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Take me home, John

Cassie Pence
Arts and Entertainment Editor
Special to the Daily/Dawn PublicationsIllustrator Christopher Canyon designed the pictures in "Take Me Home, Country Road" to resemble quilts to play tribute to the folk art that originated in the Applachia mountains.
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VAIL ” Just about everybody has a memory surrounding a John Denver song. The musician had a knack for penning lyrics with universal appeal.

Literary agent Sandy Ferguson Fuller, who’s lived in Vail since 1961, remembers seeing Denver perform at the Dobson Arena in Lionshead. He sang the love song “For You,” and Ferguson recalls thinking how it spoke to her so personally.

Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads” was the first song illustrator and entertainer Christopher Canyon learned to play on the guitar. At age 9, Denver inspired Canyon to become a musician.

It was Denver’s widespread appeal and rhythmic, visual lyrics that had Fuller thinking since the ’70s that his music could be adapted into picture-book format. Since she’s in the book business, Fuller pitched the idea to Denver in 1996. He died in a plane crash a year later, and she never heard back from him directly.

Denver’s untimely death inspired Fuller even more to make the project a go. She finally got the green light from Denver’s close friend and business manager Hal Thau. Dawn Publications picked up the project and hired artist and avid Denver fan Canyon to illustrate what is now a whole series of children’s picture books that bring to life the folk singer’s lyrics. The latest in the book series, “Take Me Home, Country Roads” was released in September.

Verbatim Booksellers presents Canyon for a booksigning Thursday at the Vail Library Community Room.

“For me, doing this project gave me the opportunity to pay tribute to somebody whose musical contribution was really formative for me,” Canyon said. “It’s very unselfish music that Denver wrote and recorded. He wrote his music to connect with people. He wrote from his heart, from his mind and from his experience.”

Fuller began the project by evaluating Denver’s lyrics as text for books. Obviously some songs, like “Rocky Mountain High,” would never work as children’s books, but the more Fuller dug into the meaning of Denver’s lyrics, the more the fan was impressed. Fuller said Denver’s language and subject matter ” like nature, family and friends ” paired with illustrations created a perfect package for children’s literature.

“The lyrics of his songs are amazing,” Fuller said. “We’ve had people from all over the world write and tell us stories of what John’s songs meant to them. It’s uncanny on how he touched so many people with his music.”

To date, Dawn has published “Sunshine On My Shoulders,” “Ancient Rhymes” and now “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” “Gramma’s Feather Bed” and “Calypso” are in the works. Each hardcover includes a two-track recording of “Music Is You” intro and the feature song.

As the illustrator, it’s Canyon’s job to develop a visual story line that coincides with the songs. For “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” Canyon drew different family members driving along country roads to a family reunion in West Virginia. The festive party culminates with a hayride and hoedown. Canyon didn’t know at the time he illustrated the book, but the song really did originate on a drive to a family reunion. A couple of Denver’s musical friends, Bill Danoff and Taffy Nivert, were driving along Clopper Road in Maryland heading for Nivert’s family reunion. They were captivated by the rolling hills and started humming a tune. Denver helped them find words for the tune and finished it.

“It’s a song about coming home to your roots. I interpreted the song from the way it spoke to me,” Canyon said. “It didn’t surprise me that it was written about a family reunion. It just made me feel good. It validated that I was doing my job as an illustrator.”

Canyon designed the pictures to look like a quilt, the popular folk art of Appalachia. The images are layered with color, texture and pattern. It was his way of paying tribute to the quilting art form.

“I wanted the book to feel down homey,” Canyon said. “I wanted it to have a home spun aesthetic about it.”

Canyon has given each book in the series a different look. He lets the song dictate the illustration style. “Ancient Rhymes, A Dolphin’s Lullaby” uses blue-toned dreamy images, while “Sunshine On My Shoulders” showcases soft watercolor images. The images are intended to appeal to a variety of tastes just as Denver’s music does.

“Part of the idea of the series is to introduce kids to John Denver’s music,” Fuller said.

Arts and Entertainment Editor Cassie Pence can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 618, or cpence@vaildaily.com.

Vail, Colorado


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