Next time you hear John Denver warbling “Take Me Home, Country Roads” — or hear the group Spank perform it in the trailer for the video game Fallout 76, a version that has become a hit and an earworm over the past year or so since it came out — keep in mind that it wasn’t anywhere in West Virginia that inspired the massive hit, but rather a road in Montgomery County.
Songwriter Bill Danoff, in a 1997 article he wrote for The Washington Post (in tribute to Denver, who’d just died), said he had begun writing the song while driving to a family reunion along Clopper Road, near Gaithersburg. He and his future wife, Taffy Nivert, completed the song in December 1970 with Denver’s help. “Back then,” Danoff wrote, Clopper Road “was still a country road.” (It isn’t anymore, apparently, thanks to development over the past 49 years.)
The three premiered the song the following night at Washington, D.C.’s The Cellar Door, where Denver was headlining (Danoff and Nivert, performing under the name Fat City, were his opening act). “When we first sang the song together,” Danoff wrote, “it seemed as though the audience would never stop applauding. Next show, same thing. We knew we had a hit.”
Wrote Denver, in “Take Me Home,” his 1994 autobiography, “In the wee hours of the morning, sometime between Christmas and New Year's Eve, in their basement apartment in Washington, D.C., we wrote ‘Take Me Home, Country Roads.’ It became my first Number One record.”
No word on why Maryland lost out to West Virginia in the lyrics. Perhaps “Maryland” just doesn’t sound as pastoral as its western neighbor. More likely, the three syllables that combine for our state’s name just don’t fit the meter the songwriters had worked out.
(Some sources suggest Denver considered using “Massachusetts” instead of “West Virginia.” Good thing he didn’t, or crazed Red Sox fans might be singing it between innings. An ode to Massachusetts also would never have been named a state song of West Virginia, a status “Take Me Home, County Roads” has enjoyed since 2014.)
Denver, of course, went on to great fame and popularity, not the least sign of which is the continuing presence of his version of “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” during the seventh-inning stretch at Orioles games. He died in an October 1997 plane crash in Northern California.
Danoff and Nivert married in 1972. Four years later, as two of the four members of Starland Vocal Band, they had a number-one hit with “Afternoon Delight,” which, thankfully, no state has embraced as its signature song.