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Revisit: Rhymes & Reasons: The Music of John Denver



John Denver is one of America’s greatest country-folk singer/songwriters. With over 30 albums in his discography, the body of work from this performer, actor, environmentalist, and humanitarian continues to be celebrated. He had a raw talent and unique ability to capture the essence of everyday issues through music that seemed to flow from him with deep conviction. His poems and music have made an international impact, establishing him as one of the most cherished entertainers of his time.

Denver dropped out of college to pursue a career in music. He relocated to California where he adopted Denver as his stage surname in tribute to his favorite state, Colorado. Denver would join the Chad Mitchell Trio where he began to develop his skills as a songwriter prior to his departure from the group in 1969. His stardom was assured with the 1971 release of his fourth studio album, Poems, Prayers & Promises, for which he wrote over half of the songs. “Take Me Home, Country Roads” (co-written with Bill Danoff and Taffy Nivert) and “Sunshine on My Shoulders” (co-written with Dick Kniss and Mike Taylor) were both hit singles.

Denver penned numerous chart-topping hits throughout his career, establishing himself as a best-selling performer. The governor of Colorado later recognized him as the state’s poet laureate. His focus and material would continue to evolve throughout his career, reflecting his emerging interests including film work and humanitarian efforts in support of environmental issues and space exploration. Denver died tragically at the age of 53 on October 12, 1997 while flying his experimental aircraft. Rhymes & Reasons: The Music of John Denver is a tribute to Denver’s life, music, and commitment to the environment and humanity.

Exhibit Locations and Duration:

  • GRAMMY Museum at LA Live (January 26, 2017 – July 30, 2017)
  • Woody Guthrie Center, Tulsa, OK (August 31, 2017 – January 7, 2018)

This exhibit was displayed in the Mike Curb Gallery on the GRAMMY Museum’s fourth floor.


Henry John Deutschendorf was born on December 31, 1943, in Roswell, New Mexico, and raised in an Air Force family. He learned to play guitar at the age of 11 when he was given his grandmother’s 1910 Gibson guitar. Deutschendorf was studying architecture at Texas Tech University while singing in the Alpine Trio. The trio performed locally at various clubs and venues. It was in college that he decided to pursue music full-time and eventually dropped out of school.

Upon moving to Los Angeles in 1963, he was urged by his friends to change his name if he wanted to take advantage of the thriving music scene in Los Angeles. Soon after, he adopted the surname “Denver” for his love of the city. In 1965, Denver joined the Mitchell Trio, which later became “Denver, Boise, and Johnson” after he replaced founding member Chad Mitchell. Denver left the trio in 1969 to pursue a solo career, and that same year, he released his debut album, Rhymes & Reasons. Although the album was not a major success, it featured one of his most popular arrangements, “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” which was later popularized by Peter, Paul & Mary. It wasn’t until his fourth studio album, Poems, Prayers & Promises, that his career would change forever.

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Early in his solo career, John Denver began to focus his energy on issues outside of music. He was not afraid to explore new frontiers and discover ways in which the world could become a better place. His passion for protecting the environment became known internationally, and his songs took on a whole new depth. Denver would go on to receive numerous accolades for his humanitarian work and he often performed for charitable and environmental causes.

Denver’s beloved song, “Calypso,” is an ode to world-famous underwater explorer and environmental activist Jacques Cousteau and his research ship, Calypso. It was the hit single on Denver’s 1975 album, Windsong, which deals primarily with Denver’s interest in ecology and nature. In Denver’s 1975 television special, “An Evening with John Denver,” he visited Calypso to dive with Cousteau and share his music with the ship’s crew.

In 1985, Denver received an invitation from the Soviet Union Composers to perform “Let Us Begin (What Are We Making Weapons For?).” He returned to Kiev the following year to perform a benefit concert for the victims of the Chernobyl disaster, a nuclear accident in the Ukraine where thousands, including children, were impacted by high levels of radiation.

Denver, a licensed pilot, had a passion for flying that went far beyond airplanes. He was fascinated by spaceflight, and dedicated himself to NASA’s “Citizens in Space” program. In 1985, he received the NASA Public Service Medal for his efforts to increase awareness of space exploration. Prior to Denver, this honor had only been given to spaceflight engineers and designers.

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Throughout his career, John Denver traveled the world extensively as both a performer and a photographer. During his travels, Denver captured images of the places and people he experienced. Inspired by nature, he took photos of sublime landscapes that he would eventually exhibit professionally. Denver aligned his photographic work with his philanthropic message and often shared his images during lectures and speeches.

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From the GRAMMYs Awards’ first non-televised ceremony in 1959, the ceremony has presented a wide array of artists and hosts over the years, captivating audiences with spellbinding performances and unique collaborations. During the height of John Denver’s career, he graced the GRAMMY stage, an honor that not many celebrities have had. In 1978, Denver hosted the 20th Annual GRAMMY Awards and went on to become a regular. He would host the show five more times after his debut. Years later, Denver received best Musical Album For Children, his first and only GRAMMY Award.