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Ellen Stapenhorst joins John Denver tribute show

Stewart OksenhornThe Aspen TimesAspen, CO Colorado
Courtesy Ellen StapenhorstFormer Aspen musician Ellen Stapenhorst joins the John Denver tribute show Friday and Saturday at Aspen's Wheeler Opera House.
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ASPEN Ellen Stapenhorst says that she and John Denver were never close friends. But over many years, and in many settings, the two folk singers were good acquaintances with an emphasis on the good. Stapenhorst always came away from her encounters with Denver feeling uplifted knowing that being passionate was not in vain, that singing some songs could make a difference to those listening.That feeling began with her first meeting with Denver. Stapenhorsts older brother, Steve, was playing the same circuit of Los Angeles coffeehouses in the mid-60s as Denver. It would be some years before Denver started making a name for himself, but Steve thought enough of him that he brought Ellen to get a taste of Denver. Ellen, too, recognized the star in the making.He just seemed like someone pretty special. What he had was pretty special, said Stapenhorst, from her home in Paonia. He seemed to have a real enthusiasm for what he was doing, and for everyone he met, and that came through in his music.Stapenhorsts ties to Denver get a notch deeper this weekend. She is among the guest artists at the 11th annual Musical Tribute to John Denver concerts, Friday and Saturday at the Wheeler Opera House. After attending several of the past concerts as an audience member, Stapenhorst will share the stage with numerous Denver band members and co-writers, including Coloradan Jim Salestrom; Take Me Home Country Roads writer Bill Danoff; guitarist Pete Huttlinger; and keyboardist Chris Nole, who takes over as musical director for this years event. The concerts benefit Challenge Aspen, a local organization that offers recreational and cultural opportunities to people with mental or physical handicaps.Stapenhorst is well-versed in Denvers catalogue. She is accompanist for the Roaring Fork Valley-based Earthbeat Choir, a childrens group that performs songs by Denver, as well as some written by Stapenhorst. And several of Denvers songs are part of her regular repertoire. (The Earthbeat Choir is scheduled to appear at the Aspen Chapel on Sunday as part of a John Denver-based service.) But her contribution to this weekends concerts is a song by her brother. All of My Skies was written in response to Denvers death, 11 years ago this Sunday, when the airplane he was piloting crashed into Monterey Bay.Its been a healing song for people. Or a reminder to people about what John was, aside from his music, said Stapenhorst, who will be accompanied by local fiddler and Thank God Im a Country Boy writer John Sommers; singer-guitarist Denny Brooks; and, if he makes it to Aspen, her brother Steve. (His attendance was in question, due to a family health issue.) How he put himself out on a limb and cared about things passionately, and worked to support those causes.One of the producers of the show, Karmen Dopslaff, she really loved the song. She called me up a while back and asked, Will you please sing the song for the show? And I said Id love to. The family that Ellen and Steve Stapenhorst grew up in was one that had a major appreciation for music. But it was left to Ellen and Steve to actually sing and play, and both became involved with the Southern California folk scene of the 60s and early 70s, one which Ellen remembers fondly.Growing up in Los Angeles at that time was pretty great, she said. There were a lot of great opportunities to play, to see great people. I remember sitting at the feet of Jackson Browne, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band even before John McEuen got involved.Stapenhorst ran a venue, the Whole, in Glendale. In fact, it was a nonprofit community center for troubled youth, though a folk club seemed to fit well enough the mission. I dont know if I was helping them, or one of them, she quipped.One of the L.A. folkies she had a special reverence for was Steve Gillette. He was this amazing guitar player. All of us who were learning to play back then would sit at his feet and stare in amazement and ask, How does he do that? said Stapenhorst, who learned to play guitar, as well as fiddle and a little bit of bass. Gillette would go on to write the love ballad Darcy Farrow, which Denver recorded for his 1972 album, Rocky Mountain High. Gillette is also a special guest at this weekends tribute concerts. He and his wife, Cindy Mangsen, appear as a duo in a concert Friday at 2 p.m. at the Aspen Community Church, with Stapenhorst opening.Steve Stapenhorst introduced his sister not only to John Denver, but to the town that Denver would become so closely associated with. After Steve left California for Aspen and produced Denvers first appearance at the Wheeler Opera House Ellen followed for a visit which turned into a 10-year stay. She played aprs-ski gigs and in various bands until she and Steve joined together with several others to form Tanglefoot. The country-rock band had a successful eight-year run that saw them tour the country and occasionally share a bill with John Denver. From that vantage, she saw just why Denver was such a strong attraction for people.He touched a good, optimistic side of us, she said. And a very caring side, caring about the environment, about social issues. What he was writing about really spoke to some common feelings. And really touched peoples hearts. And his later work, which the general public doesnt know so much, kept getting deeper.I always wonder what hed be writing about situations going on now. I miss his voice. I miss his perspective.Stapenhorst moved back to California in 1982. But she always maintained a presence in Aspen, and in 2002 she moved to Carbondale, then three years later, to Paonia. She performs at clubs, festivals and house concerts, and is about to record her fourth CD. She also has a hand in event production; next weekend, she is helping produce the Alternative Energy Expo in Delta, Colo.Another career sidelight has been in dispute resolution, which became another tie to Denver. In the mid-80s, Stapenhorst began working with local resident Tom Crum, who uses the Eastern art of Aikido in conflict resolution and managerial performance. Crum was also a co-founder, along with Denver, of the Windstar Foundation, a Snowmass-based organization devoted to environmental causes. Stapenhorst, who is a black belt in aikido and still works occasionally with Crum, would sometimes rub shoulders with Denver at Crums events.Moreover, Crum, through his relationship with Denver, saw how music could play a role in his work. Stapenhorst was often his conduit.He had this close relationship with John, so Tom was aware of the power of music, how it could touch people, she said. So, in workshops, even in corporate settings, hed have me play some music. Theyd be getting all this information, and then Id play and there would be this relaxing, emotional element. Hed introduce me, saying, Always travel with a folk singer.stewart@aspentimes.com


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