Rocky Mountain hi: Country roads converge again for 'family reunion' at John Denver Celebration in Aspen
The John Denver Celebration hit a 25-year milestone in Aspen this week, just before the anniversary of the singer’s death on Oct. 12, 1997.
After news broke that Denver had died in a plane crash in Pacific Grove, California, his friends, fans and fellow musicians gathered in Aspen to celebrate his life and his music.
Kim Bailey was one of them. As a fan, she came to Aspen in search of community and compassion, and found such a sense of connection here that she has returned for every one of the annual gatherings.
“After he passed, … we all were looking for somebody, you know, who understood,” she said.
At the John Denver Sanctuary in Rio Grande Park on Oct. 5 for the kickoff of this year’s celebration, Bailey stood among people she considers her family — people, she said, who understand that this isn’t just some gathering of groupies and that John Denver wasn’t just another famous musician.
“His messages were so timely, and boy, would they be timely today,” she said. “He was a man ahead of his time. … He had a philosophy that resonated with so many people.”
Stephanie and Jim Horn know that as much as anyone.
Jim Horn, a woodwind player, performed and recorded with Denver for years and plays at the Wheeler Opera House during the John Denver celebrations.
Horn first came in 1998 to perform in one of the tribute concerts and says this gathering speaks to the singular impact that Denver had on music and on his listeners.
“He was one of a kind, nobody in the world like him,” Horn said. “He was the only one doing what he was doing. No one else sang or sounded like John. No one wrote songs like he did.”
Horn says he and Denver became like brothers. Horn has countless stories to tell of their friendship and the time they spent together.
He loves to share them over breakfast at the Mountain Chalet — or, say, in an interview in the hotel’s game room before the nightly singalongs begin.
It isn’t easy to tell those stories, he says, but it’s worth it.
“The first night, I fell apart, started crying and stuff, and it's hard to talk to people about someone who you loved and (who is) gone now, and not have a little bit of tear-jerk, you know,” Horn said. “And it was hard, but I got through it. But (the people at the celebration) all loved (the stories), you know?”
The Mountain Chalet — which Horn called a “nest” and a place with “heart” — is where the celebration fills with life and with the community of people united by their love of John Denver.
It is the center of gravity for the annual celebration, where the guests sometimes stay up until 3, 4 or 5 in the morning singing Denver songs after they return from other concerts and events.
There’s a feeling, though, that times are changing, and that the John Denver Celebration as people know it might not exist next year as the Mountain Chalet changes management.
Last year, the family-owned, affordable lodging at the base of Aspen Mountain sold to a partnership that specializes in boutique hotels and high-end restaurants.
The Melville family that has owned the property for all of its seven-decade history has continued to operate it since then.
Craig Melville said in a phone call Tuesday that they’ll stay at the helm until at least May 2023, but the chances they’ll still be running the place next October are “not great.”
Stephanie Horn shares in the gratitude for the hotel that has been their home away from home — and says the changes that could come soon add another emotional layer to this year’s gathering.
“We're all human beings, and you have a love for somebody and, and that person's gone, and you want to continue to share that love, but you do get emotional about it sometimes,” she said. “And it is like coming here and thinking, ‘This is our home in Aspen, and our home got sold.’”
“We're just thankful we're here this year,” she added.
That uncertain future has prompted Laurie Stowers to encourage people to start their own celebrations elsewhere.
“You look at the age level of the people who attend, most of them are living on fixed incomes,” she said. For those participants, $300 or $400 per night — the going rate at some other hotels in Aspen — “just is not feasible.”
“So, it is very likely if the Mountain Chalet is not available next year for us that this would be our last year,” she said.
There’s no official organizer for the John Denver Celebration, but Stowers is close to it, running the Facebook page Aspen in October, where people can get updates about the schedule and events.
At the meet-and-greet in the John Denver Sanctuary last week, Stowers hinted at the idea for a cruise or other events in different towns.
“We'll definitely carry on in one form or another — it just may not be in Aspen,” she said.
She first came to the celebration 20 years ago, for what she thought was a “once in a lifetime” experience.
Then, she kept coming, year after year and found both love and family — and her husband — in Aspen in October.
Stowers emphasizes that this is a celebration, one filled with joy, hugs and reconnection.
“Some people think it's a sad event, and it's not a sad event to come here and share this with friends,” she said. “We get to know all these friends from all over the world, … and it becomes our family reunion."
At the lively singalong Sunday night, you could see the joy on people’s faces — and hear it in their voices.
Jim Connor wrote the song “Grandma’s Feather Bed,” which Denver recorded in the 1970s. Connor has been coming to this celebration on and off.
He says that these kinds of memorials usually taper off after the 25-year mark, and he’s aware of the changes to come at the Mountain Chalet, too.
But he’s optimistic about the future of this gathering, and he believes people will find other places to keep the spirit alive.
“I thought the 25th might be the last one, but there's so much enthusiasm here every night for a week,” he said.
He thinks it will last “at least a few more years.”
And Denver’s music, according to Stowers, will last even longer.
“My granddaughters are 6 and 8 years old, and they sing 'Rocky Mountain High,' they sing 'Country Roads,'” she said.
Generations of family share his songs, she said, as grandparents pass his work down to their children and their grandchildren.
“We're just gonna keep John's music that way,” she said.