Mack Bailey: How John Denver Changed My Life |

Mack Bailey: How John Denver Changed My Life

Mack Bailey Special to the Aspen Times

What: 22nd Anniversary Musical Tribute to John Denver

When: Saturday, Oct. 12, 7:30 p.m.

Where: Wheeler Opera House

Tickets: Wheeler box office;

More info: Find the full slate of events online at

The 22nd annual John Denver Celebration will return to Aspen with concerts, sing-alongs and events running Wednesday, Oct. 9 through Monday, Oct. 14. The centerpiece of the festival is the Musical Tribute to John Denver at the Wheeler Opera House on Saturday, Oct. 12. It will feature performers including Aspen’s own Mack Bailey alongside Gary Mule Deer, Chris Nole, Mollie Weaver, Alan Deremo and Jim Curry.

When I was growing up, music was always a major part of my life. I started playing guitar at the age of 8 and it soon became my voice and self-expression of good days and bad.

The first John Denver album I had access to was “Poems, Prayers, & Promises.” Living in a very small town in North Carolina in 1971 didn’t provide me the ability to buy albums or listen to them, even on the radio. But this album introduced me to what was out there. Looking back, the aspect of John’s music that I appreciated most was the authenticity of the writing as well as the delivery. The lyrics, melody and chordal structure opened a whole new world for me. I could play these songs and they always seemed to convey the feelings I had about people and being outside.

When “John Denver’s Greatest Hits” came out, I couldn’t play that album enough. As I sat in my room with my guitar, learning his songs and feeling a true connection to him, I dreamed of watching him play in concert and even of joining him on stage.

I attended a concert in 1975 while they were recording “An Evening With John Denver.” It was mesmerizing the way the videos on the screens were in sync with the music. I remember during “Eagle and the Hawk,” an eagle would fly around on the huge left screen and the hawk would appear in the right screen. My young memory seems to picture the two coming together in the middle screen for the finale. It was amazing.

On Sept. 20, 1997 my life changed. I was playing in a band, The Hard Travelers, and through the vision and leadership of Kenn Roberts, we held concerts to raise money for The Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. In 19 years, we raised over $11 million for CF research. We worked with Alabama, Brooks and Dunn, Kenny Rogers, Reba McEntire and so many others.

For the 10th anniversary concert, we booked John Denver as the headliner. There was a home game for the Baltimore Orioles that day. For many years, thanks to John Sommers and Dee Belanger and the late Mark Belanger, “Thank God I’m A Country Boy” always played during the 7th inning stretch. So this day, John came to the game. At the 7th inning stretch, John went down and stood on the Orioles dugout and lip-synched while the song played. The crowd went berserk. John was smiling and the people loved it.

When we arrived at the Baltimore Arena for sound check, John asked if The Hard Travelers would join him for the finale and play “Thank God I’m A Country Boy.” What an offer! John wanted to save his voice ,so he asked Kenn to sing the verses for sound check. Kenn said he didn’t know the words but that I did. I sang my ass off for that soundcheck. John walked up to me after and said we would trade verses during the concert. This was about as full-circle as it gets.

During the performance, I admit that I flubbed the words and John bailed me out, but what an opportunity and thrill!

That night at the concert, I stayed backstage so that I could feel the interaction between John and the audience. It was a powerful experience for me. I remained on cloud nine for weeks. I stayed there until the morning of Oct. 13, 1997 when “Good Morning America” announced that John had died in a small plane crash in California the evening before. It took every ounce of breath out of me. I was stunned and numb.

Thanks to Bill Danoff and Kenn Roberts, the John Denver Tributes in Aspen were born. Working with John’s band members and family gave me an even greater appreciation for the love of the man and the music by his peers.

The folks I have met, the musicians I have shared the stage with, the places that I have seen because of sharing John’s music still at times seems surreal. I am grateful for each opportunity but there is no doubt that I would love to see John walk in and take the stage again.

For me, these tributes are performed with respect for the man, his music, and his legacy. If it weren’t for those beginnings in my room learning his songs, I would not be who I am today. Nor would I understand the healing power of music. I’m still grateful.



10 a.m. Meet and Greet, John Denver Sanctuary

4 p.m. Aspen Meadow Band in Concert, Mountain Chalet

Nightly Sing-a-Long, Mountain Chalet Lobby


1 p.m. Dave Stratford in Concert, Mountain Chalet

4 p.m. Aspen Meadow Band in Concert, Mountain Chalet

Nightly Sing-a-Long, Mountain Chalet Lobby


11:30 a.m. Jim Horn’s Adventures with John Denver, Mountain Chalet

4 p.m. Chris Bannister in Concert, Aspen Community Church

7 p.m. Ron Matthews in Concert, Mountain Chalet

Nightly Sing-a-Long, Mountain Chalet Lobby


Noon. 4th Annual Singer/Songwriter Event, Mountain Chalet

4 p.m. Aspen Meadow Band in Concert, Limelight Lodge

7:30 p.m. 22nd Anniversary Musical Tribute to John Denver, Wheeler Opera House

Nightly Sing-a-Long, Mountain Chalet Lobby


11 a.m. Chris Collins and Friends Concert, Pine Creek Cookhouse

4 p.m. Jam at the Chapel with Chris Nole, Mack Bailey, Chris Bannister, Aspen Chapel

Nightly Sing-a-Long, Mountain Chalet Lobby


10 a.m. Good-Bye Again, Wagner Park

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