Features, Print March 3, 2020

Jim Curry Is Not John Denver

by Dan England

Jim Curry is not John Denver. Well, no #@%*!, you say, but when you see him sing on stage, you may have doubts. Heck, maybe he IS Denver, or maybe Denver is a demon who now uses Curry’s body as a vessel, or maybe Denver faked his own death and “Jim Curry” is his alias.

Curry, alas, is just a guy who never tried to sound like John Denver, the deceased singer-songwriter known for “Thank God I’m A Country Boy,” “Rocky Mountain High,” “Leaving, On A Jet Plane” and “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” He swears he didn’t have plastic surgery to look like him either. In fact, he didn’t embrace the similarities until 2001, when he started a third career as a tribute act playing Denver’s music. That act comes to Greeley, performing with the Greeley Philharmonic Orchestra on March 6 at the Union Colony Civic Center.

When Curry says he’s not Denver, he’s not just saying he’s his own man. He’s pointing out a distinction between himself and other tributes: He doesn’t portray Denver on stage. He tries to look and even dress like him, sure, but he does that to allow concertgoers to maybe lose themselves for a song or two, as if they are seeing Denver onstage in his early ‘70s heyday.

That’s impossible now, of course, as Denver died in a 1997 plane crash. Curry doesn’t want to detract from that experience, but he also doesn’t want to cheapen it. He respects impersonators, like the Elvis acts that arguably started the tribute band movement, and isn’t comfortable going that far, but admits with a laugh: “I did grow my hair longer.”

Jim Curry as John Denver performs with the Greeley Philharmonic Orchestra in Downtown Greeley on March 6.

This philosophy led to his career. Curry ran into Pete Huttlinger, Denver’s lead guitarist, asking Huttlinger if they could do a tribute show, as Denver’s death left fans clamoring for his music. Huttlinger didn’t know Curry, but said yes, and Denver’s old bandmates played a four-hour show with Curry after one half-hour rehearsal. It was a hit. A year later, Curry started a decade-long friendship and business relationship with him until Huttinger died of a stroke in 2016 at age 54.

“I think that’s why they were willing to come on board,” Curry said. “It’s more like an original band. We do Denver’s music, but we do our own thing with it.”

Curry studied voice, but worked in commercial art for years, preferring to do honest work for honest pay while playing bluegrass as a hobby. 

“I never did embrace the idea that I could have a music career,” Curry said. “I didn’t have time to be discovered. I didn’t want to go through that route.”

Curry claims Denver “didn’t really fit into any category,” while Nick Kenny, the GPO’s executive director, calls the music “far richer because it was written for a symphony.”

Curry started the Denver career when tribute bands were still unknown outside of those to the Beatles and Elvis. People didn’t know what to make of tributes, but Curry didn’t see it as a risk, approaching it with an open mind like a business wherein he could make a good living. 

That paid off in 2009, when the Kansas City Symphony called Curry, asking if he would like to do a show. He didn’t have the orchestration at the time, but emailed Lee Holdridge, who worked with Denver when adding full orchestra to his shows. Holdridge wrote Curry back with two words: “Call me.”

“I was a big fan, so that was a big thrill for me,” Curry said. He calls his work with Holdridge “rebuilding the music of Denver,” as many of the original orchestrations were thrown away after Denver died. That’s also why the Greeley Philharmonic wanted to book a show with Curry: it seemed more authentic than simply adding strings to a famous singer’s music. 

“It’s far richer than that because it was written for a symphony,” said Nick Kenny, the Philharmonic’s executive director, who hopes to recreate the successes of recent sell-out Beatles and Simon & Garfunkel tributes at the UCCC.

“We are in Greeley, you know, “Rocky Mountain High,” and Denver is country, pop and folk,” Kenny said. “It’s hard to dislike it. It might not be your go-to, but you hear his music, remember it and enjoy it.”

Denver is not simply a country artist, and Curry enjoys pointing out that the show is more varied than many may believe.

“The struggle we have is someone who wants us to do the opening half of the show. It’s so cliche to pick a country song to show what he was about,” Curry said. “He was more theatrical than country. Those songs branded him, but things evolved and they didn’t know where to put him. He didn’t really fit that category.”

Jim Curry as John Denver plays with the Greeley Philharmonic Orchestra at 7:30 p.m. Friday, March 6 at the Union Colony Civic Center, 701 10th Ave. in downtown Greeley. Go to ucstars.com for tickets or call (970) 356-5000.