Jim Curry doesn’t try to imitate John Denver when he performs his tribute show. “I’m not Rich Little,” he says of the impersonator. “I just sing the way I sing.”
But his voice sounds enough like Denver’s that it was featured in the CBS movie “Take Me Home: The John Denver Story.”
Yet Curry isn’t even the most authentically Denveresque thing about the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra’s Pops concert Friday and Saturday.
That distinction goes to John Sommers, who played rhythm guitar, mandolin, the five-string banjo and the fiddle in Denver’s band for four years in the 1970s. “A lot of people refer to those as John’s golden years,” Sommers says.
So is it surreal to perform John Denver songs on stage with a Denver sound-alike after being on stage with the real John Denver all those years ago? “I wouldn’t call it surreal,” Sommers says. “It’s just exciting to be part of carrying on John’s musical legacy.”
“I have many fond memories of being on the road with John,” Sommers says. “He was a huge part of my life.”
In fact, one of Denver’s best-known songs – one that’s central to his sunny persona – wasn’t even written by Denver. Sommers wrote “Thank God I’m a Country Boy.”
“I was in the right place at the right time,” Sommers says. “John came into a club and heard my band, Liberty, and me playing that song, and he said, ‘I want to record that song.’ I said, ‘By golly, I’d love that.’ It was my good fortune – or luck, if you want to call it that.”
Sommers’ song would go on to reach the top spot on the pop and country charts – for one week each and one week apart.
“If John heard a good song, it didn’t matter that he hadn’t written it,” says Sommers. “He wanted to record it. I heard him say many times, ‘I wish I’d written that song.’ He said it about ‘Country Boy,’ and I was honored.”
Denver was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1996 for such folk hits (back in a day when a song could be both “folk” and “a hit”) as “Annie’s Song,” (“one of the most beautiful love songs of all time,” says Sommers) and “Sunshine on my Shoulders” and co-writing “Take Me Home, Country Roads” and “Rocky Mountain High.”
On Nov. 7 and 8, Curry, Sommers and company will perform those best-loved hits but also do deep cuts from the Denver catalog. For instance, they often play the last song Denver wrote, “Yellowstone, Coming Home.” Curry says, “John finished it, performed it with the Houston Symphony and then died 10 days later (in October 1997). He never recorded it.” The song addresses one of Denver’s favorite themes – the environment. “Yellowstone” was written as a tribute to wolves being reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park.
Both Sommers and Curry say Denver’s music has proven timeless. “People relate to it on a basic level,” Sommers says. “He wrote about love, the environment, the ocean. He loved Alaska, and he loved the Rocky Mountains. He wrote about all of it.”
“John’s music was almost an autobiography,” says Curry. “You could tell when he and (first wife) Annie were breaking up by the songs he recorded during that period.”
But mostly, Denver’s music had a certain optimism. “He left people with hope,” says Curry. “His music lifts you up, and that’s always what we hope to do in our shows.”