Perhaps tough to fathom, but posthumous Grammy winner John Denver would be firmly ensconced as a septuagenarian had he lived. The radio friendly, environmentally conscious singer-songwriter possesses an impressive body of work. Fifteen Top 40 singles and nearly 40 studio and live albums have cemented his legacy as one of America’s greatest artists. While he began strictly as a folk singer, Denver successfully incorporated pop, rock, country, and bluegrass into his musical arsenal.
In an exclusive interview, Chris Nole, Denver’s final pianist, goes on the record about his days spent assimilating the subtle colors and dynamics of music from a genuine master of the art form. Nole joined Denver in January 1994, replacing noted Elvis Presley sideman Glen D. Hardin’s vacated piano stool.
The jazz-influenced pianist remained a valuable asset to Denver’s road and studio band until the songwriter’s sudden death on October 12, 1997, in a freak accident over the Pacific Ocean involving an incongruously placed fuel selector valve handle in his experimental two-seat airplane.
Soundly proving early detractors wrong who took absolute pleasure in criticizing Denver’s gentle odes to nature, interest in the late songwriter continues to accelerate in the twenty-tens. Indeed, anew generation of artists, spearheaded by My Morning Jacket, Brandi Carlile and Dave Matthews, covered Denver’s music on the well-received Music Is You: A Tribute to John Denver.
An integral component of a triumphant road show that lasted three years with Country Music Hall of Famer Don Williams, Nole also finds the time to revisit his association with the “Take Me Home, Country Roads” balladeer whenever the John Denver: A Rocky Mountain High Concert tour gains traction. The pioneering multimedia experience combines members of Denver’s former band with archival video footage capturing Denver’s vocals and acoustic guitar.
So sit back for awhile and pull up a rocking chair as Nole, who has incidentally toured in modern times with Faith Hill, Shelby Lynne, the Oak Ridge Boys, and Emmylou Harris, reminisces about hearing the lilting “Annie’s Song” radiate through AM radio, having a single rehearsal and then debuting by the seat of his pants in Detroit the next evening, the beloved songwriter’s homespun sense of humor, whether the singer had any pre-show superstitions, the significance of the platinum-selling Wildlife Concert, and where he was when he received the devastating news of Denver’s passing.
Do you come from a musical family?
I’ve learned over the years that some of my family was and is indeed musical. One of my mom’s cousins, Tony Costa (kinda my uncle), made a living in Las Vegas as an entertainer. Uncle Tony hung out in the Rat Pack crowd during the ’60s and up through the ’80s. He was a very talented pianist, vocalist and all-around fun guy. We lost him a few years ago.
I also learned that my mom was an aspiring singer as a youth. But due to her strict family upbringing, she was not allowed to pursue that very far. As for our immediate household, all of us three boys were involved with music starting at a young age. My younger brother is a former drummer now mainly playing electric bass guitar. My older brother was a percussionist in high school.
How did you first become aware of John Denver?
My earliest memories of John are of growing up in the early to mid-‘70s in New Jersey and hearing “Annie’s Song” on our AM radio. I also vividly remember having the “Back Home Again” sheet music on my piano as a young boy taking piano lessons. Little did I know at the time that I would eventually be in John Denver’s band. I may still have that sheet music around somewhere [laughs].
Did you immediately become a John Denver fan, or did you venture into different musical directions?
I did both. I obviously wanted to learn John’s music as a youngster via the sheet music. The seventies was a great time for all kinds of music. I was a huge fan of the Eagles, the Allman Brothers, Billy Preston, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Elvis Presley, the Beach Boys, and many, many more.
I ventured into many musical directions at the time and still do. I spend a lot of time these days delving into blues, New Orleans piano, jazz and other styles. I feel all styles relate to each other in some way or the other. My newest recording project It Be What It Be is a celebration of vintage blues, rock & roll, and New Orleans-style piano and song.
I also have toured with some fabulous country acts here in Nashville. I did over 200 shows with the great Don Williams. I think the diversity keeps me well rounded as a musician, writer, and music producer.
Where were you when you got the word that John was interested in you joining his band?
I was home in Nashville. I got a call from John Denver’s tour manager and good friend, Kris O’Connor, who I befriended around a year beforehand. From previous conversations with “KO” I knew that there were possible changes on the horizon for John’s band and that they were interested in me for the piano/keyboards position.
I was contacted sometime in 1993 about possibly filling in for John’s pianist at the time, Glen D. Hardin [well regarded as a member of Elvis Presley’s famed TCB Band]. Glen was having some serious back trouble then.
The sub date did not happen, but I did get to meet John around that time at the Opry House in Nashville at one of his shows. He thanked me for being willing and available to assist with the piano sub spot if necessary.
The official call and offer came in January 1994. Kris O’Connor talked to me then about signing on for an Asian tour and other dates with John during the year. Of course I took them up on their offer [laughs].
My first gig with John was on Feb. 23 at the Fox Theater in Detroit. Alan Deremo, who tours with us on the special multimedia John Denver: A Rocky Mountain High Concert, was not in the band when I joined. Jerry Scheff — best known as Elvis’ bassist in the TCB Band — was still doing the bass gig. Alan came in maybe a year later.
Let’s revisit your Feb. 23, 1994, debut at the Fox Theater. John remained in Detroit for five shows. Did you undergo an extensive rehearsal?
Not really; the first time we all got together was in a meeting room at our hotel in Detroit. After a casual rehearsal, we hit the stage. All other ‘tightening up’ was done at future sound checks — 5 p.m. every show day. John was very confident with his own stage presence and abilities, and he trusted his professional musicians to cover the rest.
My memories of that day are of trying to grasp all the details being thrown at me for the show and basically just trying to fit in. I was mainly focused on learning and playing John’s show the best that I could.
John didn’t play any practical jokes but did many nice things to make us feel welcome (guitarist Pete Huttlinger joined at the same time I did). We were treated first class all the way. Anyone whoever worked with John and his organization could attest to that. The band was always top consideration. Sorry to say, not so with many other acts.
Two things stick out from our first few shows to me — first, I was knocked out by John’s entertaining and vocal abilities — he was certainly one of the best, if not the best entertainer and vocalist I’ve ever worked with. I watched and listened to him perform many nights from 10 feet away and it was amazing.
The second thing that sticks out in my mind was my touch on the piano. At the time, I was used to playing with much louder, less dynamic bands. John’s show was all finesse. I had to dramatically adjust my approach to playing the grand piano to fit in with John’s delicate arrangements and vocals.
The dynamics and subtleties of John’s music were much deeper than most any other act that I know of. Maybe the closest I’ve seen is with Don Williams. The performance on Don’s stage is all based around the vocal as John’s show was. Regardless, after a few nights in Detroit with John I believe I had it figured out [Author’s Note: Nole also offers an in-depth account of his working relationship with Don “Gentle Giant” Williams here].
What was an average sound check with John like?
John’s sound checks were usually around 20 to 30 minutes long. He would call just about any song at a sound check. If he liked how it sounded, it would sometimes make it into the show that evening.
We would put the set list together usually at the piano after sound check. John had a pretty good idea of what he wanted to sing night to night. Once in awhile there may have been a suggestion from the band, or most likely Kris O’Connor. John would listen to what anyone had to say about the set list, but he always made the final call.
When we would travel overseas the set lists would change more so than back in the states. John had so many special songs that he would do in others countries — songs where the lyric related to that country or people. When we were working on some of the more obscure material — we would spend more time at sound check.
Did John have any pre-show rituals or superstitions?
John usually got a massage prior to the show. He had a masseur that accompanied him on tour. He usually ate a grilled fish dinner — or something else pretty healthy — right after the show.
Did John experience any crazy fan encounters that you were privileged to experience?
Not really. By the time I got in the band, the touring extravagance and craziness had calmed down. But I’m sure the ‘70’s were quite a ride for Mr. John Denver!
Were there any particular songs that John didn’t like to perform live?
The only hit that sticks out in my mind that we rarely performed was “Thank God I’m a Country Boy.” I remember that we did it once in the four years I was with him. I never asked him why — but if I had to guess, it may have been because we did not have a fiddle in the band.
The platinum-selling Wildlife Concert is an outstanding visual document of your time with John.
Released in June 1995, I feel that it is the most prominent recording project that we worked on together. A&E and especially PBS have shown it numerous times.
The Wildlife Concert showed the world just how seasoned and still relevant John had become over the years. He had matured into an iconic American singer-songwriter and vocalist. John’s music was being appreciated once again, and the television special was the beginning of a comeback for him.
John was very generous with his band on stage. Quite a few live shows that I played on were released after his death. I would recommend that you also listen to The Harbor Lights Concert [recorded on Nov. 9, 1995, in Boston] or his Christmas in Concert [Dec. 19–20, 1996, D.A.R. Constitutional Hall, Washington, D.C.]. These live albums give you a good sense of what we were doing.
We recorded just about every live show that we did. I wouldn’t be surprised if there are more recordings out there that will surface at some point for Denver fans to hear and enjoy.
Was the September 1996 greatest hits re-recording summit your first time in a recording studio with John?
Yes, Love Again: Greatest & Latest, alternately titled The Unplugged Collection and A Celebration of Life (1943–1997), could be the first “in the recording studio” project that I did with John.
We cut all 16 tracks on Love Again at 16th Avenue Sound in Nashville. The studio is now called something else I think. We had been playing most all of the songs live onstage for some time that were included on that recording session. We pretty much kept to those beloved live arrangements for the record.
Let’s dissect John Denver in a studio environment.
I was fortunate to have worked on a few studio projects with John, including his reimagining of his greatest hits and his Grammy-winning final album, All Aboard, a personal favorite of mine.
As with most professionals that I’ve worked with in the studio — John was very focused on the task at hand. Making the best possible recordings you can with the songs, engineer, producer, and musicians was and should be the goal. Everyone was on the same team.
He preferred to record during regular studio hours — 10 a.m. or so until around evening dinner. As I remember it, John tried to stay in work mode most of the time. Of course, there were lunch breaks and such where things could lighten up a bit.
Also, when things were sounding great, everyone would be thrilled and motivated to keep it up. There are nightmare stories of over-zealous producers and recording stars beating up their band or singers during a recording session. John was definitely not like that. He trusted the people around him.
Did you or the band make any song suggestions in the studio, or did John have it mapped out in advance as to what he wanted to record for that given session?
John did not compose any songs during any of the actual recording sessions that I participated on.
The recording sessions that I did with John were usually easy going and laid back. John would often ask us (the band) how we felt about how things were sounding. Kris O’Connor, who co-produced many of the recording projects that we did with John, always offered up useful observations and suggestions to John and the band.
How many takes would John spend on a song before he was satisfied that he had reached a master?
Some songs were more difficult than others. I remember recording a tune on All Aboard! that had an old timey swing feel [possibly “The Little Engine That Could”, “On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe,” or “Freight Train Boogie” / “Choo Choo Ch’boogie”]. Getting that track to feel right really took some time — maybe a few hours or so. Other than that one, recording most of the initial tracks moved along pretty quickly.
Are there any John Denver studio recordings that you wish you could have a second chance at playing?
Wow — interesting question. Probably! I really do not scrutinize my past performances that closely anymore. Every show or session is a different experience with different variables.
I believe that a creative person such as myself has to learn to accept and hopefully enjoy as we reminisce and revisit our past works. I am mostly concerned with the piece of music before me…right now.
Did John only play guitar in the studio?
Yes, John definitely played guitar in the recording studio. His guitar performance was a huge part of his sound. The band would work off of the tempos and rhythms that John set with his guitar and vocal.
Occasionally he would sit down at the piano to relax and play around. I do not think he ever recorded piano in the studio. He did play piano on “For You” in The Wildlife Concert.
How advanced was John on piano?
John was a very basic pianist — he accompanied himself very well on a few of his own songs. It worked well for what the song called for. He would mainly play piano on his solo shows when his regular pianist was not there.
He asked me once to show him the intro to John Lennon’s “Imagine.” That was cool. I think it was something that he wanted to learn for his own satisfaction. Maybe someday he would have performed “Imagine” in his show — but we will never know.
Did John have a home recording studio?
John had a little recording set-up in his house that he showed me. I think he used it mainly for capturing ideas and doing small demos. Home recording has come light years since the 1990’s. If he were alive today, I’m sure he’d have a pretty impressive home recording studio.
Why do you consider the Grammy-winning All Aboard! to be a personal favorite?
I got to witness and be a part of John stretching out a bit with music that was not his typical genre and sound.
It was just a good week of making wonderful music with a great team of people. I’m sure there were moments of normal studio stress and pressure during that week at Encore Studios in Los Angeles — but two decades later, I am so very thankful to have been a part of it.
Upon hearing that John had received a posthumous Grammy for Best Musical Album for Children, I was saddened that John did not receive a Grammy while he was still here with us. But of course, I was happy for him and the family. I was also proud of all the people involved with making the record.
Before John’s death, had he discussed any upcoming plans to enter a recording studio with the band?
Yes. John was finalizing a deal to go to New Zealand with us to record with the symphony there. I was under the impression it’d be a studio project — probably with video and such. That would have been amazing.
Did you have the opportunity to spend any holidays with John?
We did celebrate Thanksgiving together in 1994. The band and crew celebrated the holiday in Australia at a restaurant nearby the hotel — probably in Newcastle [we also did a live record and video shoot while we were down under titled Sing Australia].
We had a great time chowing down on a traditional American turkey dinner. If you have to be away from home and family on a holiday — that’s the way to do it. I never got to spend Christmas or John’s birthday with him as we never worked during the last couple of weeks of the year.
What are some of your special memories about visiting John’s home in Aspen, Colorado?
One of my fondest memories is when we caught some fresh trout up at his cabin at Woods Lake. John, with a little help from Kris O’Connor, cleaned and cooked all the fish and served them. He even did the dishes afterwards. What a guy.
What do you recall about your final conversation with John?
My last words to John were most likely on the side of the stage at the Jones Hall for the Performing Arts in Houston, Texas, on Sept. 28, 1997, prior to the show.
John was usually not real talkative before his shows, since he was mentally preparing to give all he had to give that particular evening for the performance. Usually just a quick “Hi” or “Have a good show” kind of thing. As far as I can remember, our last show together seemed pretty much like most any other show that we performed together.
[Author’s Note: Denver played three shows supported by his band and the Houston Symphony Orchestra between September 26 and 28. A few days later the pioneering environmentalist embarked upon a solo acoustic tour that notched three further shows in Texas. The Selena Auditorium in Corpus Christi served as Denver’s ultimate performance on October 5, 1997. According to Friends of John Denver Facebook group owner Christine Moon, “I was at that concert in Houston that Chris mentions as the last time he spoke with John. There are two memories that stand out. John sang ‘The Foxfire Suite,’ first released on 1991’s Different Directions. There was a perspex screen between John’s band and the Houston Symphony. During the orchestral break, John turned towards the orchestra and I could see his reflection in the perspex. The look on his face was of ecstasy. At the end of the song John looked toward conductor Richard Kaufman and said, ‘Perfect.’ I believe that was John’s final performance of ‘The Foxfire Suite,’ because his remaining three concerts were solo ones. And of course I’ll never forget John’s performance of his new song, ‘Yellowstone.’ As Chris said, most of John’s concerts were recorded. I wish someone could find and release a recording of one of the five concerts at which he sang ‘Yellowstone’ in the days leading up to his passing”].
Where you were when you received the devastating news of John’s sudden passing?
On October 13, the day following John’s crash, I was awakened around 6 a.m. in the morning by a fellow musician friend of mine. He had just heard the news of John’s death and called me right away. I immediately turned on the TV and saw the headlines. It seemed very unreal to me as I watched the reports come in.
I put a call into Kris O’Connor, our tour manager and longtime friend of John’s. I could not reach him right away because he was working with the officials in Monterey, California, investigating the accident and such. The next day I got a call back from Kris. He filled me in on the details that were known at that point.
Later the touring band went out to Denver and Aspen for John’s two services. Some of us performed at his memorial in Aspen. We were all pretty numb for a long time.
How would you describe John’s sense of humor?
John was like most of the rest of us. We all have our up days and not so up days. When John was having a good day, he would be very jovial. He had a witty and clever sense of humor. He was very competitive with games and such. John’s laughter — when he was having an especially funny moment — was quite boisterous. I’ve seen him come to tears with laughter a few times.
Looking back over the past 20-odd years, how did working with John impact your life?
I would have to say the biggest effect that John has had on my life is all the wonderful people I have met through his musical legacy. After nearly 25 years, I am still performing in many shows that pay tribute to the man and his timeless music. I’m also doing sessions for, and producing, a lot of recording artists that were influenced by John Denver. He changed my outlook on music — music has so many facets. John taught me more about the subtle colors and dynamics of music. I learned from a master.
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