Dwight Schrute and Andy Barnard paid tribute to West Virginia’s “Country Roads” on this episode of “The Office.” While their dueling banjo-guitar duet was intended to impress the new receptionist, they won the hearts of Appalachian communities with their performance.
A lively debate continues over whether the song refers to West Virginia or west-ern Virginia. The song’s refrain mentions ‘West Virginia,’ but the opening lyrics refer to the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Shenandoah River, which are primarily located in Virginia. The Blue Ridge Mountains are traditionally defined as the easternmost flank of the Appalachian Mountain chain, running roughly north-south from Pennsylvania to Georgia. They pass through only a sliver of West Virginia.
The Shenandoah River’s headwaters are near Front Royal, Virginia; from there the river flows northeast through Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley and ultimately into the Potomac River near Washington, D.C. Near the end of its 150-mile journey, the Shenandoah does cross the eastern panhandle of West Virginia for approximately 20 miles.
Based on the geographical references in the lyrics, many have argued that John Denver shortened “western Virginia” to “west Virginia” (lowercase ‘w’) because the extra syllable would have disrupted the cadence of the refrain.
West Virginia loyalists maintain that Denver meant exactly what he sang. Both the Shenandoah River and the Blue Ridge Mountains are part of West Virginia, and “Country Roads” has been adopted as West Virginia’s state song. Denver sang it at West Virginia University’s football stadium inauguration in 1980, and the WVU Marching Band performs it before every home game.
According to SongFacts.com, John Denver had never visited either state when he recorded “Country Roads,” his first big hit, in 1971. The song was actually written by two musician friends of his, Bill Naffert and Taffy Nifert, who drove Clopper Road on their way to Gaithersburg, Maryland. In the late 1960s, Clopper Road was a single one-lane road passing through picturesque countryside. Today, much of the road is a busy four-lane highway.
Regardless of the specific geographical references, “Country Roads” is a ballad to Appalachia’s beauty—both the beauty of the land and its people. Listen to the original song here.