Hoping to get Johnny Cash to record this song when they wrote it, the songwriters almost didn’t play it for John Denver because they didn’t think it fit his style. However, the couple — Bill and Taffy Danoff — were friends with Denver, and the three were scheduled to perform in Washington, DC, together.
Denver almost didn’t make the show because he got in a car accident on the way to the show and was taken to a hospital with a thumb injury.
But the show must go on.
After the show, the Danoffs played Denver the song at their home. Denver helped them complete it, and the next evening, they sang it together on stage.
Denver knew he had a hit on his hands, so he brought the Danoffs to New York where they recorded the song together. The Danoffs are on background vocals in the version Denver first released in 1971, which made its way to #2 on Billboard’s US Hot 100 chart. It was Denver’s first hit, and the first of 13 US Top 40 hits he scored in the 1970s.
The song has sold well ever since, including millions of digital downloads these days. In 2014, it became one of the four official state anthems of West Virginia. In 2023, the song was selected by the Library of Congress for inclusion in the National Recording Registry.
The Danoffs were in a band called Fat City when they wrote this song. They later formed the Starland Vocal Band, who had a big hit with “Afternoon Delight” in 1977. Over the years, Denver recorded several other songs Bill Danoff wrote.
The enduring popularity of the song is attributed largely to the fact that it’s so singable, as Danoff said in an interview earlier this year:
One thing I’ve noticed of the many times when large groups have been singing the song, they sing the entire song the way it was on the record. I don’t even know many songs that I could sing from beginning to end with all the words, but people seem to know this one.
The St. Louis Blues hockey team learned this on February 9, 2019, when they played the song during a break in the third period of a game against the Nashville Predators. When play resumed, the arena staff faded the song just as it was getting to the chorus, but the crowd kept singing it, and a tradition was born. The team ended up going all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time in 49 years.
There is a decent punk rock version of the song by the Gimmes Gimmes.
Mountain State Brewing in West Virginia has a popular beer called “Almost Heaven” in honor of the song.