Gary James' Interview With John Denver Tribute Artists
He's a former member of The New Christy Minstrels and someone who's shared the stage with the likes of Willie Nelson, Jerry Lee Lewis, Gregg Allman and Ray Charles. These days you'll find him onstage with a show called Back Home Again: A Tribute To John Denver. His name is Tom Becker and Tom spoke with us about his tribute to John Denver.
Q - You were part of The New Christy Minstrels. I would say that's a pretty good gig.
A - It was.
Q - You left the group to put together a John Denver tribute act. Why?
A - Well you know, it was years later. I joined The Christys in the late '70s and then when I left the group I moved to Nashville, Tennessee. I was writing songs, just pursuing my music there. Flash forward years later from that I moved to Colorado. I was playing music in a ski resort and then on a trip back to Nashville I met my wife. She was also a singer / songwriter and she worked with Louise Mandrell and Brenda Lee. She was doing all kinds of good stuff. We fell in love and we wanted to get married and we weren't planing on playing music together, but it ended up happening that we started playing music together. And then a few years after that we were playing down in Southwest Florida, a lot of venues in country clubs. Down there I was just noticing I didn't hear much of John's music. One night playing at a venue I did an original song of mine called "Sailor" and the song was an inspiration from John. I've written many, many songs over the years but this was one of the first few songs I wrote that really shows John's influence on me as a songwriter. I did this song at a venue and this guy came up to me and said, "Boy, that sounds a lot like a John Denver song. You sound a lot like John." I said, "Thanks." He said, "Do you know any of his songs?" I said, "Sure." He said, "Could you play one?" So we did a couple of John Denver songs. He said, "I'm a technical director at a local theatre here. Have you ever thought about putting a John Denver tribute together?" I said, "Well, I've played with the idea, but never really did much with it. I wasn't sure." He said, "I'll tell you what, I'll give you the venue. You put the show together, write the show and it'll give you a chance to see if it's something you think is viable." So that's how it kind of got started. That was 2009. We've been doing the show ever since and now we've even added the show to play with some symphonies.
Q - When did you write this original song, "Sailor"?
A - The song was written before I joined The New Christy Minstrels. the Christys decided to put it into the show when I was with the group and even after I left the group they still continued to perform the song as part of their show, and then in 1987 the song found a home as part of a musical centerpiece at the dedication of the United States Navy Memorial in Washington, D.C.
Q - When you're in The New Christy Minstrels and then you decide to do a tribute show, is that somewhat of a comedown?
A - Not really. I grew up listening to The New Christy Minstrels. It was a great kind of training ground for me as a young performer. I was in my twenties. It was an opportunity to tour with a name act and tour around the world and be exposed to more of the business of touring. It was so many years later, after leaving The Christys, that we started doing the John Denver tribute. It's really nice to do the show and see how many John Denver fans are still out there and really miss his music and don't have a chance to hear it. With some folks I even think it's a guilty pleasure. John was, in some circles, perceived as a artist that was caricaturized as "Too wholesome." They made fun of him, but you know what? His fans are so loyal and they love his music. His music has always spoke to my heart. It was never a come down to do the John Denver show, ever. (laughs)
Q - And your wife is part of your act?
A - Yes, she is. Actually, she wrote the show. As I mentioned earlier she worked in many shows and has had much more experience putting a show together than I ever did. She wrote the show, put the musicians together and she is part of the band. She plays the keyboards. When we do John Denver's "Fly Away" that he did a duet with Olivia Newton-John, when you hear my wife Michelle sing you'd swear Olivia was in the room.
Q - When you told, or should I say your wife told musicians she was looking to put together a John Denver tribute, what was the reaction? Was it positive? Negative?
A - Oh, very positive. The musicians reacted positively. They were hoping that it would be something that would keep them all working, which is a very important thing as a musician, to be able to make a living doing what you love to do. I never heard any negative feedback at all. Everybody was really onboard with it and anxious to get started.
Q - Your work is primarily where?
A - In the Winter months primarily in Southwest Florida, from Naples all the way to Tampa and parts in-between. We perform the show in a lot of country clubs. Jewish communities have refurbished theatres. The show does really well in those types of theatres, very small, intimate, 300 to 500 seat venues.
Q - Had you not picked John Denver to pay tribute to, could you have picked James Taylor, Cat Stevens or Jim Croce?
A - Well yes, I actually could have. In fact, I have a friend of mine who does a Jim Croce tribute and he told me I was the inspiration for him. I said nobody's doing Jim Croce. I thought he would be better doing Billy Joel because he has more of a resemblance to Billy, but he's a huge, huge Jim Croce fan just as I was. And Jim (Croce) was a big influence on me growing up and writing songs.
Q - There really aren't many guys out there doing a John Denver tribute act. I think there are only about six of you.
A - Yeah. I think you're about right. I don't know them personally, but I know who a lot of the other guys are. Some of 'em do their shows more as an impersonation and some of 'em do it more as themselves. It varies. But yeah, there aren't too many.