My first few hours in Colorado were pretty miserable. Even though my wife and I arrived in mid-May, it was freezing. The skies were a dull, impenetrable gray. A chilly mix of snow and rain fell with increasing steadiness. We drove through a depressing landscape of gas stations, car dealerships and fast food joints to our final destination – an anonymous Days Inn on the outskirts of Boulder. We both wondered if our decision to move out to the state sight-unseen was a huge mistake.
The next morning, however, told us otherwise. We pulled back the curtains in our room and were greeted by a panorama of almost ridiculous beauty: dazzling blue skies, lush green foothills, and the iconic Flatirons, enormous sedimentary rock outcroppings that loom sentinel-like over Boulder. Breathtaking is probably not a strong enough word for the view.
It’s that initial Colorado experience that I’m reminded of whenever I hear “America,” the song that closes Crossroads, Kenny Knight’s private press LP, first released in 1980. The album was unknown and unloved until a few years ago, when collector Michael Klausman dug a copy out of a Denver bargain bin, a discovery that led to an acclaimed Paradise of Bachelors reissue in 2015. Crossroads is a dusty country rock gem that hints at doubt and darkness beneath its friendly, homespun exterior. It’s hard to put your finger on exactly why, but it’s a very Colorado record.
Now, to call a song “America” suggests grand ambition on the part of its writer, and to be sure, Colorado has inspired its fair share of anthems. There’s John Denver’s ode, “Rocky Mountain High,” of course, which was recently named the state’s official song. And going further back, there’s “America, The Beautiful,” written after Katharine Lee Bates climbed to the summit of Pikes Peak, one of the Colorado’s 14,000-foot mountains. This place can bring out your sense of the grandiose.
Knight’s “America” is far from an anthem, however. Anchored by a gently chugging rhythm section and accented by sunlit pedal steel guitar and banjo, the song cruises along effortlessly. In a small, fragile voice that belies the burly, train-hopping portrait that graces the album’s cover, Knight sings of everyday banalities: bars and guitars, closed circuit TV, Saturday bar fights, strange faces, buses and trains … a litany of mediocrity.
In another singer’s hands, the song’s chorus might sound wickedly ironic: “America, with all of your beauty / America, looking so pretty.” But I don’t think that’s what Knight is going for. It makes me think more of those weird juxtapositions that Colorado offers on a daily basis; whether you’re shopping at a shitty strip mall, looking for a spot in a crowded parking garage, or, yeah, checking into a dingy Days Inn, there’s almost always a glorious Rocky Mountain vista just a glimpse away. It’s a simultaneously humbling and hopeful feeling. Colorado – and the U.S.A. in general – might look like a dead end sometimes. But there are still possibilities. “Don’t lock me out,” Knight sings, his voice rising slightly. “Don’t push me about. Open up your doors for me.”
This is one of more than 50 posts that make up our musical map of the United States, published by region—the West, Midwest, South, and Northeast—by writers who have strongly associated a song with a state.