The famed Caribou Ranch recording studio, located near Nederland, Colorado, existed for about fifteen years from 1971 to 1985. During its brief history, the recording studio became a destination for dozens of famed musicians and performers, including Michael Jackson, Joe Walsh, Billy Joel, and John Lennon. The beautiful scenery and isolation of the ranch, coupled with the freedom of unrestricted access to recording equipment, made Caribou Ranch a premiere location to record an album. However, the nexus of the operation, a reclaimed barn outfitted with recording equipment capable of mastering platinum albums, was partially burned down in March 1985, closing Caribou Ranch.
Frustrated with contemporary music production practices that favored efficiency over creativity, James Guercio, a young producer working for Columbia Records, initiated a grand experiment that would result in the foundation of the Caribou Ranch. Strict studio rules and union regulations inhibited musicians or their producers from managing the production of their own music. Rather than a producer operating soundboards and other equipment, a sound engineer employed by a studio manned all the controls. In order to reclaim musicians’ rights to develop their own music in the studio, Guercio purchased a plot of land north of Nederland in 1971 with the goal of building a world-class recording studio far removed from the pressures of the music industry. An abandoned guest ranch on the property had a large, weather-worn barn that Guercio converted into a studio, and its many cabins housed visiting musicians and staff. Guercio himself was not completely sure his experimental recording studio and mountain retreat would attract artists, but these concerns quickly abated.
Joe Walsh, a former member of the James Gang living in Nederland at the time, was working on a new solo project titled Barnstorm. When a mixer blew out during the recording session, Walsh and his band relocated to Caribou Ranch to complete the album in the ranch’s studio, which was still under construction. While producing the album at Caribou Ranch, Walsh came up with the lyrics to the song “Rocky Mountain Way”; he told radio show host Howard Stern in 2012 that “the Rocky Mountain way is better than the way I had, because the music was better.”
The unique sonic qualities of Barnstorm and Rick Derringer’s debut album All American Boy, the second project recorded at Caribou ranch, captured the attention of prominent musician and notorious audiophile Elton John. Upon visiting the ranch after a show in Denver, Elton John decided to record his next album, the eponymous Caribou. John enjoyed the studio so much he recorded his next two albums, Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy and Rock of the Westies, at Caribou Ranch. After John’s work there, other famous musicians and personalities began to take notice of the ranch. Michael Jackson, fresh off the Thriller tour, even expressed interest in buying the ranch from Guercio.
Throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, which preceded the introduction of digital recording technology, Caribou Ranch was much loved as a recording space and a retreat for hundreds of musicians. On one occasion, John Lennon, one of the world’s most popular musicians at the time, went into Nederland to purchase boots and a cowboy hat; his celebrity status did not follow him there, and he went unnoticed. Elton John, however, had a hard time retaining anonymity as his limo, pink fur coat, and pink glasses gave him away at a burger joint in Boulder.
Artists came to Caribou Ranch not only for the seclusion and scenery but also for the unique sound produced there, which sound engineer and physicist Tommy Dowd attributed to the thin air at 8,600 feet. According to Guercio and Dowd, the analog equipment used at Caribou was suited to capture these unique tonal qualities, which are particularly perceptible on the albums recorded at the ranch by the band Chicago. Between the full-bodied sound and the relaxing atmosphere, many artists made Caribou Ranch their recording retreat, a place to unwind as well as produce their best work.
End of an Era
Sadly, the much-loved Caribou Ranch closed its doors in March 1985 after a fire severely damaged the recording studio. As James Guercio’s children watched television on a cold day, they heard a fire alarm go off. They soon noticed smoke billowing out of the nearby barn, which housed the studio. Even though only a third of the barn was lost, Guercio elected not to rebuild. The industry had moved toward digital recording equipment, and the 1980s rock-and-roll scene was not suitable for raising his children. The blaze, sparked by a space heater, ended an impressive fifteen-year period of churning out hit records. Since then, the once-fertile creative space has lay fallow, as Guercio and his family developed business plans for the property. But those plans went unrealized and the property simply served to memorialize the music recorded there. Boulder County and the city of Boulder have both purchased some of the ranch’s original plot, placing the land in conservation easement. In 2014, the property was finally sold and the memorabilia auctioned off to benefit the Colorado Music Hall of Fame and the Guercio family. The fate of the property and prospects for future development are unknown.
Regardless of how Caribou Ranch changes in the future, it has a permanent place in the history of popular music and rock and roll. During its rather brief history, Caribou Ranch produced 18 Grammys, 45 Top 10 albums, 20 No. 1 Billboard hits, and more than 100 million record sales. Few studios in the world have such an illustrious track record. Perhaps it was the freedom that producers and musicians had at Caribou Ranch, the famous high-altitude sound, or the laid-back lifestyle that inspired so many hits. Regardless of what engendered such success, the albums and tracks recorded at Caribou Ranch will serve as testaments to its storied history as a mountain haven for musicians.