The state song of West By God Virginia is John Denver’s “Country Roads.” Officially, West Virginia has four official state anthems, and “Country Roads” was only officially named a “state anthem” in 2014, but everybody sings it and always has, and by any metric of popularity, “Country Roads” is clearly the soundtrack to wild and wonderful.
It is also a fraud. And, honestly, I think it tells you something about the state of West Virginia, and what it feels like to be from there, that West Virginians seem not to care, that they’ll take whatever scraps of recognition the Broader Culture gives them. For all the terrible stereotypes about mountaineers, the worst thing about this state is that people don’t even know you exist. It’s a persistent indignity, that people don’t even know your state is a state, that it seceded from the commonwealth of Virginia in 1861. I’m from West Virginia, you say; oh, Virginia, it’s beautiful there, they’ll say; I love Richmond!
West Virginians HATE that, but “Country Roads” is the musical equivalent. The second line of the song refers to the “Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah River,” and while this is certainly a pair of very beautiful Appalachian places, they are most definitely located in the WESTERN PART OF THE COMMONWEALTH OF VIRGINIA. They are not in the state of West Virginia. But that’s just the beginning: “Country Roads” was written in Montgomery County, Maryland, and the songwriter reportedly considered making it a song about his own native Massachusetts, since the word scans similarly (“…the place I belong… Massachusetts…”). John Denver added West Virginia to his collection of states he’s musically nostalgic for, and after it was a huge hit, West Virginians have held it close ever since.
But, come on. Inspired by the DC exurbs, recorded in New York, performed cross the country . . . John Denver was born in Roswell, New Mexico, and his other mountain song is about getting high in the rockies or something, an upstart, show-off mountain range that’s only like 80 million years old (the Appalachians are half a billion years old, asshole).
Anyway. I will never not be mad about this. At the very least they could have found some West Virginia locations that scan. Like, I don’t know, “Gauley Mountain, Monongahela forest”? I’m not a songwriter. But the shame is that the other state anthems are actually deeply West Virginia!
“The West Virginia Hills” (1885) is a great little hymn, with just the right scratchy-piano churchy cheesiness; the “Oh the hills! Beautiful hills!” part is always the instant in my life when I love this terrible state the most. I’ll admit that “West Virginia, My Home Sweet Home” (1947) is a bland patriotic try-hard that’s eager to please in a way I find repellant and familiar, but, well, again, that’s the real shit, isn’t it. And “This is My West Virginia” (1961) is a great little terrible fight song, but mountaineers love their football, and it has the virtue of Iris Bell writing it in her sleep.
There are others, of course, less officially. Spike Jones’ “I Want to Go Back to West Virginia” gets a dishonorable mention; it has a truly bonkers flutophone break in the middle which you’ll want to check out, hold close, and nurture, and it’s actually kinda jaunty and fun and stupid, but also, I mean, it’s SPIKE JONES. Anyway, West Virginia’s real diaspora anthem is probably “Leaving West Virginia” by Kathy Mattea (Kanawha County), and if you don’t understand why “West Virginia’s Diaspora Anthem” is a crown to be fought for, you understand nothing about the state. Nothing is more West Virginian than leaving and having feels about it. But while I also enjoy Tim O’Brien’s (Ohio County) West Virginia album, I’m going to go ahead and award the crown to Hazel Dickens (Mercer County), and it’s “West Virginia, My Home.”
I don’t love this song, and there’s no praise in it for the state, none of the rhapsodies about the hills or nostalgic memories of how great everyone was. No, it’s just Hazel Dickens being bummed out with how disappointing the rest of the country is, and man, if that’s not deep and true. West Virginia is where she belongs–just because she does–and so, like a bird in flight she’ll go back, albeit mainly to die. And that, my friends, is the real shit, the real sense in which the state is almost heaven.
Anyway, I guess the problem with “Country Roads” being the state anthem is that it’s aspirational crap, the touristic West Virginia if the place really were paradise, a land of nostalgic memories and ancient mountains and vast panoramas, instead of, well, those things and also a really eccentric population of wonderful and ugly people, a broken economy, and a lot of mud. West Virginians are many things; I love them more the farther I am from the state, a distance from which I am capable of contemplating my own origins. And I’m never as West Virginian as when–vowing never to live there again–I can happily contemplate being buried in the hills.
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Aaron Bady West Virginia Country Roads John Denver