Storytellers Unplugged: remembering JD | AspenTimes.com

Storytellers Unplugged: remembering JD

John Colson
Aspen, CO Colorado

ASPEN ” It was a fair turnout at the Wheeler Opera House, given John Denver’s perennial popularity among a devoted following; a couple of hundred tickets sold, and perhaps half that many seats filled by “comps.”

One usher admitted quietly to closing the balcony to give the main floor seating area a fuller feel, and some remarked that attendance was light because most of the participants weren’t expected to hit town until the next day.

Thus, at 8 p.m. on Oct. 10, began the first, and possibly only production of “John Denver’s Storytellers Unplugged,” a gathering of former band members, friends and helpers to tell tales and share memories about the man adored by so many both before and after he died in a 1997 plane crash.

It was the opening night of John Denver Week, five days of events celebrating the life of Aspen’s most famous son, organized by his former personal manager, Barney Wyckoff.

Houston Cowan of Challenge Aspen, a nonprofit group helping the disabled, and the beneficiary of the night’s proceeds, took the stage first. He talked, in part, of the many John Denver-related events held in the decade since the singer died, and the $1.5 million he said has been raised at those events over the years to benefit Challenge Aspen.

A little while later, Denny Brooks, one of Denver’s managers in the later years of his career, auctioned off a John Denver night for up to 20 people, to feature wine provided by Denver crony Mickey Smith, music by former Denver band members John Sommers and Jim Horn, and a meal prepared by a celebrated chef. The evening of fun went to part-time Aspenite Donna Harper, for $10,000, but only after wine specialist Smith chimed in and forced the bidding higher.

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The night was billed as a no-holds-barred look at the man behind the myth, but it fell short of the mark. People were hoping for high-potency tales of Denver’s hidden home-boy rep as a pot-smoking partier of Bacchanalian appetites, ribald stories about debauchery and high-jinks on the road, perhaps even a few revelations about some of the complexities and contradictions that made his time here so interesting.

Instead, attendees were treated to videos, reminiscences and songs that portrayed John Denver’s much-remarked role as an environmentally oriented bard, a singer of fine ballads whose voice could transport a listener to another world entirely, an eager and enthusiastic student making his way through the school of life. It was all high-minded and inspirational, if not as “unplugged” as some would have liked.

To be sure, there were details that many had never heard, tucked into a series of sometimes hilariously entertaining stories, and the camaraderie among the storytellers was heartening. Denver’s place in history took on an added coat of glitter and glue, and every now and then a novel detail would add an intriguing facet to the public persona.

And, of course, every time that soaring tenor of his rose above the crowd, hairs stood up on the back of my neck.

The myth remains intact and untarnished.

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