I never loved living in West Virginia, and worse, never imagined that John Denver’s “Country Roads” would play an integral role in me eventually learning to love it.
Even growing up in Huntington, home of Marshall University and a decent hub of culture with such novelties as a modest annual international film festival and a gay bar, I felt isolated from the offerings of the wider world. Not realizing what a walking cliché I was, I reveled in hating my small town and yearned to live someplace worldly, like New York City or Haight-Ashbury in the ‘60s. My father’s commitment to his home state, and his frustration and wounded feelings over my disdain for the Mountain State didn’t hurt either. There’s a picture I remember from when I was about three: my dad and I posing in front of a tent in Cranberry Glades, where he loved to camp. And he looked so happy. Little did he know that, years down the road, I’d start to prefer hanging out with my friends on the weekend to hiking, or start to think his music, which I’d once loved wiggling to, was terrible. By the time I graduated high school, being too cool for West Virginia had become a linchpin of my identity, and being a monster to my dad was a favorite pastime.
When I was about 14, my mom was out of town for the weekend, and Dad wanted to take me and my sister camping. Mom had sworn off Dad’s camping trips long ago, citing back pain from a childhood car accident. In retrospect, I imagine my dad must have been so excited for the chance to get out into the woods and spend some time with his girls. But I was furious that he would want to take me away from my friends, a fury that I remember growing into a full-on attack on him for making me grow up in his lame state, far away from all the weirdos and artists I was sure would make my life more palatable. Dad, who never seemed to find it easy to talk about his feelings just got angry, and we fell into a pattern of disagreeing, communicating poorly, and fighting.
We were still in this pattern when I went to Georgia for college, which might explain why I remember us talking little that year. When I mentioned where I was from, friends in the dorm responded predictably. “Oh, Virginia,” they’d say, not realizing West Virginia is a separate state. “Are you from anywhere near Richmond?” Sometimes they’d crack the same hillbilly jokes about my people that folks in West Virginia make about Southerners. But most of the time, they’d just sing me “Country Roads” by John Denver.
I’d had some vague inkling that “Country Roads” was a famous song ever since my Aunt Alisa, who for most of my childhood was the director of tourism for West Virginia, told me about a business trip she’d taken to Japan. “They barely spoke any English,” she said of the businessmen who hosted her, “but they knew every word to ‘Country Roads’.” I didn’t think much of the fact that Japanese businessmen and every 18-year-old at the University of Georgia shared an intimate knowledge of a country song from the ‘70s. I was just relieved to not have to explain U.S. geography to my dorm-mates or hold up my fist, thumb, and middle finger extended, as if to mimic the shape of the state. And I still thought of the place as it’s often portrayed in the movies — broken-down and rural, unambitious and full of cow-eyed ignoramuses. I daydreamed about trouncing through my high school reunion someday, seeing how fat everyone had gotten and feeling superior as I gushed about my fabulous, worldly life. I was smug and hubristic, the natural evolution of any miserable nerd who Gets Out of whatever podunk place they think is holding them back.
I bounced around a fair amount in college, traveling around the country one summer as a production assistant for motorsports TV and or going to visit friends who’d moved away for school. Singing “Country Roads” to people became a little trick I could fall back on to easily ingratiate myself to new acquaintances, since it’s hard not to like someone when they come out of the gate crooning. When I moved to Korea in 2010, however, I shelved it. I guess I’d forgotten what Aunt Alisa said about the Japanese businessmen. Instead, I relied on garbled attempts at speaking the local language, the same tactic that previously led me to mistakenly ask a sweet, elderly Italian baker if there were any condoms in his cookies. Far from charmed by my attempts at speaking their language, folks were usually just confused or a little offended. Looking back, it’s no surprise how few Korean friends I made that year.
For a variety of reasons, I found myself taking a lot of cabs during my year in Asia. Occasionally, I’d hop in with a driver who spoke some English and relished the opportunity to practice. It was this kind of driver who picked me up for a ride home one night last spring. We chatted politely about work (“Do Korean students work very hard?”), why I didn’t have a boyfriend (“But you must be married!”), and Korean food (“Bulgogi is most famous food of Korea! Very popular all over the world!”). When he asked, I told him where I was from. Since I’d lived just before I moved abroad, I usually answered with “Atlanta,” but for some reason, on this particular night, I chose West Virginia instead.
The words were barely out of my mouth before he burst into song. “Ahmost heaven, West Virginiaaaaa!” he belted. And, grinning, I joined in: “Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah Ri-iver!” He was no Japanese businessman, but he knew all the words, just like Aunt Alisa said. We sang the tune from start to finish as he drove, and while I can’t prove it, I suspect he chose his route and speed specifically to pull up to my apartment just as we finished singing. “We must go to the singing room together,” he said as I climbed out, handing me his business card. We never did make it to the singing room (when I called the number on the card, a man who spoke no English answered), but the experience, and the song, stayed with me.
From that point forward, “Country Roads” seemed to pop up everywhere. I heard a reggae version of it in a head shop in Amsterdam six months later. Then, the following week, I watched a polka band play it under the Hippodrom tent at Oktoberfest in Munich. Each time it played, no matter what country I was in, everyone in the room seemed to know the words and want to sing along. Everyone seemed gripped by nostalgia and a sense of fellow feeling, or lost in a reverie. The “Country Roads” page on SongFacts.com is plastered with comments about how the song takes its audience back to a feeling of simplicity. “I first heard this song when I was in high school ten years ago,” writes Soong Jing from Beijing. “From that tape I fall in love with country music. But I no longer play that tape, it’s hurting, I lost my youth.”
Whether it’s a long weekend in New York City making you reevaluate your boring hometown as actually charmingly unpretentious and manageable, or Sufjan Stevens’ “Decatur” prompting you to think differently about your relationship to the authority figures you used to resent, both travel and music have a way of making us reconsider our paradigms. For me, the universal popularity of “Country Roads” dovetailed with the experience of backpacking through Europe, making me ponder both the place that inspired a song that has meant so much to people around the world for over 40 years, and how that place has shaped me in spite of my resistance to it.
It’s telling that the most enthusiastic renditions of “Country Roads” always seemed to happen in big, modern cities. Just like the commenter from Beijing who lamented the passing of youth, people around the world seem to associate the song with the poignant feeling of having lost something they once had. For me, it was all the opportunities to be a kid that I lost by wishing away my childhood so I could get out of West Virginia, and the outdoorsy times I spent with my dad when I was a little girl, before I decided that camping was just as uncool as my home state. Just as traveling helped me see the value in having and appreciating roots, “Country Roads” helped to illuminate what my dad loves about where he’s from in a way he could never articulate. It made me finally understand, at least a little, why it hurt him so much that I rejected West Virginia so fiercely.
So, when my travels were over, I returned not to Georgia but to the hometown I had once been so desperate to leave. My family was in the middle of a particularly hard time, and I suppose Dad and I were both receptive to a shift in things between us. I spent time with my dad and tried to mend the damage I’d done to our relationship with my flippant adolescent dismissal of everything that was important to him. Instead of approaching everything he said, especially on the subject of what he valued about his home, with a sneer, I tried to really listen. I explored my hometown with a new attitude, and I found little corners where the culture I’d gone so far away to find had been lurking all along. I used to fault him for taking my desire to move on so personally, but I started to understand why: I had tied him up with my feelings about where I was from. I had made it personal.
It’s not that I want to go back there, or that I regret leaving in the first place — the life I’ve built for myself elsewhere contains much of what I’d dreamed of while wishing my youth away. But in the words of that song and the wistfulness it brings out in people who’ve never even seen the Blue Ridge Mountains, in the peaceful way my father often sits outside on warm nights, watching the dusk get painted on the sky, I can finally understand what West Virginia means to him, and why he couldn’t be the dad I love without it.