The music of John Denver will probably live forever. And thanks to musician Chris Collins, who performs the 1970s superstar’s treasured tunes day after day for thousands of fans across the nation, Denver’s legend lives on as well. Collins and his lead guitarist, Paul Swanton, will present Chris Collins with Paul Swanton: A Tribute to John Denver at the Salida SteamPlant Event Center on Saturday, July 8, at 7 p.m.
Collins, who adds a few of his original songs and humor into each show “to give the audience a feel for who I am in my own right,” makes it clear his intent is to pay tribute to John Denver’s legacy, not pretend to be him. “I don’t make any attempt to impersonate him,” says Collins. “I just want to honor his music and his style.”
Collins’ tribute is so appealing that faithful John Denver fans fly in from Japan and other nations to catch Collins’ tribute shows. Next year, the show will go international with performances in Canada and Ireland. “It’s amazing,” Collins says of the undying popularity of John Denver’s music. “There’s so much affection for his music. Even people who didn’t like it in the 1970s like it now.”
John Denver was one of America’s most beloved and best-selling singer-songwriters of the ’70s. He penned timeless tunes such as “Rocky Mountain High,” “Take Me Home, Country Roads” and “Sunshine on My Shoulder.” Denver died in 1997 while piloting an experimental aircraft over Monterey Bay, Calif.
Even though they’re not, “people assume we’re an imitation act,” says Collins, whose fashion style is much like John Denver’s – and countless others in the 1970s – including casual shirts and blue jeans, a “shaggy, floppy” hairstyle and “granny” glasses. Collins says he began wearing the small, round glasses as a youngster because he admired a “cool kid” who also wore them. “I don’t have blond hair like John did, though,” Collins laughs. “I have brown hair.”
The comparisons also extend musically. Collins jokes he’s been performing John Denver music for 16 years but only “six years – willingly. I resisted for the longest time because I wanted to write and perform my own music, which leans toward western, kind of like John’s and Michael Martin Murphy’s music. Finally, I realized the tribute was what I was meant to do.”
Collins picked up the acoustic guitar at age 17 but didn’t know much about John Denver, other than his radio hits, until a year later when he began learning to play Denver’s guitar music.
A Wisconsin native, Collins honed his vocal, guitar and songwriting skills and began playing regularly at Milwaukee-area clubs while attending the University of Milwaukee. Soon his music took him on the road and away from the classroom. His first album, Alberta Skies, recorded in 2001, was nominated for Producer of the Year and Album of the Year.
Exposure of Collins’ music led to the chance meeting with his original Boulder Canyon Band members, who ironically hail from Aspen, Colo., where John Denver lived most of his adult life. In addition to playing lead guitar in the band, Swanton has spent 35 years perfecting the guitar licks in the John Denver canon and has written a John Denver anthology. Well-known for his hot guitar-picking and quiet personality, Swanton is a highly sought-after guitarist.
“Part of the beauty of John Denver’s music is that you can play it as simply or as complex as you want to,” Collins says. “There’s something elegant about how he wrote. His music can be played as basic chords, or you can add more components.”
Collins admires John Denver’s style of connecting with an audience. “John said it was not so much about entertaining as it was about touching people. He was more interested in having an effect on people’s lives, and apparently he did.”
For tickets to the July 8 performance, contact the Salida SteamPlant Event Center box office at salidasteamplant.com.