ASPEN " When singer John Adams was performing in Vail this summer, a music lover stopped in astonishment and quickly fumbled for his cell phone.
"Hey, John Denver's playing here!" he said excitedly.
"No, honey, John Denver's dead," his wife explained patiently.
"No, he can't be dead " he's playing right here!" insisted the husband.
Believe it or not, this sort of scene is a common occurrence in the performing life of John Adams.
Originally from Holland, Adams has for more than two decades made an international name for himself as a gifted and authentic interpreter of the music of John Denver, who became not only a colleague, but a friend and mentor to the Dutch singer.
Adams will be recreating the music of Denver in his signature show, "Rocky Mountain High," at Aspen's Wheeler Opera House on Sunday at 7 p.m.
For Adams, authentically recreating the music of Denver has been a lifelong mission of love, beginning when he was in his teens in his hometown of Apeldoorn, Holland. Adams not only learned to sing Denver's songs in perfect English, he also studied the singer's phrasing and vocal inflections, while mastering both the six-string and 12-string guitars.
In 1988, his big break came when he won a national song contest in Holland " competing against 1,500 other musicians in a sort of early European version of "American Idol" " by singing and playing Denver's "Leaving on a Jet Plane."
Winning the contest guaranteed tours and bookings for Adams throughout Europe, and also brought him face-to-face with his idol on a live television broadcast.
On the show, Adams planned to perform Denver's "Whispering Jesse," a song not yet known outside its album release in Australia. As a surprise for the young singer, the show's producer had also booked John Denver as a guest, who delightedly performed the song with Adams. The original video clip from this 1988 performance can currently be seen on YouTube.
It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship, as Denver made it a point to meet with Adams every time he came to Holland. He also helped the young singer by enthusiastically telling audiences throughout his career, "This guy sounds exactly like me!"
"Once, I asked John if he minded that I exclusively performed his music and nothing else, and he told me he was delighted," said Adams.
Shortly afterward, Denver suggested that they record a duet version of his song "The Flower that Shattered the Stone," a project that, to Adams' regret, was never completed due to Denver's untimely death on Oct. 12, 1997, while piloting an experimental aircraft in California.
Adams was performing in London when he heard the news of his friend's death. In his grief, he made a decision to continue to commit the rest of his life to performing Denver's music throughout the world.
Encouraged by his American fans overseas, Adams first came to the U.S. to perform at the Hotel Jerome in Aspen in 1998. This led to his first engagement during the annual John Denver weekend at the Wheeler Opera House, an engagement which Adams will reprise for the 10th time Sunday at the Wheeler.
Adams loves to relate stories of how the music of John Denver touches people from all walks of life, from the concert where a member of a Harley Davidson biker gang came to him in tears and told him that John Denver was his all-time favorite performer, to the time when an audience sang along to "Take Me Home, Country Roads" in Beijing, China.
"John's music is timeless. I believe you could still play it 75 years from now," he said. "And the way I perform John's music is the way he wrote it and performed it, the way he intended for it to be heard. His songs are so personal, everyone recognizes things out of their own lives in his lyrics.
"And in this fast-paced world, in the highway of our lives, it's good to put on the brakes and stand still and listen to his music," he added. "It reminds us that there's a lot of good out there, and gives us more of an awareness about our planet."
This awareness, inspired by Denver's music, has motivated Adams to follow his own path of global activism as well. In the last two decades, Adams has made 13 visits to Ghana, where he has taught for UNICEF and helped to build schools. Adams has also been an Ambassador for the Ronald McDonald House, giving 10 percent of his CD sales to Ronald McDonald Children's Homes.
Adams, who now lives in Silverthorne, Colo., is currently recording his fourth CD, a Christmas album which will also feature some of Denver's Christmas songs. But wherever the music takes him, Adams says that for him, as it was for John Denver, the Colorado Rockies will always bring him back.
"I consider Colorado as absolutely my home," he said. "I love the people here. And just like it says in 'This Old Guitar,' I love to sing John's songs for them."