Gary James' Interview With
John Denver Tribute Artist
Jim Curry's tribute show to John Denver is the first and only full-length John Denver tribute in a Las Vegas casino and is a sell-out favorite at the Silvertown time after time. He's taken his show on the road to performing arts centers and casinos in the U.S. and Canada and out to sea as one of the most popular shows on the Holland America Cruise Line. He often performs with John Denver's former band members. And when he performs, the praise comes in abundance: "Your tribute show is fantastic," "A Shining tribute to John Denver." Well, you get the idea. Jim Curry spoke with us about his tribute show and his love and admiration for the man and the music of John Denver.
Q - Jim, would I be correct in saying you've spared no expense in putting on this John Denver tribute show of yours?
A - Yeah. It's been a definite focus. We started this and made it our goal to commit everything we do to it. We've really put in not only the time but the money to develop the music and bring it back in as much of its original form as we can, including the symphonic scores.
Q - Jim, you even have a John Denver inflection in your speaking voice. Has anyone ever mentioned that to you before?
A - (laughs) No, not that I can recall.
Q - It must come from singing all those songs all the time.
A - (laughs) I think the writing, the way it just flows. It's just a very natural thing the way he wrote. It's one of those things that made him popular where people started playing guitar because they could sing it. It was singable.
Q - You have to wonder how he came up with the idea to write a song like "Thank God I'm A Country Boy".
A - That's one thing you can attribute to his talent, not only the ability to write the songs, but select songs that fit him really well. His band members were very lucky that they got to be his band members 'cause people like Steve Weisberg or John Sommers wrote as well. In most bands you don't have the lead singer of the band that's the star of the show, you're just the band. You don't have a lead singer offer to record your song. And he did that. He was able to see a song and say, "That's a good song. I should've written it." And he would record those songs that his band members had written and they became his. They became signature songs for him even though he really didn't write 'em or he co-wrote them. One of the two. It's not always John's writing but it's either his talent to interpret it or he co-wrote with them. Like "Country Roads", a big song, but Taffy Nivert and Bill Danoff probably wrote the majority of that song. John just helped finish it. But it became a signature song for him.
Q - The only other guy the comes to mind who had that ear for what songs suit him would be Kenny Rogers.
A - Right. And when you hear it, you can't imagine anyone else singing it. It's his song. It's his legacy, that identity you put with someone like Kenny Rogers or John Denver. There's not too many artists who came around and covered a John Denver song. You think about some of the songs that got covered to death by so may famous people. The songs that John wrote or recorded, you just don't see too many people recording 'em. They were his and his identity. It was so strong that nobody could probably cover it and make it their own. It will always be associated with that John Denver brand. I think Olivia Newton John actually recorded "Take Me Home Country Roads" on of her albums, and it actually was more responsible for the song's fame in Europe than John's, but that's a rare situation.
Q - You actually got to perform with members of John Denver's band. That's a tribute to your talent, isn't it?
A - Over the years we performed with John Denver's band members. We still do. It happened in 2002, just before the CBS movie release (on John Denver's life). I did a three hour concert with John's former band mates in the later years, the Nashville guys that he had. We did a concert in California together. From that day forward, ever since 2000, we have worked every year with one or two or three different band members every year and over the years I've worked with almost everybody that had worked with John, from his early guys like Steve Weisberg and Jim Conner, John Sommers, to the guys in the middle years like Elvis Presley's guys like James Burton, Jim Horn, Richie Garcia. All those guys were in the middle years and the later years were the Nashville guys that were his last band. I worked with them a lot, Chris Nole, Pete Hottlinger. Some of those guys have worked for me more years than they worked for John. Most of the band members that worked for John worked maybe four, maybe five years. Then he would change his band. He'd get new guys. So, they all have their credit with John for four or five years, but since 2002 I've been working with those guys on a regular annual basis just coming out doing shows with me. It's been ten or twelve years.
Q - Why would John Denver keep changing band members? What was the reasoning behind that? Was it to keep the music fresh?
A - I think so. Some of it historically he wrote in his autobiography. The early band members were kind of boot strap guys, guys that just kind of grew up with the music and were in the formative years of John's career. Realistically those early guys were the ones that were with him in the mid-'70s when all the hits were being made, that real roots generation of music. It just came from that real basic background of musicians that just loved to play. They weren't studio musicians. They weren't Elvis' guys. They were the early guys. All the hits of the early '70s were those guys. Then the music industry moved on and you've got to reinvent yourself. Elvis' backup band was supposed to go to Emmylou Harris, but they ended up going to John Denver. That changed the whole sound. Now he's doing "Johnny B Goode" and "Claudette". The whole sound of John Denver became this new thing. I don't know that he carried all of his fans through that time. A lot of people went, "What is that? That's not John Denver." You can hear the history in his albums, through the chronology of his albums, the way things changed. You knew the band was different because every one of those band members had an influence on the sound and have James Burton playing electric guitar behind you. (laughs) You just gotta try to utilize that. And he did. He did that one album, "Johnny And The Sharks" on the back cover. (laughs) A whole change of direction for style. Then he brought in a Latin percussionist with Richie Garcia. He plays with us a lot these days. He was even scratching his head, "Who's John Denver?" He didn't know why he was getting brought in, that influence, that first album that came out, "Different Directions", the Latin influence of that percussion on the album just changed the whole feel of what John's music was about. It was a nice return to that more acoustic sound that he had, but it was new.
Q - When CBS made this movie on John Denver's life, they asked you to sing. Whey didn't they use John's original recordings?
A - They had permission, licensing from the estate to use certain songs. That was limiting in some ways. Then they needed a voice for things that didn't exist, that they didn't have. Most of that was the early years, The Chad Mitchell Trio, when he was just coming into the Mitchell Trio and the studio session scene that they had where they needed those voices. That's the part that I did, the early years.
Q - From what I see there's only a handful of John Denver tribute acts out there.
A - Yeah.
Q - Do all you guys know each other?
A - I know of them and some of them I know that I've met and had conversations with. Very few are decent acts. Some of 'em are just guys that look more like him and think they can sing. I hate to be critical at anyone trying to make a living, but when you win a look-alike contest it doesn't mean you can sing. It does make it difficult. You get a little bit protective of your business when you have people out there attempting to do it and they don't do it well. It does make it difficult for the ones that do it well because then the buyers in the marketplace get a little bit apprehensive. John had a rough, rough reputation to begin with in the industry. It was a love-hate kind of career for him. The Rock 'n' Roll critics really hammered on him about being too saccharine or unreal. His popularity was real hard-edge. They either really loved him or really hated him. So when you come around to what we're doing now and you try to sell the idea that this is popular music, it was. World-wide popular, but there's also that faction that hated him. So when the buyer looks at that and they want to bring the show in, it's gotta hold its own weight. It's hard to live up to John talent and do a job that's going to be respectful of what he was able to do. We know that we're doing a good job. We wouldn't have all those guys working with us and hundreds of shows that we do a year if our show wasn't good. But then you get a guy that comes in and looks like him and can't really sing and the next time you go to that town or anywhere near there they go, "No. We tried that already. We don't want to do that again." (laughs) It ruins the marketplace. People remember the bad shows.
Q - But, we can say that about some of the Elvis tributes out there or The Beatles tributes out there.
A - Yeah. I do feel fortunate that the market is not as saturated in the John Denver tribute world as it is with Elvis and The Beatles. I really feel that empathy for those bands that struggle with the competition that way.
Q - You seem pretty well booked to me. You're doing performing arts centers, casinos, cruise ships. One these cruise ships, are you part of a variety show? Are you performing as a solo act? Do you take your band with you? How does that work?
A - The cruise ships hire me as a headline act and I bring my arrangement and they provide me with a four or five piece band. We rehearse and I do the show that way. I'll usually have one other person with me. I'll either have my wife, who sings all the harmonies and plays mandolin; she and I do those ships most of the time. If she can't go on the cruise because of other business she's doing, then one of the other band members might go with me just to bring more of our full-time show with us. But the ship band does a great job. They're good sight readers. They can pull it off. I've got really good charts and a really good arrangement. The ship show is a full band show. It's a headline show, so it's an evening on the cruise. One night out of the cruise is my show.
Q - Then you can usually stay onboard if you want or they'll fly you off the ship?
A - They do both. They usually keep me for at least five days. It's more of a safeguard for them, if something happens with another act or bad weather or whatever reason another act can't do the show. I'm there another night, or I do a second show. That's happened where you've had another get sick or a no-show. They can't make it, customs or whatever reason they can't get on. Usually we're on a five day stay if not seven and then we fly to another ship.
Q - I'd ask if you can mix business with pleasure, but something tells me it's more business.
A - Well, the down days are nice on a ship. Typically before your show you're a little bit more incognito. People don't know you're there. After your show you can't walk around the ship. You're a celebrity and everybody is wanting to talk to you. It changes after your show. If you're on the ship after your show for a very long you don't get much privacy. (laughs) Then the travel is the real job. That's universal, the air travel, the road trip, the tours. That's the hard part of the job.
Q - Did you ever get to see John Denver in concert?
A - I saw about four concerts over the years, maybe five, one of them right after high school in Texas. A girlfriend and I, along with two of our other friends, the four of us went to Houston, which is like forty miles from the little town we lived in. We got there early. We were lucky. Somebody we met had a backstage pass and we got one backstage pass. (laughs) So I said to my girlfriend, "We'll share it." I let her go first and she never came back. She stayed the whole time backstage. She got to meet John and the band and the three of us got escorted out at the end of the concert to wait outside for her. We waited about a half hour before she finally showed up.
Q - Did your girlfriend tell you what she was doing backstage?
A - He (John Denver) was leaning on her shoulder, had his arm around her shoulder, yakking with the band and standing there with them. Then he went out and did a solo set while the band took a break and she hung with the band. (laughs) It was like, "Wow! Okay, nice. But what about us?" (laughs)
Q - But you would've loved to have met John Denver, wouldn't you?
A - It was one of those things that was unexpected. We were going to see the concert. We didn't expect to get a backstage pass. So when we did it was like, "Wow! Okay!" Then your mind starts racing. What do you do with it? What if I meet him? What do I say? I was a big fan so I would've been star struck I'm sure.
Q - If on that night someone had tapped you on the shoulder and said, "Jim, one night you'll be on stage portraying John Denver," would you have believed it?
A - Oh, I would never have believed it, no. That wouldn't even have been a thought. I was not a musician so much at that time. I had gotten a scholarship to study music after my twelfth grade. But, prior to the twelfth grade I was an arts student. I wasn't a music student. I didn't think music at all. It wasn't until senior high that I moved to that little town in Texas that things kind of took a turn toward music and an opportunity to study music. That kind of made the difference.
Q - Why do you think there's this continued interest in John Denver? Is it because of the songs he wrote?
A - Yah, definitely the music. It's always been the vehicle that carried his success. He was very philanthropic. He was involved in so many charitable events and activities, World Hunger, anti-war, reforestation, environmental things. All these things were interests to him, but it was the music I think that tied it all together and carried him and shared who he was through the music. It was always music that was the flame and people remember the music. So many people that hear our show now, haven't heard it in fifteen to twenty years, 'live' at least. Radio doesn't play it that much. A few stations that might.
Q - You're absolutely right about that. You hardly ever hear a station play John Denver's music.
A - Right. We wondered about that. We met some radio people and they said he always meets the cut just under the wire. He's so close to being in the group that makes that radio play, but he's not quite there. It's an interesting phenomenon. It's just the struggle that he had. I remember the last concert. I saw him in California and he was by himself. No band, which really surprised me, but he did a solo show and we were out filming a TV special and he came to the stage somewhat tired, being in the studio all day and was on a soap box lamenting about how difficult it was anymore to get attention, to get accepted because he used to host The Tonight Show. At the time they wouldn't even talk to him. He said, "They won't even answer my call." He was lamenting this to a 'live' audience about how frustrated he was. It was a hall of about five thousand people and not what it used to be, fifteen thousand people.
Q - The early '70s was the time for singer / songwriters. Think about it. John Denver, Jim Croce, Cat Stevens, James Taylor. That was the trend at the time. Then they were pushed aside.
A - Right. That happens all the time no matter what generation we're in. The L.A. scene is so frustrating. There's never settling here. There is no trend. There's no market. It's not like Nashville. Nashville is known for Country. Maybe Austin is a little more eclectic and New York has got it's energy for what it does. L.A. is always looking for, "What's next?" There isn't an identity to the music here. It's always, "What's new? What's the new sound?" You don't have a big fan base for any genre.