There's little doubt that the Roaring Fork Valley's musical heyday was back in the '70s, when John Denver and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band called Aspen home and musical monsters like Jimmy Buffett, Cher and the Eagles were routinely spotted around town. Out of this heady time came perhaps the single greatest moment in Aspen music history, when Steve Martin, after honing his shtick here while opening for the likes of Denver and the Dirt Band, recorded the novelty song "King Tut" in 1978.
Backed by Nitty Gritty members (credited as The Toot Uncommons), Martin recorded the song at a studio in Aspen owned by William McEuen, brother of the Dirt Band's John McEuen, before showing it off to audiences in a now-famous "Saturday Night Live" sketch. The song became a huge hit and indelibly stamped Aspen as a place to not only hear music but record it, as well – so much so that the Eagles' Glenn Frey built his own recording studio in Old Snowmass (more on that later).
Things cooled off a little in the '80s as many of Aspen's musical celebrities relocated and places like McEuen's studio disappeared, but these days, thanks in no small part to the efforts of four disparate locals linked by a love of music, the valley boasts some incredibly cool recording spaces. And the musical world is starting to catch on, once again, to what a great place this would be to make an album.
An Eagle Soars Again
Here's the more on Frey's recording studio: Back in the day, Buffett purchased an idyllic piece of property on the banks of Snowmass Creek and built a little compound there with a house and a handful of outbuildings. In time, the son of a son of a sailor sold the place to his buddy Frey, who, sometime in the late '70s or early '80s, converted the office and garage into a state-of-the-art recording space designed by Frank Comentale, the audio engineer behind famed New York studio The Hit Factory.
Over the next decade-plus, Frey recorded a bunch of material in Old Snowmass, including the 1992 album "Strange Weather," before pulling all of his equipment out of the studio and taking it back to California. After that, the entire property sat vacant for about six years before a group bought it in 2016 with no knowledge of what was in the two small buildings next to the creek. When they realized what they had, the group called in local audio engineer Ralph Pitt to get the studio up and running again.
Having originally come to town in 2005 to aid in the design of Belly Up Aspen (after 22 years at the original Belly Up in Solana Beach, Calif.), Pitt – who, like so many others, came for two weeks and sort of stayed here – was just the man to call to renovate what has been rebranded Mad Dog Ranch Studios. Pitt rewired everything and installed much of his own equipment to return the abandoned buildings to their former glory.
Now, two years in, the studio is drawing local musicians and others lured by the inspirational creekside setting and down-home atmosphere. Among those who've visited and hope to come back are country superstars Vince Gill and Amy Grant and an anonymous big name who's in discussions with Pitt about doing a residency at Mad Dog Ranch while working on new material. The adjacent house isn’t equipped to house musicians yet, but the hope is to be able to do that in the future and make recording there even more unique. "It's all about, 'What can we do to help people realize their dreams?'" explains Pitt. "We want to make recording a stress-free, pressure-free process for people."
Unexpected Career Divides
Despite the fact that it's in the basement of his home in a quiet Aspen neighborhood, in many ways, Great Divide Recording Studios is an unlikely place to find producer Jamie Rosenberg – or, at least, it would have been had Rosenberg's life not taken a fortuitous turn years ago.
A musician by trade and the former co-owner of Aspen's defunct Great Divide Music Store, Rosenberg and partner Sandy Munro started selling 8-channel ADAT recorders back in 1991. They set up one of the machines as a demo and then started using it to record music in the store after business hours. In time, recording became kind of a full-time job for Rosenberg, and he discovered he had a talent for it. The studio outgrew its eponymous store in 1999 and since then has gone through three iterations, culminating in 2006 with the current basement space that is the ultimate musical man cave. You'd think it would be a dream come true, except that Rosenberg never dreamed of it.
"I was a musician. I had no interest in the process," said Rosenberg. "But when it all went to computers, I had my 'Aha!' moment and became a computer geek. It turned out I was a good record producer."
In addition to his own songs, much of them collaborations with local singer and instrumentalist Jason Perrin, Rosenberg has recorded music and other material for "a thousand artists you've never heard of" and such entertainment luminaries as Beyonce Knowles, Hall & Oates, One Republic, Kenny Loggins, Antonio Banderas and Catherine Zeta-Jones.
Whether they make a point of coming to Aspen specifically to record or decide to do something while on vacation, stars like the studio's top-flight equipment and comfortable, discrete setting. It's a far cry from when Rosenberg had to turn down Faith Hill's request to record in the music store (crickets had escaped from the pet shop next door and were ruining the tracks). And though it's not where Rosenberg expected to be, it's a great place to find himself.
Hitting the Bricks
Speaking of finding oneself, music and video producer Dave Taylor, the man behind Carbondale's Cool Brick Studios, has no allusions about how he ended up where he is today. After leading the Aspen life a little too fully, Taylor checked himself into rehab at Jaywalker Lodge, a treatment facility in Carbondale, for medical issues related to alcohol, painkiller and illicit drug use, and when his stint was through he decided he wanted to stay there.
Taylor went looking for a place where he could both live and create a studio "where I could work with all levels," he said. "I wanted a way to give back to the community." As luck would have it, a near-perfect home became available in downtown Carbondale ("two steps in I knew it was the place"), and Taylor moved in and set up shop in 2011.
Housed in an old brick house, the studio occupies rooms on the ground floor, features a soundproof booth for isolating tracks and can be used for creating both music and video work, like the current documentary that Taylor hopes to finish this summer.
In seven years at Cool Brick, Taylor estimates he's recorded, mixed and edited over 1,000 tracks for more than 300 clients. Some want to produce CDs to sell at their live shows, some hope to sell their songs to other artists, and some want to take what they recorded with Taylor and hit the big time.
Whatever their reasons, they come to Cool Brick for the Carbondale-funky vibe that can't be replicated elsewhere, and Taylor hopes that aura and unanimously positive word-of-mouth can help draw big names from afar and turn the little town on the Crystal River into a latter-day version of a legendary music destination on a north Alabama river.
"I'd love for Carbondale to become another Muscle Shoals," said Taylor.
A Showcase for Love
Although it's less of a straightforward recording studio than its valley brethren, Love Rocks may be the hippest place of the four. A labor of love constructed over the last seven years by musician, woodworker and maker of custom drums, guitars, basses and furniture Steve Cook, the showroom/studio occupies a nondescript warehouse space in an industrial neighborhood in Basalt, which is part of its charm and, unfortunately, its limitations.
"The concept was to bring the community in through yoga, the arts and woodworking," said Cook. "I wanted to have a gallery for people to showcase their work."
With a shop and showroom for Cook's unique creations and those by many of his friends, a fully equipped recording studio and a dance floor for yoga classes and other events, Love Rocks accomplishes its prime directives superbly. The only problem is that zoning and lease restrictions limit the amount of retail selling and activities Cook can do and preclude him from expanding the operation. But that hasn't stopped the growing legions of locals who've discovered Love Rocks from hosting increasingly popular salsa nights, get-togethers and jam sessions where they can try out some of Cook's instruments.
The response, generated mostly through word of mouth, has been great – "everybody loves the place," said Cook – but time will tell if it's enough to keep Love Rocks viable. Cook is on a month-to-month lease and has poured so much of his time and money into the endeavor that it's hard to keep it afloat in its current configuration. Ideally, Cook would love to bring in business partners and move the whole kit and caboodle (even the dance floor rolls up) to a more business-friendly location where Love Rocks can become a fully fledged store and hangout.
But that's all in the future. For now, Cook plans to keep on welcoming the community with love and music and hoping the community loves him back enough to keep one of the valley's coolest spaces rocking.