"Back when I was 18, John Denver was very popular, and I was drawn to his music,” says Chris Collins, who learned how to play guitar around the same time. “I liked his music, and because of the timbre of my voice, it was kind of a natural fit.”
Collins played music throughout his college years and a little after before setting his musical aspirations down. When he got back into strumming and writing his own songs, everybody wanted him to perform John Denver music. He finally caved in Fort Worth, agreeing to an all-Denver set at a small bar. Three hundred eager fans packed into the tiny space, and some of them were from Aspen. Impressed, they invited Collins to perform at the annual John Denver celebration, which takes place every year during the second weekend in October.
Collins and his band, Boulder Canyon, will be in Aspen this Saturday night, paying tribute to Denver in the town that was once his home and inspiration. Along with the many shows they play around the states and in Canada, Boulder Canyon comes to Aspen every year, where many of them met.
Collins started singing Denver’s songs because he connected with them, but they became a major part of his life because he looks and sounds similar. Collins even wears comparable wire-frame glasses, along with most members of the band and other super fans.
“John Denver was an incredibly dynamic entertainer,” says Collins. “He not only had a great voice, he was a good guitar player and an excellent songwriter. But, I think above all of that, he had the ability to make each person in the audience feel as though he was singing just to them. His shows were very intimate no matter how many people were in the audience.”
Because of Collins’ appearance and the soft harmony of his voice, Boulder Canyon’s style translates well to playing John Denver. In between songs they banter and tell jokes in a lighthearted manner, and audiences appreciate their effort, but the main event is the soulful sound of remaking an American icon.
“It’s a complicated relationship,” says Collins. “People love John Denver; fans just absolutely adore him. They want to be reminded of him, but, at the same time, they don’t want someone to imitate him. So, the trick in doing a good tribute show is to do the music with musical integrity and be yourself, but present it in a way that gives people the same sense they would have at a John Denver show.”
Along with Denver’s success as a musician, he was also an actor and activist. His music paved the way for him to stand up for the environment and get on the big screen. His best role was in “Oh, God!” when Denver costarred with George Burns, who was already old in 1977. In the movie, Jerry (Denver) is an atheist grocery-store assistant manager who is chosen by God (Burns) to spread the word despite the media’s skepticism or religious authority’s shortcomings. “Oh, God!” will be playing for free at the Wheeler on Friday night.
Denver’s first hit came 50 years ago, leading to a career that would make him one of the most popular entertainers in the world. He is part of Colorado’s identity and he always will be. Chris Collins and Boulder Canyon are the act John Denver fans need to see, and they regularly sellout.
“John Denver is the one artist that I related to back in the ’70s whose songs still hold incredible relevance today,” says Collins. “The older I get, the meaning of some songs changed a little, but the relevance is still there, and I think that’s one of the reasons his music is still so strong.”
John Zelazny was born in the summer of his 27th year, coming home to a place he’d never been before. He appreciates your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.