Last week, the decades-long love affair between West Virginia citizens and John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads” became legitimate when legislators passed a bill making it an offficial state song.
Writing credits for the song belong to Bill Danoff and Taffy Nivert, as well as John Denver, but it was a massive, signature hit for Denver. There’s a lot of folklore about the background of the song and how it was originally written about a different state, but to me none of that matters. Whatever the twists of fate that brought the song to the world, West Virginians have sewed it into their lives for a couple of generations now. Growing up in West Virginia, dealing with a self-imposed embarrassment about being an Appalachian native, hearing jokes and stereotypes constantly, it was rare to feel pride about where I was from. As an adult that has changed, but throughout my life, nothing has touched how happy and proud “Country Roads” makes me feel.
So, I decided to pull together some of my favorite versions of the song. I found multiple hip hop attempts, a “country dubstep” remix, and of course, lots of acoustic guitars, but what I consider the cream of the crop is listed below. (Sorry, but “country dubstep” will never be the cream of my crop.)
Gold Medal: Brandi Carlile and Emmylou Harris
My standout favorite cover is the one Brandi Carlile and Emmylou Harris (I mean COME ON) did on “The Music Is You: A Tribute to John Denver” last year. This version is true in spirit to the acoustic original, nods to the multiple voice chants and foot stomping you might hear at WVU sports events and bars around the state, yet is still understated and beautiful.
Silver Medal: Me First and the Gimme Gimmes
As a teenager, I drove way too quickly around the winding roads home (Island Creek, where you at?) screaming along to the fast, raucous, punk version by Me First and the Gimme Gimmes. It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but I still embarrassingly air drum and wail along. I always will.
Bronze Medal: Ray Charles
Ray Charles more than did the song justice when he recorded it in 1972. His groan on “moonshine” sends chills through me, much like the one time I tried moonshine and my whole head burned. The clapping, choir, and tambourine at the end bring tears to my eyes. It’s a church service.
A Queen Doesn’t Need Medals
Loretta is Loretta. I have nothing else to say.
I also love these two versions which modified the lyrics to fit the beloved homes of the artists. Toots and the Maytals’ reggae version is about West Jamaica, while Israel Kamakawiwo’ole made it about West Makaha in Hawaii. This song’s heart never changes, even when the lyrics and locations do. Home calls us back, and it’s a beautiful call.
Take issue with my rankings? Should John Denver stand alone? Comment below!