Bill Danoff on how ‘Country Roads’ became a German Oktoberfest hit

Bill Danoff at the Embassy of Germany Thursday. (Dominique Fierro / germany.info) Bill Danoff at the Embassy of Germany Thursday. (Dominique Fierro / germany.info)

All the good things you would expect were available in plenty at the annual “Day of German Unity” party hosted by the embassy in Washington: Heaps of sauerbrauten, vats of good beer, oom-pah music, and for the first time this year, D.C. singer-songwriter Bill Danoff.

For decades, Danoff’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads” — a 1971 hit for John Denver — has been a sing-along favorite at Munich’s Oktoberfest, a nostalgic touchstone bound to bring Germans to their feet whenever it’s played.

Why? “I have no idea,” Danoff, 67, told us. “I’ve never been to Germany” — though he’d never been to West Virginia either before he wrote his ode to the Mountain State.

Ask German natives why they get misty-eyed over a song about the Shenandoah and Blue Ridge, what cultural resonance they find in it, and you’ll get a quizzical stare: It’s a really good song, don’t you think?

The scene at this year's Oktoberfest in Munich. (Joerg Koch/Getty Images) The scene at this year’s Oktoberfest in Munich. (Joerg Koch/Getty Images)

Well, sure! “First of all, it’s very singable,” Danoff told us later. “But so is ‘Call Me Maybe.’ Maybe ‘Call Me Maybe’ will be the song 40 years from now.”

“Country Roads,” along with “Afternoon Delight” — the sexy earworm from his brief hot stint in one-hit-wonder Starland Vocal Band — still pull in about $200K a year in royalties. While he never expected a geographically-specific song to be a world-dominating hit, he and ex-wife/songwriting partner Taffy Nivert were going for catchy. “We’re pop songwriters, and we were trying to write hit songs. It sounded good, the structure was right, the chorus was right.”

The scene at the German embassy in early evening. (Zacarias Garcia / germany.info)
The scene at the German embassy in early evening. (Zacarias Garcia / germany.info)

And 82 million Germans can’t be wrong, huh? At German Ambassador Peter Ammon’s party Thursday night, which drew a multilingual crowd of 2,500 to the embassy’s sprawling park-like grounds, Danoff boldly started off with some of his newer material before breaking into his immortal lyrics: Almost heaven, West Virginia / Blue Ridge Mountain, Shenandoah River. . .

Reader, the crowd lost its minds. They immediately started dancing — partnered, solo, whatever — and pulled out their cameras to film Danoff while they danced. And of course they sang along.

Danoff and his band had barely finished before an exuberant emcee rushed to rejoin him on stage.

“Mr. Danoff!” he pleaded. “Could you take us one more time to West Virginia?”

Danoff took a second to process this. They wanted him to do the song, again? He did. The crowd went wild, again. And as we drove away, we heard a familiar tune wafting up from the embassy grounds: Yes, they’d coaxed yet another “Country Roads” out of him that night.

Related: Starland Vocal Band’s ‘Afternoon Delight’ still being served after 35 years, 7/8/11

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Amy Argetsinger · October 4, 2013