In late 1996, when John Denver and his band visited a Nashville studio to re-record signature hits like “Sunshine On My Shoulders” and “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” he was not exactly compatible with RCA Records, the label that helped the soft-spoken singer-songwriter sell 33 million albums over his career.
Two years earlier, in his autobiography, he’d called RCA “an organization of pure opportunists” and declared it “not only lacked interest in promoting my albums, they were no longer interested in releasing them.”
So he pulled a Taylor Swift — when 7-year-old Taylor probably had no idea what a master recording even was.
With regulars such as bassist Alan Deremo and the late guitarist Pete Huttlinger, Denver created new masters for the old songs, to be owned exclusively by his indie label, Windstar Records. He was considering releasing the tracks when he died at 53 in a plane crash in late 1997. After that, Windstar put them out as a limited-edition European album, but they never came out officially in the United States — until Friday (Nov. 17), when his estate releases The Last Recordings.
“It’s always a good time to release what we have,” says Amy Abrams, who co-manages Denver’s estate with Brian Schwartz of 7S Management in Denver. “John would have been 80 this year. We recently passed 25 years since he passed away. We want to make sure fans have access to those recordings.”
Abrams says Denver’s estate, which includes his children Zak Deutschendorf, Anna Kate Hutter and Jesse Belle Denver, has a “fine working relationship” these days with RCA and its parent company, Sony, which has put out box sets such as 2011’s 25-disc The RCA Albums Collection. (A Sony representative declined to comment, as did Denver’s children.)
But in 1996, the activist and singer-songwriter was angry with RCA, which, in Take Me Home: An Autobiography, he had accused of turning down his Perhaps Love album and pushing him to record an “ersatz” country album called Some Days Are Diamonds instead. He was relishing his time as an independent artist. “The mood was laid back,” recalls Chris Nole, who played piano and keyboards on the re-recording session. “It was always relaxed, because we didn’t have a record label or manager breathing down our necks. It was just making John happy.”
The 1996 sessions took less than a week to record, and “let me tell you, they went fast.” Nole adds: “John was not an overdub king, punching one word five or six times. We would get them in one or two takes.” Deremo says Denver’s band had worked out the new arrangements in concert over the previous few years, and basically played them live in the Nashville studio: “If there was any conversation about how to approach the songs, it was just that we would execute them the way we were playing them live at the time.”
The most striking thing about The Last Recordings is Denver’s voice — deeper and a touch more gravely than the one on his ’70s hits. “He lost a lot of the boyish quality that his voice had early on,” Deremo says. “It ripened into a really full, beautiful-sounding instrument.”
Denver returned to the studio in 1997 to make his final RCA album, All Aboard!, a collection of train-song covers that came out shortly before his death in October. The songs on The Last Recordings have since trickled out over the years, titled A Celebration of Life, among other things. “His motivation was likely to have creative control,” Abrams says. “He wanted to give his fans ‘John’s Version,’ with more lived experience and musical development behind it.”
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