Music Interviews
2:03 am
Sat April 13, 2013

Dave Matthews Takes John Denver's Music 'To Tomorrow'

Originally published on Sat April 13, 2013 10:31 am

By the time John Denver died in a plane crash in 1997, he had written and sung a remarkable assortment of cherished music: "Rocky Mountain High," "Take Me Home, Country Roads," "Sunshine on My Shoulders," "Leaving on a Jet Plane" and many more. He was often mocked by edgier musicians for being a kind of musically soft, spongy Wonderbread of a singer-songwriter. But his songs have endured — and influenced more than one generation.

Now, a group of musicians has come together to produce The Music Is You: A Tribute to John Denver. One of the album's contributors, Dave Matthews, plays a slowed-down interpretation of Denver's "Take Me to Tomorrow."

"[Denver] was eager to get a different sound, but I thought maybe he didn't serve the lyrics to that song as well as he could have," Matthews says. "So I tried a different angle. I don't know if I've managed to serve them any better, but I certainly took a different route than he did."

Other contributors to The Music Is You include Josh Ritter, Lucinda Williams, Old Crow Medicine Show, My Morning Jacket, Emmylou Harris and Brandi Carlile. Here, Matthews speaks with NPR's Scott Simon about learning from Denver's songwriting.


Interview Highlights

On Denver and coolness

"I grew up listening to a lot of music, but no small part was taken up by John Denver's music. And I think he was a staple for a lot of people. ... In a way, he was sort of mocked by the industry that he was at the top of, and mocked by what was considered cool. So there was even a time when maybe I was a little embarrassed that I had an affection for him, and maybe hid it when I was trying my best to be cool. He was such a strong character, and he was such a wholesome character, but it wasn't in a cynical way."

On what constitutes a good song

"If there's something in a song that brings everything together, or can sort of make sense of nonsense ... I always come back to the same example, and it's the [Bob] Dylan example ... In a way, you could sing about climbing trees or having a really bad cold or the stomach flu, and it doesn't matter as long as you have a hook as wonderful as, 'Come in, she said / I'll give ya shelter from the storm.' It wraps everything up. And I think John Denver did that so beautifully with lines that are so memorable. 'Take Me Home, Country Roads' was a song that used to make my dad cry near the end of his life, because it makes you feel like it's your own words."

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Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

By the time John Denver died in a plane crash in 1997, he had written and sung some of the most cherished music ever - "Rocky Mountain High," "Take Me Home, Country Roads," "Sunshine on My Shoulders" and "Leaving on a Jet Plane."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LEAVING ON A JET PLANE")

JOHN DENVER: (Singing) All my bags are packed, I'm ready to go. I'm standing here outside your door. I hate to wake you up to say goodbye. But the dawn is breaking, it's early morn, the taxi's waiting, he's blowin' his horn. Already, I'm so lonesome I could die...

SIMON: He was often mocked as being a kind of musical soft, spongy Wonder bread by edgier musicians. But John Denver's songs have endured, and influenced more than one generation of young musicians. Now, a group of artists has come together to produce "The Music is You: A Tribute to John Denver."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LEAVING ON A JET PLANE")

MY MORNING JACKET: (Singing) 'Cause I'm leaving on a jet plane. Don't know when I'll be back again. Oh, babe, I hate to go...

SIMON: Of course, that's the same song, performed this time by My Morning Jacket. Other contributors include Josh Ritter, Lucinda Williams, Old Crow Medicine Show, Emmylou Harris and Dave Matthews, who joins us now from the studios of member station KUOW in Seattle. Dave, thanks so much for being with us.

DAVE MATTHEWS: Well, it's great to be here again.

SIMON: I can only imagine how many projects you get to participate in. What made you say yes to this one?

MATTHEWS: I grew up listening to a lot of music, but no small part was taken up by John Denver's music. And I think he was a staple for a lot of people. And like you said, it was - in a way, he was sort of mocked by the industry that he was at the top of, and mocked by what was considered cool. So there was even a time when maybe I was a little embarrassed that I had an affection for him, and maybe hid it when I was trying my best to be cool. But it was such a strong character; and he was such a wholesome character, but it wasn't in a cynical way. You know, I just - I thought it was a great project to be part of; and it took me a while to find a song that I could sing, that didn't sound more cynical with me singing it. So I think I finally found one.

SIMON: Let's listen to the original version of "Take Me To Tomorrow."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TAKE ME TO TOMORROW")

DENVER: (Singing) Hey everybody, tell me how do you feel? Are you satisfied with your life? Do you think it's real? Tell me how is your head, what are your dreams. Do you have any plans; do you have any schemes? Do you care about - about anybody? I'd like to know...

MATTHEWS: I was so surprised by the way that one sounded. But then I listened to it, and there's a really beautiful idea that he's singing about. And the chorus, which is "take me to tomorrow, and that's where I want to be 'cause the day after tomorrow is waiting for me," I kind of - I thought that sound - had a really nice hook to it. And so I slowed it down a little bit.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TAKE ME TO TOMORROW")

MATTHEWS: (Singing) Take me to tomorrow and take me there today. I've had my fill of sorrow and living this way. Oh, take me to tomorrow, that's where I'd like to be. Oh, the day after tomorrow is waiting for me. Yeah, the day after tomorrow is waiting for me. Yeah, the day after tomorrow is waiting for me. Hey, everybody, what's on your mind? Do you think there's nowhere else to go and nothing left to find? Are you happy where you are? Do you have anything to share? Ooh, do you think you're gonna waste your life spending it here?

SIMON: Well, that is different.

(LAUGHTER)

MATTHEWS: But I think it's still his. And in that particular instance, I think he was eager to get a different sound. But I thought maybe he didn't serve the lyrics to that song as well as he could have, so I tried a different angle. I don't know if I've managed to serve them any better, but I certainly took a different route than he did.

SIMON: As you go through John Denver's songs, as you went through them, as you went even through this one, did it kind of sharpen your mind as to what makes a really good song?

MATTHEWS: If there's something in a song that brings everything together, or can sort of make sense of nonsense - in a way, poetry asks the same thing. But with a lot of pop writing - and I don't mean that in a bad way; I mean that in a very positive way, and I struggle with it, when I write - is the idea that - I always come back to the same example, and it's a Dylan example; when Bob Dylan said, come in, she said; (singing) I'll give you shelter from the storm.

And I just always think that that's an example of a hook that comes to mind that in a way, you could sing about climbing trees and - or having a really bad cold or the stomach flu, and then it doesn't matter as long as you have a hook as wonderful as come in, she said; (singing) I'll give you shelter from the storm. It wraps everything up. And I think John Denver did that so beautifully with lines that are so memorable. "Take Me Home, Country Roads" or - which was a song that used to make my dad cry, near the end of his life or - because it makes you feel like it's your own words. Or "I'm leaving on a jet plane," you know - and that sums everything up, and it's sort of all in the space of two and a half minutes. It is funny. I think you could go - 'cause at one point, John Denver was quietly, in his own way, the most known musician on the planet, I would imagine.

SIMON: Yeah, I believe so.

MATTHEWS: And I think you could go to somewhere in the far eastern corner of Siberia and say (singing) almost heaven; and people around you would go (singing) West Virginia. They would know the song, without question.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUNSHINE ON MY SHOULDERS")

SIMON: Let's listen - and get you to listen with us - to a bit from another song, one of his best known, surely. This is performed by Train this time - "Sunshine on My Shoulders."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUNSHINE ON MY SHOULDERS")

TRAIN: (Singing) Sunshine in my eyes can make me cry. Sunshine on the water looks so lovely...

SIMON: And as you say, you begin with that "sunshine on my shoulders makes me happy" - that just really memorable, lyrical image.

MATTHEWS: Yeah, 'cause it's - everybody knows it. And you can't deny it, even if you're grumpy; even if you go through a couple years in your teen years when you go, man, I hate sunny days. Well, you don't, really; but you're grumpy at the moment.

SIMON: (LAUGHTER)

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUNSHINE ON MY SHOULDERS")

TRAIN: (Singing) Sunshine almost always...

SIMON: I think we've talked a fair amount about this song, but we'd like to go out with a really, very fine rendition of "Take Me Home, Country Roads." And this is by Brandi Carlile and Emmylou Harris.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TAKE ME HOME, COUNTRY ROADS")

BRANDI CARLILE, EMMYLOU HARRIS: (Singing) Almost heaven, West Virginia, Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah River. Life is old there, older than the trees, younger than the mountains, blowin' like the breeze. Country roads, take me home, to the place, where I belong. West Virginia, mountain mama, take me home, country roads...

SIMON: Boy, that's good, isn't it?

MATTHEWS: Yeah, it's good when they all open up.

SIMON: Dave Matthews, thanks so much for speaking with us.

MATTHEWS: Thank you very much for having me again. It was good to hear you.

SIMON: Dave Matthews, one of the contributors to the new collection, "The Music is You: A Tribute to John Denver."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TAKE ME HOME, COUNTRY ROADS")

DENVER: (Singing) ...country roads, take me home to the place I belong, West Virginia...

SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Good to have you along on our maiden voyage today. I'm Scott Simon.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TAKE ME HOME, COUNTRY ROADS")

DENVER: (Singing) ...take me home, country roads. All my memories... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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