Get local news delivered straight to your phone

The on-field melodrama of what proved to be the final game of the splendid Orioles-Indians series—and the home team’s season—watered down the Baltimore crowd’s homage to dearly departed John Denver.

The O’s last seventh-inning stretch featured the first playing of “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” at Oriole Park since the kitschy Coloradan died in the offshore crash of his experimental plane. The stadium’s video screen flashed a brief blurb dedicating the break to Denver’s memory, and as the song played over the PA, the crowd stood and sang and clapped along enthusiastically, just as audiences have for the past 20 years when that irresistibly corn-pone ditty has come on. But with the game a scoreless tie and the pennant on the line, Denver’s contribution to Charm City got buried.

That’s a shame, really. Because no matter how you feel about Denver as a musician or a guy, his “art” is an anomalous fixture on the local landscape. You go see the O’s, you hear John Denver sing, as surely as Cubs rooters hear Harry Caray croon (in the key of off) game after game, year after year. Despite public perception, Denver’s link to Baltimore predates Caray’s Cubs’ ties, by a longshot: Caray didn’t start singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” at Wrigley until 1982, a full six years after Denver’s song entered the Orioles’ playlist.

Since 1997 saw both Rex Barney take his “Give that fan a contract!” with him to the grave and favorite son Cal Jr. shift against his will from shortstop, permanence is particularly paramount to older segments of the O’s faithful. Because as nice as Oriole Park is as a ballyard, for longtime fans the place still holds no more tradition than Raljon. Today’s O’s crowds also give rousing responses to other songs in heavy rotation, but to real fans none of them rates with the Denver song.

Other teams and other stadiums play “YMCA” and the “Macarena,” too.

“Country Boy” belongs to Baltimore and the Orioles. Nobody else.

We can't make City Paper without you

$
$
$

Your contribution is appreciated.

Denver’s spot in the Orioles’ lineup dates back to the end of the 1975 season, when general manager Frank Cashen was bumped further up the organizational ladder to the vice president’s office. Cashen wanted to attract young people to Memorial Stadium, and one of the suggestions he acted upon was to ditch the pipe organ in favor of pre-recorded pop tunes.

Denver, of course, was among the best-selling pop artists of the ’70s—over 100 million albums moved—and one of his most ardent fans happened to be Dee Belanger, then the wife of legendary O’s shortstop Mark Belanger. Dee had met Denver backstage at the Capital Centre after a 1973 show and developed friendships with the singer and his bandmates.

When Dee heard about Cashen’s plan to switch to a DJ, she told the team that some Denver tuneage would fill seats with younger butt cheeks. At the top of her wish list was his then-current single, “Thank God I’m a Country Boy,” off the double-live An Evening With John Denver. When the wife of an 11-time Gold Glove winner requests a tune, the team plays it.

“I just told them it was a great song done by friends

of mine,” says Dee. “I didn’t think I was starting an

Orioles tradition.”

But she was. “Country Boy,” written by John Sommers, a fiddle player in Denver’s band, went on to sell over a million copies, hit No. 1 on both the country and pop charts, and earn a Grammy nomination for country song of the year. Long after it dropped off the charts, Orioles fans continued responding more favorably to the tune than to anything else being blared over the Memorial Stadium PA. By the end of the 1976 season, it had replaced “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” as the most popular soundtrack for the seventh-inning stretch. And despite occasional experiments with other sing-alongs, the song remains the same at Camden Yards.

But why? The song’s initial popularity makes perfect sense: Rusticity, in mid-’70s America, was incredibly chic. How strong was the movement? Three words: President Jimmy Carter. It wasn’t a particularly sturdy crusade, however. Everywhere outside Memorial Stadium, all things provincial went back to being uncool thanks to disco and Skynyrd’s plane crash.

Sommers wrote “Country Boy” on Christmas Eve 1973 while driving from Colorado to his native Los Angeles. He lives in Aspen now, and his six-piece country band, Heart of the Rockies, gigs every week or so at the T-Lazy-7 Ranch there, but he plays “Country Boy” only if an audience member familiar with the fiddle player’s back catalog requests it. He doesn’t like dwelling on what’s behind the song’s small pocket of hyperpopularity.

“I’ve always been amazed by that whole thing with the Orioles,” says Sommers with a humble chuckle. “Seeing people still respond that way gives me an incredibly nice feeling, and as long as the Orioles are playing my song, I’ll be rooting for them.”

A few years ago, the Detroit Tigers called Sommers and asked if he’d mind if they used it as a theme. Out of deference to the Belangers, he said he’d prefer that they didn’t.

Denver came to Baltimore on Sept. 20 to do a benefit concert for cystic fibrosis research at the Arena that night. The Orioles gave the sponsoring charity free advertising on the Oriole Park scoreboard all season, but asked in exchange that Denver make an appearance at the stadium.

On the day of the concert, Denver went to a game (against the Tigers, ironically enough) accompanied by Dee Belanger and Kenn Roberts, a Howard County resident who had helped organize the cystic fibrosis fundraiser. Roberts’ band of 35 years, the Hard Travelers, used to play the Cellar Door in the 1960s, back when Denver was a singer/songwriter with the Chad Mitchell trio, an act that appeared regularly at the Georgetown club. During the seventh-inning stretch, Denver popped up on the dugout unannounced, and lip-synched his way through the old single of “Country Boy.” The Camden Yards crowd went extra crazy.

“John never believed it when I’d tell him that the song was still a huge part of the Baltimore scene,” says Roberts. “But on Sept. 20, he believed. We all believed.”

After the game, Denver asked Roberts if the Hard Travelers wouldn’t mind joining him during the encore of that night’s concert. The request was made partially out of gratitude for all Roberts had done in organizing the fund-raising event. But Denver had other motivations, too. The baseball game inspired Denver to end his Baltimore show with a special song that he hadn’t played much since a fiddler named John Sommers had quit touring with him way back in 1977.

“I told him he could borrow our fiddle player for one concert,” says Roberts.

Roberts assembled his band before Denver’s show and rehearsed that one song for 45 minutes. At the end of Denver’s set, the headliner called the Hard Travelers onstage one by one, and to the glee of the players and all 9,000 concertgoers, he belted out “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” for the first time in years.

After Denver’s death, the Orioles said there are no plans to change the music that accompanies the seventh-inning stretch. Thank god.—Dave McKenna