There’s something about rock stars and their ranches. Such spreads are a place to escape the hustle and bustle of the music business, to make noise against the quiet, a place to draw creative inspiration from the mountains. In the Roaring Fork Valley alone, Don Henley, John Denver, Ringo Starr, Cher, John Oates, Glenn Frey, and Jimmy Buffett have all had hideouts at one time or another.
One such place has recently had a renaissance of sorts, drawing on the legacy of its famous former owners to re-create a modern-day recording studio in an unmatched setting. If you’ve ever driven south from Highway 82 on Snowmass Creek Road, you likely know the “covered bridge house”—the one with the narrow wooden passage straddling the creek. But you may not know who has lived—and rocked out—there.
It was Buffett who first purchased the property, which included a main house and cabin, for a few hundred thousand dollars in 1976. He later added a creekside garage and office, built entirely from logs cut in nearby Lenado. His good friend Frey soon bought the house next door, ultimately moving downriver to Buffett’s old place when the latter returned to the beach in the ’80s. (In between, a porn producer from California owned the compound, adding red velvet walls and an enclosure for exotic animals.)
Frey dubbed his new digs Mad Dog Ranch (in honor of his three dogs, who ran amok on the property) and hired famed acoustic designer Frank Comentale, of New York’s Hit Factory, to build a state-of-the-art recording studio in the two log outbuildings added by Buffett. Linda Ronstadt, Stevie Nicks, Jackson Browne, Bob Seger, and Joe Walsh stayed, played, and partied at the ranch with Frey, who also recorded his own albums there, including much of Strange Weather.
Eventually Frey started spending most of his time in Los Angeles, and he moved the recording equipment to a larger studio he had there. Other than a caretaker, the Snowmass property was largely vacant for the past six years.
Now, after Frey’s passing in 2016, the legendary musical roots of Mad Dog Ranch (not to be confused with Joe Cocker’s former spread of the same name in Crawford, Colorado) are living on, thanks to a quartet of friends. After noticing a “for sale” sign when biking past the property last summer, longtime locals Julie Garside and Tami Word decided to take a closer look.
Says Word, “After discovering that the beautiful property also included this storied, incredible recording studio, we could not stop thinking about the possibilities. I am a realtor, music lover, and aspiring songwriter, and Julie loves music, big renovation projects, and design.”
An active member of Crossroads Church in Aspen, Word shared the news of the find with pastor Derek Brown, who as a singer/songwriter had been exploring the idea of building his own studio. “It was this surreal, perfect synchronicity of timing—we thought this could be our own little version of Caribou Ranch [the now-shuttered barn-turned-recording studio in Nederland, Colorado],” says Word.
Brown called well-known sound engineer Ralph Pitt, who moved to the valley in 2005 to help open Belly Up Aspen after a 22-year stint at the original club in Solana Beach (and who also designed Crossroads’ impressive sound system). The foursome purchased the six-acre property and got to work on their vision.
“Aspen has such a vibrant history of great music,” Word explains, “and our goal in restoring the studio is to create a place for our tight-knit community of musicians to thrive, while also drawing singers and songwriters in from afar to have a magical retreat experience.” She adds, “We decided we would keep the name to honor Glenn, his dogs, and all of our dogs—we want to keep his ‘River of Dreams’ flowing.”
And a river of dreams it remains. Situated just steps from the bank and surrounded by a dense pine forest, the two neighboring log structures are joined by strands of Tibetan prayer flags flying over a gravel breezeway. An expansive patio partially wraps around one building, punctuated by a vintage steel freestanding fireplace. The 330-square-foot “Studio B,” which connects to “Studio A” via video and audio monitors, houses an 1885 Blüthner baby grand piano which has reportedly remained on the property since Buffett brought it home.
Working within the original shell, Pitt jumped right in last July, outfitting the control room in Studio A with equipment including an analog console and a 24-track digital recorder—all of it from the personal collection he’s amassed over the years. “The biggest challenge was hardwiring everything by hand,” he says.
Comentale’s impeccable design still delivers. The log studio walls had been filled with sand and broken up by acoustic panels, which provides for “honest and uncolored sound, like it should be,” says Pitt. “Frank did an amazing job on these spaces.” The walls in Studio A contain some exposed logs, which actually help to disperse the sound. “The feeling out there is so conducive to being creative,” adds Pitt.
In less than three months, Mad Dog Ranch Studios was ready to hit the record button. The first session in November welcomed 12 local musicians, including Bobby Mason, Suzanne Paris, and Steve Cole, who laid down a blues version of “Jingle Bells.” (It’s available for free download on the ranch’s website.)
“It was just magical, a true act of collaboration,” Pitt says. “As an engineer, I didn’t find myself reaching for one knob to correct things; everything sounded right in there, absolutely accurate. It felt really good for all of us, and I knew in that moment that we’re going in the right direction.”
While Garside puts the finishing touches on plans for the main house, which will eventually house guests in town for recording sessions, a renovation of the small cabin is almost complete. This May, Mad Dog Ranch welcomes a handful of musicians and producers from Nashville as part of InspireSong 2017, a three-day songwriting workshop hosted by Crossroads. The general public can also now book studio time; Pitt notes that the hours will still follow rock star time. “Everyone in the business has always said, ‘If someone wants to book time, book time.’ 3 a.m. is cool with us.” maddogranchstudios.com