"John Denver: A Rocky Mountain High" celebrates the singular songwriter’s high watermarks both close to heart ("Annie’s Song") and home ("Take Me Home, Country Roads"). The tribute tour stops Thursday at ACL Live.
"Songs like ‘Leaving on a Jet Plane’ and ‘Sunshine on My Shoulders’ will be around 100 years from now," says longtime friend and guitarist Jim Salestrom. "They’re going to be like Stephen Foster songs or Woody Guthrie in the American songbook." (Denver died in a plane crash in 1997.)
American-Statesman: Explain how this tribute show works.
Jim Salestrom: They’ve taken films from different concerts around the world and they’ve compiled (him singing) a lot of the hit songs. They’ve taken just his vocal and guitar from the track and then we play live to it. It’s the people who were onstage with him and recorded with him. It makes for a really interesting concept.
Is it difficult to play against prerecorded vocals?
Well, it’s difficult because he would play not exactly perfectly in time. He did it with his soul and his heart and the songs kind of breathe the way he breathes. It came down to the feel and getting used to his small pauses or moments where he wanted to add emphasis or dramatics to the song. We had to learn those.
When did you meet John?
I got to do the monitors for him the first time he played Red Rocks (Amphitheatre in Denver) when I was 16. I just became friends with him and knew him for 25 years. I recorded on the album "Different Directions" and I hung out with him at probably 40 different concerts. I had a really great relationship with him as friends.
Describe him as a friend.
When John was in the room, the sun could be shining. He really had a way of making everybody feel special and breaking down the barriers between the audience and the stage. I saw him in arenas with 18,000 people and I used to walk around the top watching people watch him. He had a way of making everyone feel like they were getting a one-on-one concert with him. He had an amazing charisma.
He generally seemed like a really nice, fun guy. What do you miss most?
Yeah, he was. He was an amazing person. When I first started singing with the band 15 years ago, I had this feeling that he was gonna come around the curtain at any moment and say, "Hey, what do you think you’re doing?"
Are these tribute shows hard or heartening for you?
They’re not difficult. They’re a labor of love. We did "Sunshine on My Shoulders" last night and (I realized) I’m playing the song along with John Denver. I realized how emotional I was getting. It must be because of my childhood being with him.
What’s your favorite memory?
The first time I got to hang out was at Red Rocks. He played us "Rocky Mountain High" for the very first time in public. Then he played it again that night. He was so excited about getting to share this song and that we got to hear it. Then when the state of Colorado made that its official song, I got to represent his family and sing it at the state capital. Music is an amazing thing because it triggers memories and it was all pretty much positive with John.