Why John Denver’s music about rural life in America appealed to so many people in China and Korea

Written by Danielle Chiriguayo, produced by Rosalie Atkinson

In 1971, John Denver wrote an ode to America’s natural beauty in “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” Credit: John Denver/YouTube

In 1971, John Denver wrote an ode to America’s natural beauty in “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” Describing the simple and slow way of life in Appalachia, the song was released toward the end of the Vietnam War. For Americans stationed overseas, the tune felt like a postcard from home.

But years after the war, the song continued to resonate with listeners — this time, with East and Southeast Asian residents. In The Atlantic, Jason Jeong wrote about how this paean to pastoral American life spoke to Asian listeners, and how the song played a role in his family’s immigration to the U.S.

The start to what Jeong calls “Denvermania” can be traced back to 1979, when then-President Jimmy Carter met with China’s leader Deng Xiaoping. During the trip, Denver performed for Xiaoping and was invited to tour China. Jeong says Chinese leaders embraced Denver, who was seen as someone Asian audiences could resonate with. His music was also broadcasted over Armed Forces Radio.

“John Denver was someone who was pretty holistically wonderful. There was nothing controversial about him. He was very apolitical,” Jeong tells KCRW. “His music was about themes that Asian people can resonate with. So going back home, the countryside, reminiscence, these are pretty universal, rather than some of the more vulgar artists of the generation.”

He adds, “For people growing up in rural China or rural Korea, John Denver just presented a much more accessible vision of the West than Ziggy Stardust.”

Jeon says that in the post-Vietnam War era, a lot of anti-American sentiment still existed as well. Artists like Denver helped rehab the image in the U.S. in the public’s eye. 

The West Virginian Dream

Jeong’s father grew up in rural Korea, immersed in American pop culture throughout the 1980s. He lived in a town of about 100,000 to 200,000 people. 

“He found in artists like John Denver and the Eagles a really agreeable and also familiar ideation of America. So when John Denver sings about ‘take me home, country roads,’ the country roads that my dad envisioned was [sic] his hometown in South Korea.”

When the family moved to the U.S. in 2001, they landed in New Jersey. 

“He had a difficult time adjusting not only because you left your life behind in a foreign country, but … imagine having to build a new social circle where you don't share the same common tongue as the people around you. And also, just being a minority in this country … is really difficult.”

Jeong’s parents moved back to Korea last year before the COVID-19 pandemic, and he says his father no longer dreams of visiting West Virginia. 

“I know he's glad that he's back home. But also, there's that element of the Denverian dream … that John Denver talks about. I think that's been left on my brother and I who are living in New York now. So I think there's something generational about it,” he says.