Take Me Home Country Roads (3/12/10)

On a pleasant, short-sleeved afternoon in Morgantown, W.Va., under a brilliant, almost cloudless sky, shaggy-haired, bespectacled John Denver ambled toward the 50-yard line to, in effect, christen the new 50,000-seat Mountaineer Field, home of West Virginia football team. It was September 6, 1980, and the university wanted to do something special to introduce both its new stadium and a young first-year WVU coach named Don Nehlen. So Denver was invited to sing one of his signature songs - "Country Roads" -during pregame festivities. Denver, who died in 1997, accepted the invitation apparently under the impression that he would perform a quick novelty gig: hop off his helicopter, take an escorted ride into the stadium , sing "Country Roads" and then bail out. But that's not exactly what happened.

Denver entered the stadium and found his microphone at the center of the field, amidst the 325-member Mountaineer Band, which around him had formed an outline of the state of West Virginia. Then as he crooned the opening lyrics - "Almost heaven, West Virginia" - Denver was joined by about 50,000 backup singers. Those who were there say the crowd's collective voice swelled to a climax at the conclusion: "Country roads,take me home, to a place where I belong. West Virginia, Mountain Momma.Take me home, country roads." Those attending also say that when Denver finished his song, he gazed in all directions - perhaps dumbfounded at the reaction. Some among the crowd wept. Most just cheered for a long time.

"I'm pretty sure! He had no idea what that song means to this state," said Dan Miller, an executive with the West Virginia Coal Association and an unofficial Mountaineer football historian. "I was stationed in Germany in 1971 the first time I heard 'Country Roads,' and I'm not ashamed to say that while I was listening I started crying," Miller said. "It means a lot when you come from a place that most people don't appreciate or understand. And here's someone singing about its beauty." West Virginians, you see, feel they're underdogs - almost always fighting an uphill battle.

Economists tell West Virginians it's tough for their state to prosper, because the mountains are so steep and rugged that land development is a challenge. Educators used to say it was tough for many West Virginia children to get ahead, because transportation to schools was difficult and winters are harsh.

In the sports! Realm, there annually aren't many young top-tier athletes in the state, in part because most schools are small and competition is not as daunting as in denser population areas. There are, of course, exceptions - many of them. Native West Virginia athletes include Jerry West (basketball), John Kruk (baseball) and Mary Lou Retton (gymnastics). Author Pearl Buck was a West Virginian; so was Tuskegee Institute founder Booker T. Washington. Nobel Prize winning mathematician John Nash was from West&n bsp; Virginia. So is country singer Brad Paisley. Actor Don Knotts is from the Mountain State, as is actress Jennifer Garner, who still speaks fondly of the "hillers" and "creekers" from her alma mater, George Washington High School in Charleston. Most have spoken of both loving life, and overcoming tough times, in West Virginia.

So when Denver sang about Blue Ridge Mountains and the Shenandoah River, it doesn't matter to most West Virginians that the Blue Ridge is primarily a Virginia-North Carolina strand and the Shenandoah runs only a few miles through their state's Eastern Panhandle. To people who have lived their lives fighting uphill battles, hearing someone tell them their home is "almost heaven" was more than music to their ears. West V irginians love their state.