That Colorado Sound

Elwayville is awash with good vibes but is the Centennial State’s legacy on the national music scene nothing more than “Rocky Mountain High” and Winger?

In Whistler at the Olympics there was a hike you could take to the alpine events if you didn’t want to ride the chair. At the top of the hill there was a poster you could sign for posterity and all along the trail loudspeakers blasted fist-pumping, hike-inspiring rock and roll.

The Legacy: John Denver still brings tears to Mr. Kray’s eyes.

They played Queen’s “We Are the Champions,” The Who’s “Baba O’Riley” and AC/DC’s “For Those About to Rock!” And the day Bode Miller won gold in Super Combined—the day of absolute ski race redemption for him, his family and all his faithful fans—they played “Rocky Mountain High” by John Denver. I almost cried with joy.

Of course I was already pretty emotional. Already pretty “high” on the possibilities of the day. Skiing strong with a bronze in the Downhill and silver in the Super G, Bode was on an obvious hot streak (one that would propel the entire U.S. Alpine Ski Team to eight Olympic medals, three more than the previous record medal haul in 1984 in Sarajevo). Some crazy feel-good vibes were in the air.

So when they played that song, I felt like the Mile High sunshine was burning on the back of my head. Like I could close my eyes and see the fire in the sky. I felt like I could just click my boot heels together and be back in Colorado (even if Bode hails from New England).

“Rocky Mountain High!”

I got so jacked up on the overall feel-good sensations (and more than a little caffeine) that I wanted to turn to the cute Canadian girls dressed up like Smurfs in their official Olympic blue coats and hats with pom-poms to cheer the hikers and shout, “I’m a Colorado boy. Just thought you should know.”

I believed right then and there that song had been written just for me. As has anybody who’s ever been driving West on I-70 and had “Sunshine on my Shoulder,” or “Country Roads,” come on the radio. Anybody who’s ever seen that long view and thought, “I’ve never felt better than I feel right now.”

Already recognized as one of two official state songs of Colorado (along with “Where the Columbines Grow.” I bet you don’t know the lyrics to that one) “Rocky Mountain High” is the picture perfect pitch for the very best of this special place: the feeling that once you live here your life is now and forever made of gold.

On a state-by-state match-up of iconic instrumentalism, it’s in a class with Sinatra’s “New York, New York” and the Beach Boys’ vision of California. Or as a certain ski resort marketing guru from the Beehive State once told me, “I’d pay a million dollars for someone to write a song like that about Utah.”

Which would be nice, but unlikely, as I can’t think of much that rhymes with “Jell-O,” “3.2,” “John Stockton,” or “Wasatch effect” right now. And really, outside of John Denver, I can’t think of much in the realm of popular music that Colorado has ever shared with the world.

This being the music issue, I had figured it would be easy to recount all of the rock and roll revelations that Red Rocks has ever hosted—from the Beatles in 1964 to U2’s rainy day performance of “Sunday Bloody Sunday” to one of the late great Stevie Ray Vaughn’s last incendiary shows—and Colorado’s musical decree would be signed and sealed. Or that just by invoking El Chapultepec, Denver’s legendary downtown jazz and blues and booze bar, where Chet Baker, Ella Fitzgerald and Miles Davis all played, I could place our little cowtown at the top of the American music roll. But then I got the list of homegrown rock and roll talent that’s made it on the national stage…

Seriously, the highlight list couldn’t even fill a postcard. It includes Big Head Todd and the Monsters, Glenn Miller, Tommy Bolin, Devotchka and Kip Winger. Yes, that Winger. That’s it, unless you maybe want to count the Samples and that time my brother’s band, Local Threat, opened for Black Flag at the Fillmore.

I mean I realize we’re not on the musical levels of New York, Nashville, L.A., Athens or Seattle. But that list hardly puts us on a par with Idaho (which can claim Nikki Sixx, Paul Revere and The Raiders, Built to Spill, Steve Miller and new school troubadour Josh Ritter). I’m not saying we don’t have a great little music scene here. We do. It’s just that Colorado bands don’t seem to carry over into lower elevations.

So what is it? The lack of rain? All that clean mountain air? Is it that people are just too damn happy here to get down to the angsty urgent root of most great rock and roll?

I like to think so. I like to think we’re all out there so high on sunshine, so in the middle of something that we hardly have time to sit down and put it into music. I like to think the sound of Colorado is a little “Yelp!” of joy.

That’s certainly what John Denver thought of this state. And he moved here from New Mexico.

Cheers to 44!
On a Broncos note, congratulations to Floyd Little on his election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. If it weren’t for Floyd, Colorado might not even have the Broncos. The All-American running back from Syracuse, where he followed in the footsteps of Jim Brown and Ernie Davis, saved this team, generating a string of sold out stadiums that continues to this day, and running his way to six straight NFL rushing titles.

Floyd’s 44 was the first number that the Broncos ever officially retired. The fact that he’s only the third Denver Bronco to enter the Hall of Fame—after John Elway and Gary Zimmerman—is a travesty. Hey Hall of Fame, after you finally give Shannon Sharpe the nod, how about you think about giving Steve Atwater, Dennis Smith and Karl Mecklenburg a call, too?

I’m just saying. It seems like a the kind of thing that a Hall of Fame is set up to do. •

Read more of Peter Kray’s writing, including excerpts of his upcoming novel, The God of Skiing, at shredwhiteandblue.com.

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