Country Boy has been a consistent highlight. Sommers is looking forward to the concerts, but not just for his chance to shine before a packed house. "To play with these guys, that's an incredible privilege," said Sommers of the opportunity to play with fellow former Denver associates Jim Horn, Bill Danoff, Herb Pedersen, Dan Wheetman, and more, including Jan Garrett, Sommers' Liberty co-founder. "And the most important thing is we're keeping John Denver's music alive. Because I think that he was a hell of a songwriter and a hell of a singer. He gets his share of flak, but he was a hell of a talent, and it's important to keep the music alive."
Photo of John by Paul Conrad; Photo of John and fiddle by Barbara Heckendorn; Photo of John and Twirp by Stephanie Sommers.