The Most Essential Songs About Colorado: Part One

Colorado inspires an incredible amount of songs, some of them great. Colorado-themed songs range from gentle acoustic tributes to hip-hop narratives, heavy-metal disses to poignant country ballads.

The earliest non-Native American songs crafted here were cowboy tunes such as "The Colorado Trail" and instrumentals like the pioneer fiddle melody "Coming Down from Denver." Early Colorado songs were all about the inspiring landscape. Katharine Lee Bates wrote the words to "America the Beautiful" in Colorado Springs in 1893. A.J. Fynn’s poetic "Where the Columbines Grow" has been the state song since 1915, joined by John Denver and Mike Taylor’s "Rocky Mountain High" in 2007. The 1929 sentimental fox trot "When It’s Springtime in the Rockies" provoked an answer in Benny Goodman’s 1936 instrumental hit "Swingtime in the Rockies."

Then it got interesting. There are many unique ditties out there that capture the spirit and history of the region. The list is up to nearly 100, so here’s some small slices of mile-high acoustic treats.
1. “Bea-u-ti-ful People of Denver,” Meredith Willson, 1960

The Broadway musical The Unsinkable Molly Brown didn’t get a lot of details right. It was correct about snooty Denver society’s reaction to the nouveau riche ambitions of its heroine, however. In “Beautiful People of Denver,” she mocks their pretensions:

“How they dance over at Brown’s hotel/10th Street ladies, very well . . . Men may smoke under the silv’ry moon/No one spits without a spittoon!”

2. “Colorado (If I Had a Wagon),” David Allen/Paul Colwell, 1967

One of the most Caucasian enterprises ever undertaken was Colorado’s own Up with People, a youth entertainment ensemble that traveled the world promoting America and family values, trying to counter the devil’s work of the despicable hippies of the day. For years, this corny knee-slappin’ tune was played every Friday afternoon by legendary Denver DJ Hal Martin on KHOW-AM as he launched the station’s “Wonderful Weekend in the West.”

3. “My Crime,” Canned Heat, 1968

On October 21, 1967, the up-and-coming blues/rock band Canned Heat was playing a gig at the Family Dog on West Evans Avenue (now PT’s Showclub). At their hotel after the show, a police informant planted weed on them and they all went to jail until their manager coughed up $10,000. He raised the money by selling the band’s song-publishing rights, costing the players millions in future royalties. However, the song is more than adequate payback, even referencing the 1961 Denver police-burglary ring scandal that made national headlines.

4. “Colorado,” Christopher Guest/Tony Hendra/Sean Kelly, 1973

If it hadn’t been for John Denver, Colorado might still be as obscure as Wyoming. Songs like “Rocky Mountain High” and “Guess He’d Rather Be in Colorado” soon had the seekers flocking to the Centennial State. This song, a perfect parody of the feel-good, back-to-the-Earth inanities of the time, comes from the National Lampoon show Lemmings. Chevy Chase sings, and John Belushi has a two-line solo as the Voice of Colorado.

5. “Wolf Creek Pass,” Chip Davis/Bill Fries, 1975

C.W. McCall, who single-handedly made CB radio a thing with his hit song “Convoy,” was in real life Omaha advertising executive Bill Fries. He fell in love with Colorado, and made many humorous albums about truckers, the mountains, and rural life in his McCall persona (Mannheim Steamroller started as his backup band) before retiring to Ouray, serving as mayor there for many years. Anyone who’s driven the southwestern passes knows how perilous they are, making this gem all the more hilarious.

6. “Denver,” Willie Nelson, 1975

It’s only 53 seconds long, and it’s absolutely perfect, but it gets lost due to its placement in the middle of Willie’s eerie masterwork, Red Headed Stranger. A beautiful little waltz, it tells a complete story in one verse and one chorus – another example of Nelson’s peerless songwriting technique.

Next time: Bob Seger, DeVotchKa, and a lost Broncos classic.