John Denver days were good days for Pedersen
By the time Herb Pedersen got around to playing with John Denver – first at the 1979 sessions for the “Autograph” album, and then for three years as a member of Denver’s touring band – Denver was already a major star. But Pedersen had recognized something special in Denver nearly two decades earlier, when both Pedersen and Denver were teenage musicians, playing in the Los Angeles acoustic scene and looking for recognition.It was at the Westwood club Ledbetter’s, in 1962 or ’63, or “before he was John Denver,” as Pedersen puts it. “He was a solo guitar player in the urban folk scene and I was in a bluegrass band, the Pine Valley Boys, a Bay area bluegrass band.”That early memory of Denver is particularly fresh because the singer had a quality to him, even at the age of 18, that Pedersen wanted for himself. “He was a very nice guy, very charming,” said Pedersen. “I always envied guys like that. He had that persona, the people skills, and I was hiding behind my five-string banjo.”It would be a while before the two musicians crossed paths again. “He jumped very quickly into mainstream folkdom, and I was playing bluegrass, which was a whole other group of people,” said Pedersen, who plays banjo and guitar and sings. It was an impressive group of people: Pedersen joined up with David Grisman to form the Smoky Grass Boys in 1964; played with Lester Flatt – replacing a hospitalized Earl Scruggs – for a while; and joined the Dillards in 1967, with whom he played until 1972. In the early ’70s, Pedersen switched directions and focused on a career as a Los Angeles studio musician, working with the likes of Linda Ronstadt, Emmylou Harris, John Prine and Gordon Lightfoot.In the late ’70s, Denver was trying a new approach to recording, using studio players rather than his road band. Among the musicians who got the call was Pedersen, who fell back in with Denver like they were old friends.”When I saw John, it was great because it felt like we picked up the conversation right where we left it off in 1963,” he said. After the recording of “Autograph,” Denver decided to make the studio band – including Jim Horn, James Burton, Danny Wheetman, Hal Blaine, Emory Gordy and Glen D. Hardin – his road band. For three years, Pedersen traveled the world with Denver, a time marked by luxury and Denver’s generosity.”It just didn’t get any better,” said Pedersen, who is among the Denver collaborators in Aspen for the Musical Tribute to John Denver concerts at the Wheeler Opera House tonight through Sunday. “He paid us very well; we couldn’t buy our own meals. We had our own private plane with couches, a private bedroom. We went all over the world and had some wonderful times. John treated you well if you gave him the best you had.”For Pedersen, the time with Denver was more a career highlight than a musical one. “I wasn’t into his music all that much. I was more into bluegrass,” he said. But Denver’s enthusiasm eventually won him over: “He was an infectious guy, and he got you to like it.”Toward the mid-’80s, Denver downsized the band, and Pedersen parted ways. But he would have one last memorable fling with the late singer. In the mid-’90s, Pedersen recorded on Denver’s final studio album, “All Aboard,” and Denver even included Pedersen’s “Old Train” on the train-oriented recording. “I was really just happy to see him again,” said Pedersen. “And that’s when I met all these guys – Pete Hutlinger, Chris Nole, Richie Garcia – who are wonderful players.”Pedersen has had a varied and busy career since leaving Denver’s band. He released a series of folk-rock albums under his own name. With Chris Hillman, who Pedersen knew before Hillman gained fame with the Byrds, he formed the country-rock group the Desert Rose Band. Pedersen and Hillman also play regularly as a duo, and with brothers Tony and Larry Rice in Rice, Rice, Hillman & Pedersen.Pedersen’s primary gig these days is the Laurel Canyon Ramblers, which he calls a “seminal L.A. bluegrass band, very tight.”Not quite so tight is Old & In the Gray, a successor to the short-lived ’70s bluegrass outfit Old & In the Way featuring David Grisman, Peter Rowan and Vassar Clements. And what made the original so noteworthy was the band’s original banjoist, Jerry Garcia, who Pedersen finds himself replacing. Old & In the Gray released one eponymous CD last year, and has played a handful of gigs since. Pedersen would like the band to continue performing together; he sees the Wheeler Opera House as an ideal venue. But Pedersen has no interest in replicating the banjo parts that Garcia put down 30 years ago.”I’m more of a note Nazi,” he said. “Garcia has this sort of stumbling style of banjo playing. And a lot of people liked that. But to me, it didn’t have that smoothness I like in banjo playing. It had an attack to it, but it sounded like someone falling downstairs.”Musical Tribute to John Denver concerts, with all proceeds benefiting Challenge Aspen, featuring Herb Pedersen, Pete Hutlinger, Chris Nole, Jim Horn, John Sommers, Denny Brooks, Mollie Weaver, Jim Salestrom, Mack Bailey and Kenn Roberts, at the Wheeler Opera House Friday through Sunday, Oct. 10-12, at 7 p.m.For tickets or further information, call the Wheeler box office at 920-5770.
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