Music, Voice, Spirit |

Music, Voice, Spirit

Stewart Oksenhorn

Next week marks three years since John Denver died in a plane crash off of California’s central coast. Denver, however, through his music and his living memory, is still working some magic on Planet Earth.

Case in point: Old Snowmass couple John and Linda Adams. Denver exerted his pull on both a long time ago. Twenty years ago Linda, living in Massachusetts at the time, met Denver after a concert he performed in Worcester. Linda, then a town selectman, began talking with the singer about matters close to both their hearts: controlled development, the environment. Denver told Linda she could be of use at his Windstar Foundation in the Roaring Fork Valley, and Linda was convinced. She packed up and moved to the Aspen area, and became a committed volunteer for the environmentally focused organization.

Several years before Linda was persuaded to uproot herself at Denver’s urging, Denver’s music was having a similarly profound impact on John Adams. Adams was living in his native Netherlands in the early ’70s, when Denver came to Europe to tour behind his hit, “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” Adams didn’t see Denver perform then, but hearing the music on the radio prompted Adams to buy a copy of Denver’s album.

“I fell in love with that music right away,” said Adams. “The atmosphere – it grabbed me, the whole atmosphere. It was folk music, and in the Netherlands, we weren’t familiar with it.”

Adams went on to see Denver perform numerous times in Europe, and even met the late folk singer on several occasions. When Adams finally made his first visit to North America in 1998, it was to attend the first John Denver Celebration in Aspen. He returned for the event last year, and stayed with Linda – then known as Linda Kays – and a romance developed, stoked by John singing Denver’s “My Sweet Lady” to Linda. Earlier this year, Adams returned to the valley to stay, and the two were soon married.

It’s a sweet tale of how a singer’s music brought two people together – and far from the whole story. For John Adams is no ordinary John Denver fan.

When Adams fell for Denver’s music, he was an aspiring musician himself. Learning to play on an electric guitar given to him by a nephew of his, Adams began playing the hard-rock songs of Deep Purple and Uriah Heep. But Adams quickly discovered that he favored the sound of the acoustic guitar, a preference that was cemented when he started listening to John Denver’s music. When “An Evening with John Denver” was released in 1974, Adams bought not only two copies of the record – the first having been utterly worn out from constant playing – he also bought the songbook that went with the album, and proceeded to learn all the tunes. Eventually, Adams became a professional musician, but with a twist: Since he began performing in the mid-’70s, Adams has played virtually nothing but John Denver’s music.

“I started playing his music and I never stopped,” said Adams, who was born on Dec. 30, a day before Denver’s birthday. “I love to listen to classical music and pop. But when I play, I play his music. And I’ve done that for 26 years. Don’t ask me why. There’s a purpose to everything, and I think my purpose was to perform his music. It’s a positive addiction.”

This week, Adams will share his positive addiction with music fans who have been similarly afflicted with a love of Denver’s music. Adams will perform at the Wheeler Opera House on Wednesday, Oct. 11, with a band that includes local players Amy Haws on bass, Randy Utterback on fiddle, and vocalist Julie Paxton, plus former Aspenite Ellen Stapenhorst and Dutch keyboardist Guido Bos. Special guests include fiddler Jim Connor, writer of the Denver hit “Grandma’s Feather Bed,” and the Earthbeat Children’s Choir.

Adams’ voice is uncannily similar to Denver’s, or at least Denver’s voice laced with a slight Dutch accent. Which makes perfect sense. “I never had to work on sounding like him,” said Adams. “Because I learned to sing by playing with his records. My voice developed like his.”

Adams makes it clear that he’s no John Denver “freak.” He didn’t move to the Roaring Fork Valley to chase Denver’s ghost, but simply because he’d rather be in Colorado. “When Linda and I fell in love, I had two options,” he said. “I could bring her to the Netherlands, which is flat and raining all the time, and I could buy her rubber boots. Or we could live here in the mountains. So that was an easy choice.” Adams hasn’t been to Denver’s house in Starwood, nor does he plan to.

Instead, Adams is content to recall his own very real experiences with Denver. The two met many times in Europe and developed a friendship. Adams even got to perform with Denver, in 1988, on Dutch national television. Adams was asked to perform on “The Surprise Show,” a Dutch version of “This Is Your Life,” and as a surprise for Adams, the show’s producers had also invited Denver on the show. The two performed “Whispering Jesse” together, providing Adams with one of his finest memories.

Most of all, Adams wants to remember Denver, and share the singer’s spirit with others, by playing the music. Adams has recorded two CDs of Denver’s music; the most recent, “Unexpected Pieces,” also includes the title track, the first song written and recorded by Adams.

“He was human, like you and me,” said Adams. “I’m not in with his private life. I was only into the music. And one of the purposes of my life is to continue his music. If I have a difference to make in life, this is the difference I make.”

Since Denver’s death, the demand for Denver’s music has only increased. Adams has performed frequently of late, especially in England and the Netherlands, the two European countries where Denver was most popular. Adams was invited to perform in Aspen during the first John Denver Celebration Weekend in 1998, and the prospect of playing Denver’s music in Denver’s hometown was daunting.

“To be honest, the first time I had to perform here, I was not that comfortable,” he said. “With my accent, and performing in a place where John Denver started, I didn’t know if they would accept me. But they invited me to come back last year, and they didn’t want to let me go.”

Since moving here six months ago, Adams has had the opportunity to play with several of Denver’s former associates: John Sommers, Jim Salestrom, Pete Hutlinger. Adams intends to continue performing little but Denver’s music, as long as it still speaks to him and people still want to listen.

“I’ll sing John’s music as long as I live,” said Adams. “I know he appreciates it. He told me so. I asked him, in one of our conversations, if he minds it, and he said no, he loved it.”

While Adams limits his obsession to Denver’s music, he has found inspiration in the more positive side of Denver’s life. Adams has worked with UNICEF as a teacher, and leads children’s music camps, here and in the Netherlands. He donates a portion of his CD sales to the Ronald McDonald House. Adams credits Denver with inspiring him to do charitable work and, like Denver’s music, he would like to pass that ethic along as well.

“It’s not only the music,” said Adams. “I want to teach children the simple things – you don’t have to do big things to make a difference.”

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Posted: Friday, October 6, 2000

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