Aspen Times Weekly: John Denver, Back Home Again with Chris Collins
If You Go …
What: Chris Collins and Boulder Canyon
Where: Paepcke Auditorium
When: Saturday, Oct. 10, 8 p.m.
How much: $50
Tickets: Wheeler Opera House box office, http://www.aspenshowtix.com
What: John Denver Celebration
Where: Mountain Chalet, Aspen Chapel, Aspen Community Church and elsewhere
When: Wednesday, Oct. 8 through Monday, Oct. 12
More information: For a full schedule of the 30-plus scheduled events, visit http://www.johndenvercelebration.com
Chris Collins has, to his surprise, become the face of the annual John Denver Celebration in Aspen over the last 12 years.
The Texas singer-songwriter — with a marked resemblance to the Aspen icon — first heard about the celebration after a gig at the Kerrville Folk Festival in Texas, where he had a fortuitous exchange with a Fort Worth bar owner who made an annual pilgrimage to the week of events.
“He said, ‘Do you know any John Denver?’” Collins told me from his home in Canejos Canyon, near Colorado’s New Mexico border. “And I said ‘No’ and he said, ‘If you ever want to do a tribute show, come on up, because you look and sound like him.’”
In 2003, Collins — who had been performing his original music — learned some of the John Denver catalog and came to Aspen for the first time. His ability to interpret Denver’s songs has since given him a full-time career, traveling the U.S. with his band, Boulder Canyon, playing to the Denver faithful.
Collins’ shows have since been a constant at the annual tribute gatherings.
“It was completely accidental,” he says. “It’s an incredible thing to stand on stage and be the messenger, and by proxy, receive the adoration for John’s music.”
The Oct. 10 Boulder Canyon concert is taking place in Paepcke Auditorium this year, due to renovations at its traditional home in the Wheeler Opera House.
In the years following John Denver’s death in a plane crash in 1997, his bandmates and writing partners gathered in Aspen for a weekend of concerts on the anniversary of the accident. The informal get-together quickly grew into a global event, bringing fans and musicians to Aspen for a days-long celebration of his life and work.
In recent years, the Collins’ shows have been the centerpiece of the celebration, which this year runs Oct. 8 to 12 and includes more than 30 events. Collins, who wears eyeglasses and floppy hair to accentuate the Denver resemblance, typically plays a mix of John Denver anthems like “Annie’s Song” and “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” alongside deeper cuts.
“Every John Denver song is kind of unique,” he says. “It’s not like playing rock music were it’s all upbeat and danceable, pounding rhythms. His music goes from upbeat to slow and sentimental. It’s like a roller coaster ride playing his music. It’s awesome because you never get bored with it.”
Collins credits Denver’s enduring fan base to the hopeful message in the songs, preaching peace and conservation and love.
“His music represents the best of human nature,” says Collins.
This year’s concert has some special guests, including Denver bandmates Mack Bailey and Jim Horn. Bailey, still based in Aspen, is pursuing music therapy these days. While Horn, who toured with Denver from 1978 to 1993, is among the foremost woodwind players of the rock ’n’ roll era. Along with his John Denver tours, he played on the Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds” and the Rolling Stones’ “Goats Head Soup,” and performed with legends like Paul McCartney, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Warren Zevon and a host of others.
Horn played Aspen during early renditions of what’s now known as the John Denver Celebration. But this show marks his first with Collins and Boulder Canyon.
“We’re ecstatic to have him,” says Collins. “Jim has been coming up in honor of John and did the Wheeler Opera House show with John’s old band and we’ve become friends over the years.”
Since the 10th annual John Denver celebration in 2008, rumors have persisted that it will disband. But, Collins says, it won’t be going anywhere.
“More and more people are discovering the celebration and instead of getting smaller, it’s actually getting larger,” he says.