Real story behind ‘Take Me Home, Country Roads’; debut 50 years ago in DC club

“Take me home, Clopper Road” doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, but the Gaithersburg, Maryland, road was the inspiration behind the song that gave John Denver his first platinum single.

Later this month marks 50 years since “Take Me Home, Country Roads” was first performed in public, at the tiny Cellar Door, at the intersection of 34th and M streets, in Georgetown.

But that’s getting ahead of ourselves — John Denver had never heard of the song until the night before.

Bill Danoff and Taffy Nivert wrote 'Take Me Home, Country Roads'

In late 1970, local singer and songwriters Bill Danoff and his girlfriend at the time, Taffy Nivert — who performed as Fat City —  were driving to a family reunion.

As they drove through winding roads, the couple batted about lyrics, to pass the time — they envisioned a song Johnny Cash might record. .

“The road they were actually on was Clopper Road, in Gaithersburg, a little two-lane blacktop,” at the time, but now an exit off Interstate 270, said Len Jaffe, a D.C. area-based singer and songwriter, who was at the Cellar Door for the song’s debut.

“When they got to the ‘Almost heaven …’ at first it was going to be Massachusetts, because that’s where Bill was from. But they didn’t like the vibe, so they used West Virginia. They had never been to West Virginia,” said Jaffe.

On Dec. 29, 1970, John Denver played the first night of a string of solo shows at the Cellar Door — Danoff and Nivert were the opening act. Later that evening, in the couple’s Georgetown home, Denver asked if they had any new songs they wanted him to hear.

“Taffy said, ‘Get out that song you’re writing for Johnny Cash,’ Jaffe said. Danoff pulled out a partially-written song, which at that point consisted of one chorus and one verse.

Denver told the couple he loved the song — he, Danoff and Nivert completed the lyrics and arrangement overnight.

Denver played the newly-written song that evening, Wednesday, Dec. 30, at the Cellar Door.

John Denver debuted 'Take Me Home, Country Roads' at the Cellar Door

“They were out of songs to play, and John said, “We just finished a brand new song, and I haven’t even learned the words yet,’ so he taped the lyrics to the mic stand,'” Jaffe recalled, “and they did the song cold, as an encore.”

“John played a 12-string, Bill Danoff played a six-string, John had a lead guitar player, and a stand-up bass player,” said Jaffe. “It was a five-minute standing ovation — the walls were vibrating — I thought the club was going to implode.”

Denver recorded the song, with Danoff and Nivert doing backing vocals, the following month, in New York City, as part of the album “Poems, Prayers & Promises.”

“Take Me Home, Country Roads” was released as a single — and it went to No. 2 on Billboard’s charts.

Danoff and Nivert later formed Starland Vocal Band, known for the 1976 hit, “Afternoon Delight.”

Neal Augenstein

Neal Augenstein has been a general assignment reporter with WTOP since 1997. He says he looks forward to coming to work every day, even though that means waking up at 3:30 a.m.

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