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Tributes, reissues evoke golden age of Colorado songs

“Would you like to go to Colorado


Heaven’s there I’m told in Colorado

Well, I’m leaving in the morning and I’d like to take you with me

I feel that Colorado is a place we could be happy

In the mountains . . . Rocky Mountains.”

With songs like that on their minds — Hoyt Axton’s glorious “On the Natural” from 1969 — hordes of young people arrived in Colorado following neither gold nor coal but the sounds of pop music.

They had visions of a hip, mellow, wildflowers-in-your-hair utopia, a world away from the hard, hot, even at times bloodstained streets of urban America in those years.

In Colorado, the times they were a-changin’ — but in a more earthy way.

Defining all those changes was the golden era of Colorado song. It was certainly as big as a fourteener in its heyday.

At the same time as Denver’s rise, Dave Loggins had a Top 40 hit in 1974 with the romantic plea “Please Come to Boston,” its verse about “Please come to Denver with the snowfall . . .” being its most memorable.

The purity of Coloradan Judy Collins’ soprano voice on her best-selling folk-pop albums like “Wildflowers” was compared to the clean, clear air of the state she loved.

With those songs, a new Colorado emerged, a place where the radically eccentric Hunter S. Thompson almost got elected sheriff of Pitkin County on a Freak Power ticket that called for decriminalization of drugs; where communes inspired by the visionary Drop City near Trinidad were cropping up statewide; where music enthusiasts clogged winding mountain roads to reach the new Telluride Bluegrass Festival; and where a recent arrival to Denver like activist lawyer Gary Hart could get elected to the U.S. Senate at age 37 and be received like a superstar.

Fast-forward to today. Colorado has continued to grow, but the era of that kind of West-worshiping music from disaffected youths topping the charts has passed.

Yet several timely events — an upcoming John Denver tribute concert at Red Rocks, a new Steve Earle album in tribute to songwriter Townes Van Zandt, the CD release of Axton’s album containing “On the Natural” — illuminate that time when Colorado beckoned the youthful and idealistic through contemporary music.

On Saturday, public-television station KBDI sponsors “John Denver — The Tribute” at Red Rocks Amphitheatre, featuring a Denver-like singer, Roy Rivers of Hot Springs, Ark., performing with Denver’s lead guitarist, Steve Weisberg, and a six-piece band. It marks the 20th anniversary of Denver’s last concert at Red Rocks.

Van Zandt’s adopted state

Some of the best golden-era Colorado anthems came from the late Townes Van Zandt, whose spare, largely acoustic recordings have only recently built a sizable national following. He was a Texas troubadour and Colorado devotee whose introspective, often-pining compositions like “If I Needed You” and “Waiting Round to Die” serve as the archetype for today’s Americana (or alternative-country) music.

This spring, Earle — today a bard of contemporary Americana himself — released a tribute album called “Townes.” On it, Earle covers Van Zandt’s 1969 “Colorado Girl.” Van Zandt briefly attended the University of Colorado at Boulder in the 1960s, and during the 1970s he spent summers in the state, writing such other songs about it as “Snowin’ on Raton,” “Our Mother the Mountain” and “My Proud Mountains.”

“Townes used to say there are two kinds of music — blues and zip-a- dee-doo-dah, and a lot of songs written about Colorado tend to be zip-a-dee-doo-dah,” Earle says. “But Townes’ stuff is not that.”

Earle was a teenager in Texas, just beginning to play music in public, when he first met the older Van Zandt. Van Zandt heckled him; improbably, they became lifelong friends. (Van Zandt had a lifelong alcohol-abuse problem; Earle too went through periods of substance abuse.)

“Colorado was a huge part of who he was,” Earle says. “He had a horse he kept in a stable in Aspen, and he’d pick the horse up and ride across the mountain to Crested Butte every year. Sometimes the trip didn’t get completed, and I think he had to be rescued one year, but it was one of the places where he felt as close to home as he ever felt.

“He felt like Colorado was a cleansing thing for him, beginning of the cycle where he renewed himself.”

But Van Zandt also knew Colorado — and the cleansing it provided — would never last, which gave his songs such a bluesy presence, Earle says.

Axton’s natural high

That search for a “Rocky Mountain High” as an antidote for substance abuse propels another early Colorado song, the late Axton’s “On the Natural” from 1969. The long-out- of-print album containing it, “My Griffin Is Gone,” was released on CD recently through Omni Recording Corp.

In the song, Axton (who later wrote Three Dog Night’s “Joy to the World”) romanticizes escape to the mountains — Crested Butte, specifically — as an antidote for “little blue pills.”

The liner notes explain the reference was to Stelazine, a drug prescribed for an urban friend with a mental problem whom Axton wanted to help.

Songs of yore

There were plenty of songs about Colorado before the golden era: CU-Boulder’s library names such early-20th-century compositions as 1924’s “Where Rails End and Trails Begin,” 1926’s “Happy Colorado,” 1930’s “Colorado Midgets Waltz” and 1953’s “Colorado Skies.”

The latter was co-written by Judy Collins’ father, Chuck, shortly after moving to the state with his family. “Even though my father was blind, he said, ‘I’ve never seen a place so beautiful,’ ” Collins says.

“So he and Eddy Rogers wrote that together. It was a beautiful song about Colorado.” And then she sings it over the phone.

There have been songs about Colorado written after the golden era — Collins considers her great Colorado song to be “The Blizzard (The Colorado Song),” written in 1989. Warren Zevon’s goofy “Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead” even inspired a movie by the same name. And the healthy bluegrass scene continually spawns songs name-checking the state.

But still, given Colorado’s growth in population since the 1970s, as well as the “green” movement, one would figure there would be more such huge hits today. But there aren’t.

Leland Rucker, a Colorado music historian, blames that on the changing nature of how we listen to music. “We were all listening to the same thing back then — we all listened to the same songs. Today, a teenager doesn’t just listen to one kind of music; they make playlists on iTunes. We don’t have the kind of world where very many songs rise up to the top like then.”

But there may also be a reason today’s Colorado musicians are reluctant to attempt a Colorado anthem.

“Those (older) songs are still from our era of rock/pop/rhythm-and- blues modern music,” says Robert Schneider, who as a Coloradan founded the indie-rock band the Apples in Stereo. (He now lives in Lexington, Ky.)

“So in a way you’re ripping them off.”