Homage is Where the Heart Is

The December show at the Rubicon Theatre in Ventura, “Back Home Again: A John Denver Holiday Concert,” is a song-filled theatrical tribute to the folksinger-songwriter superstar of the Seventies. But the title could just as easily refer to its co-creator, Dan Wheetman.

A veteran fiddler and songwriter best known in these parts for co-founding the 20-year-old band Marley’s Ghost (which also features Montecito resident John Wilcox), Wheetman went to high school in Simi Valley and attended Ventura Junior College but has spent the better part of the last 30 years in places such as Aspen and Seattle.

It was in that Denver suburb that Wheetman began his association with the singing Denver, a soft-rock icon who sold millions of records 30 years ago and who died in a crash of his solo-piloted light aircraft in Monterey Bay in 1996. Liberty, which was Wheetman’s band back in Aspen, opened for Denver on a 1976 tour, and then signed as the first act of Denver’s new vanity label, Windfall. A year later, Denver hired Wheetman as a back-up singer and fiddler for the star’s own band, launching an association that lasted for eight years.

“It was just great, an amazing time,” Wheetman recalls over the telephone a few minutes before a recent rehearsal of the new play, which opens November 30 and continues through Christmas Eve. “The band was a real powerhouse, very hot for the time, with people like (guitarist) James Burton, (bassist) Emory Gordy, (drummer) Hal Blaine, (pianist) Glen Hardin and (saxist) Jim Horn. So it was like music school for me. I remember that the smallest place they played during Wheetman’s eight-year stint had an audience of more than ten thousand.”

The fiddler-singer also appeared on a number of Denver’s albums, including “A Christmas Together” and “Rocky Mountain Holiday,” both made with the Muppets; he even contributed an original song to the latter. The two musicians remained friends until Denver’s death. So Wheetman was a natural to co-write the new musical-concert tribute with his partner Randy Myler. The two had previously worked on several productions together, including “It Ain’t Nothing But the Blues,” which earned five Tony Nominations, “Appalachian Strings” and “Fire on the Mountain.” When they rejoined, Myler had recently finished script-doctoring a more Broadway-oriented Denver tribute called “Almost Heaven.”

“We wanted to do something that was more roots, closer to the way John performed his own music than that big sort of musical arena,” Wheetman says. “This show is really more of a concert. In many ways, it’s based on John’s several Christmas specials, or at least we drew from them to put it together.”

Thus, while there will be some of Denver’s more famous hits, the show will also feature traditional carols “First Noël” and “Away in a Manger” as well as Denver’s original holiday songs such as “The Peace Carol” and “Baby Just Like You,” which Denver wrote for his son.

“John’s music focused a lot on family and friends,” Whitman says, “so we put in a little section of things that are not really Christmas songs, but have that kind of warm connection, like ‘Matthew’ and ‘Grandma’s Feather Bed.’”

Wheetman, who also serves as music director, heads the cast, singing lead for many of the songs. But he won’t be trying to pass himself off as his former boss.

“Nobody is actually trying to dress up as or pretending to be John Denver,” Wheetman says. “That’s the wrong way to go. Instead this is a tip of the hat to John and his music, without impersonating him at all. We’re just trying to honor his music and his life….I can only hope that he would have dug it.”