“Country Roads”: One Song’s Power to Save a State

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PHOTO: Country Roads, courtesy of ForestWander
PHOTO: Country Roads, courtesy of ForestWander

Is it possible for a single song to save a state from poverty and improve its image before an international audience?  Even if said song was made famous by an individual who never lived in the area or had any previous connections to that state?

If you ask officials in the State of West Virginia this question, you’ll probably hear a hardy, “Absolutely!” and for good reason — Recorded in 1971, John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads” hit has become one of the greatest drivers in making the Mountain State a top destination for international tourists.

In 2014, the West Virginia Legislature made the world-famous song one of the state’s official songs and this week the West Virginia Tourism Office announced it has obtained the rights to use “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” in its marketing efforts.

For nearly two centuries residents of Appalachia, especially those from the only state whose borders fall entirely within this region, have been forced to endure ridicule and unfair stereotypes simply for being “mountain folk”; however, the much loved tune has helped to change the mental image individuals have when they think of West Virginia.

“This song has made our state synonymous with the idea of being ‘Almost Heaven’,” commented one West Virginian.

West Virginia Tourism Commissioner Chelsea Ruby agrees, saying the song “Highlights everything we love about our state: scenic beauty, majestic mountains, a timeless way of life, and most of all, the warmth of a place that feels like home whether you’ve lived here forever or are just coming to visit.”

Though the state’s Tourism Office expects to use “Take Me Home, Country Roads” as a centerpiece of a major new ad campaign to be unveiled early next year, the reality is the song’s affect in providing positive mental images of the Mountain State has already been occurring for quite sometime.

In 2015, Ben Haymond, a West Virginian currently living in Switzerland and teaching Business English at the Lucerne University of Applied Sciences, wrote of his experiences with the song overseas.

“In early 2006, I flew to Frankfurt, Germany and took a train to Magdeburg in the former Eastern Bloc. I had arrived in Magdeburg towards the end of March and suffering from culture shock, and I was having computer problems. At some point, I met a group of people and ended up going to a local Easter celebration with them. We met in the center of the city and walked across the Elbe to drink beer around a huge bonfire…  As we neared the bonfire, I could hear this strange sounding yet vaguely familiar music. As we got closer, I heard the lyrics, and when we arrived I saw the site. ‘Good Lord!’ I must have exclaimed! There were women dressed in glittery bikinis dancing around and signing the dance club version of ‘Country Roads’. My group turned and looked at me for my reaction and to snicker at the shock registered on my face.

“That was the begininig of my experience with Country Roads abroad. In essence, I never left home. As an English teacher, many of my students will at some point ask where I am from, and I need only to say “Almost Heaven” and someone in the group will shout West Virginia. I have heard stories of colleagues who taught in rural China being serenaded to the tune of Country Roads by groups of students who could barely speak any other word in English. Yet they knew John Denver. I have been in dance clubs when I heard this song being played while audience danced their hearts out. I have seen versions of this song sung in by German Schlager Muscians and I have seen it sung in a tent with 10,000 people singing to its words at the Octoberfest in Munich.”

If you do a YouTube search, you will find versions of this song in German, Korean, Chinese, Japanese, Russian, French amongst others, To say the least, Country Roads is more popular than Leonard Skynard’s tribute to Alabama ever thought of being – and there is generally one comment that can easily be found in the comments section of every version of this song:

“This song makes me want to visit West Virginia…”

Because of this song, West Virginia is on the map. Just don’t ask people to locate it!

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