A Minnesota woman – not the Rocky Mountains – inspired John Denver’s first #1 song – Post Bulletin > Minnesota

FARGO — How many of us can finish this text?

“You fill my senses…”

Ready. Walk.

“Like a night in the woods
Like the mountains in spring
Like a walk in the rain”

As you sing these words (and I know you do), you can almost hear the soft guitar notes and clear, gentle voice of superstar John Denver.

Denver’s “Annie’s Song” was a smash hit for the folk singer-turned-pop/country superstar of the 1970s. Fans probably know that the song was written for Denver’s wife, Annie Martell Denver. But fans in the upper Midwest might be interested to know that Martell was a Minnesota girl.

Who is Annie Martell Denver?

Martell grew up in St. Peter, Minnesota, the oldest of four children. A 1964 graduate of St. Peter High School, she enrolled in her hometown of Gustavus Adolphus to major in art education. There her life changed dramatically.

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Ann Martell (left) was the yearbook editor at St. Peter High School. She graduated in 1964 and married John Denver three years later.

St. Peter yearbook 1964/e-yearbooks

During her sophomore year, a trio of young men came to campus to perform. One of its members, a well-groomed, bespectacled blond named John Deutschendorf, became aware of the pretty brunette.

Martell told the story on a recent episode of the Mo Rocca podcast, “Mobituaries.”

“John did a concert with the Mitchell Trio. And after that he played the guitar and there was a group of people doing a play and some kind of silly little musical and I was the girl carrying the signs across the stage, Act One, Act Two and according to John , I had one Pair of blue jeans and a flannel shirt and penny loafers on,” she said.

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John Denver, center, was a member of the Chad Mitchell Trio, later The Mitchell Trio, in the late 1960s before going solo in the ’70s. He was performing with this group in St. Peter, Minnesota when he met his future wife, Annie, who was a student there.

Varese Sarabande/Amazon.com

She told People magazine in a 1979 interview that John told her he “fell in love instantly” at the time. Three weeks later he wrote her a letter hoping they could meet again. They did a year later when he performed another concert at nearby Minnesota State University Mankato.

There they had their first date. Annie said John was charming and asked a lot of questions, and he was an instant hit with her parents.

John “really appeals to these moms,” Annie told People.

After that, they didn’t waste much time. They were engaged nine months later and married on June 9, 1967 at the First Lutheran Church in St. Peter.

After the wedding, the couple lived in Chicago for a short time and later settled in Edina, Minnesota. While living in Edina from 1968 to 1971, John wrote the songs for his first three albums, including his first No. 1 song, “Sunshine on my Shoulders,” which he says he wrote in one of those cold, bleak late winters in Minnesota/early spring days when everything is still gray, but he said: “Spring is indeed here. That’s why the song is so slow and melancholic.”

John performed throughout Minnesota during these years. In 1970, he performed at Edina High School for students who were staging a strike in support of teachers’ salaries. He also played at the inauguration of Governor Wendell Anderson in 1970. The two men became friends, and Anderson later became the godfather to John and Annie’s son.

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While living in Minnesota from 1968 to 1971, John Denver continued to be busy performing. At a concert for Edina High School students, he joked, “I’d love to do a medley of my hit.” At the time, he didn’t have any hits as a singer, but was busy with “Leaving on aa Jet Plane,” a song he had written for Peter, Paul and Mary, jumped into the charts.

Edina yearbook 1970/E-yearbook

In 1971, the Denvers moved to Aspen as John began pursuing a solo career away from the trio. It was in Aspen that “Annie’s Song” was born.

The young couple (he was 23 when they married, she was 20) had gotten into an argument and John set off to clear his head in the Rocky Mountains, which have become as synonymous to him as the granny Glasses and the mop hairdo. He wrote the lyrics to “Annie’s Song” in just a few minutes on a ski lift high above the snow.

Annie told newspaper reporters at the time: “When he played it to me, I cried. I was very honored by that.”

On the Mobituaries podcast, she said it still moves her.

“I still cry when I hear it. It’s really beautiful and so many people have used it at their weddings,” she said.

Naturally, over the years as people learn who she is, the song pops up.

“People still keep me from talking about it,” she told a reporter in 1999. “I want people to know about this song that while I was John’s muse on it, it was really about John’s ability to love. It came from the bottom of my heart.”

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This People magazine article profiles Minnesota native John Denver and his wife Annie Martell as they struggled to balance their personal lives with their busy schedules.

Asmita Neupaneta

“Annie’s Song” isn’t the only time Annie has inspired John’s music. In 1969, less than two years after their marriage, he wrote “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” which would become his first hit as a songwriter. The song became a huge hit for Peter, Paul and Mary and many believed it was about a young soldier who fled to serve in the Vietnam War. However, that was not John’s intention. He’d written it about the hardship of leaving Annie alone so often when he was away.

After all, those days on the road took their toll on marriage. In 1982, the couple divorced after 15 years of marriage. The couple shared custody of their two adopted children, Anna-Kate and Zachary. John remarried and later divorced Australian actress Cassandra Delany, with whom he had a daughter.

However, John never forgot Annie. He would send her flowers for her birthday and Mother’s Day.

It was incredibly exciting. I had never left Minnesota before meeting John, so it was exciting to travel the world and meet people like Cary Grant and Frank Sinatra.

Minnesotan Annie Martell Denver was married to superstar John Denver in her early days

It was only a few weeks after her birthday in the fall of 1997 that Annie spoke to John for the last time.

“I thanked him for the flowers he sent me for my birthday and he got very quiet. He said, “Oh, but Annie, I love you,” and I said, “John, I love you too. Have a safe trip and see you when you get back,'” she said.

But she never saw him again. John Denver died when the plane he was piloting crashed near Pacific Grove, California on October 12, 1997.

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John and Annie Denver at the premiere of the film “The Great Waldo Pepper” in 1975. Annie, a native of St. Peter, Minnesota, said she never left Minnesota before marrying Denver and was excited to be around the to travel world. But she also said it wasn’t always easy. She told The Star Tribune in 1982 she often felt like “nothing more than Mrs. Superstar, whose job was to smile and look pretty and get out of the way.”

UPI Photo/ebay/soxphotos

Even before the Denvers divorced, Annie began to forge her own path. She began to advocate for causes such as world hunger and arts programs. In 1982, she returned to Minnesota to serve as chair of the Children’s Home Society of Minnesota benefit concert. (Their children were adopted by society.)

The now 76-year-old former Mrs. John Denver leads a life away from the limelight very different from the tumultuous days of the early ’70s when John’s star shone so brightly.

“It was incredibly exciting,” she told a reporter in 1999. “I had never left Minnesota before meeting John, so it was exciting to travel the world and meet people like Cary Grant and Frank Sinatra.”

But what made her smile after John’s death wasn’t necessarily the memories of rubbing elbows with Hollywood’s biggest stars, but the day her children found the letter sent in 1966 by a struggling young musician named John Deutschendorf who only hoped to see her again

To use a phrase, the letter clearly filled her senses.

“I have it on my desk now,” she said. “It still moves me to see it.”

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