Saturday marks the 16th anniversary of the day John Denver died when his experimental plane crashed into Monterey Bay near Pacific Grove, Calif.
Every year since his death, his life has been celebrated in his longtime home of Aspen as friends, musicians and fans gather to remember his life, his music and his message.
It started with a handful of musicians, most of whom played with Denver at some point in his career, who simply wanted to honor the singer-songwriter and play some of his music.
Now, it’s grown into a weeklong celebration with different events every day, including musical performances and group activities as well as nightly sing-alongs at the Mountain Chalet, the unofficial headquarters of the event.
There’s no formal name of the gathering, but organizers refer to this week as “The John Denver Celebration.”
There’s no director or president that runs the celebration. Instead, it’s a handful of volunteers who keep the annual remembrance running through social media and word-of-mouth.
Hollie Carter, 57, taught environmental science for more than a decade and is currently an instructor at a performance-arts school in Atlanta. She was the co-director of the Earth Camp Program at the Windstar Foundation — which Denver co-founded — from 1999 to 2007 and a fan of Denver’s since she first heard his music in the 1970s.
Carter is a central figure on the “Aspen in October” Facebook site and helps organize several events for the celebration, including the horse-drawn hayride from the T Lazy Ranch, where she makes sure at least one musician rides with every wagon.
Like many fans of Denver’s music, she not only loved the melodies but was touched by the messages in the lyrics.
“I’ve always been a conservationist,” Carter said. “John’s music always made me want to be outdoors, and I love to share that feeling. His music encouraged people to get out and see the beauty around us. If you get people to listen to his music, you don’t have to explain the message; they just get it.”
Musician Chris Collins, 56, has worked with Carter on several different environmental projects and was brought in by Carter to become the music director for Earth Camp at Windstar.
When he’s not performing this week, Collins can be found interacting with people who came to Aspen to honor Denver and his music. He’s not an official spokesman for the celebration, but he could be.
“John Denver’s music is timeless,” Collins said. “He used to say that he was tapping into human longing, the need to be connected to our planet. The issues he sang about will be here as long as man is on this planet. John’s music had a simple elegance to it that made the words fall out of your mouth when you heard the melody.”
Susan Rose has lived in the Roaring Fork Valley on and off for the past 30 years. She’s currently living in Pennsylvania, where she does insurance verification for the Carlisle Regional Medical Center. She helps organize reservations and finances for the John Denver celebration.
She’s been working with Theatre Aspen this year and helped put together arrangements for Collins’ benefit concert this afternoon at the Hurst Theatre.
“A lot of people had the misconception that the celebration was dying down,” Rose said. “I see new folks coming on board every year.”
One of the main reasons the celebration appeared to be slowing down coincides with the current remodel of the Wheeler Opera House. Traditionally, that was the main venue for many of Denver’s ex-bandmates and writing partners to perform.
There’s no tribute show this year, but instead, there will be several smaller shows from artists who generally were considered subsidiary acts to the Wheeler Opera House performers, including Collins.
Now those musicians who traditionally performed at the Wheeler are free to perform their own shows or with the other musicians. Singer Mack Bailey has his own show Saturday at the Aspen Chapel, woodwind player Jim Horn is putting on his own show of music and stories about John Denver today at the Mountain Chalet, and banjo player Jim Connor will sit in with Collins during his show.
How much longer will the annual John Denver Celebration last? That’s a question that gets asked every year. His longtime fans aren’t getting any younger, and the most recent musical releases are box sets of previously unreleased concert footage.
Despite a lack of new material, the John Denver Celebration continues to expand.
Like Rose, Carter said she still sees the event growing. She gets between 15 and 20 new people signed up to visit the celebration every year, and many people are now bringing their kids to Aspen for the event.
“I see the event getting stronger before it begins to die down,” Carter said. “I imagine it’ll peak in 2017 for the 20th anniversary of the event. I’m not sure what will happen after that.”
Collins said as long as people are seeking out a connection to Denver’s music, the event will continue.
“None of us will ever be John Denver,” Collins said. “But each performer here has something that will remind you of John. Maybe it’s their sense of humor; maybe it’s their profile or a lilt in their voice. Put all that together, and there’s a cumulative effect on the audience to enjoy the spirit of John Denver, and that’s really quite nice.”