home on the range 17

caribou ranch: a colorado legacy

Nestled outside of Nederland, Colorado is Caribou Ranch, the former site of the famous Caribou Ranch recording studio. Dreamt up by James (Jim) Guercio, the studio offered both a spiritual retreat and an ideal production space for a wide range of musicians, including Elton John, John Lennon, Stevie Wonder and Amy Grant. Guercio finished building in 1972, and the studio drew some of the most accomplished musicians of the time until 1985 when a fire swept through the studio.

Guercio himself was not only an accomplished musician but also an active part of the music business from a very young age. At sixteen, he played backup guitar and bass for many different bands who have stood the test of time, including The Temptations and The Coasters. For Guercio, the experience of playing music professionally as a kid was exhilarating, but he was always on someone else’s schedule.

“When I got the chance to make records, I thought the business should conform to my reality.”

Guercio was ready to have more creative freedom, but the recording industry at the time offered anything but. Columbia Records was owned by CBS, a big company, with narrow music taste.

“When you went to make a deal with Columbia records, you had to record in their studios,” Guercio explains. “Everything was unionized – all the engineers were union engineers. If I touched a knob, touched the console, even, I got a fine.”

Bands were usually only allotted three-hour slots in the studio, and then all the equipment had to be torn down.

The constraints and pressures of the music industry left Guercio longing for a studio that could offer artists more freedom. At the time, CBS had a contract with the city of Denver and to operate an independent production studio Guercio had to look outside the metropolitan area. This is what brought him to Caribou Ranch.

“The biggest factor was that you had a really inspirational environment,” Guercio describes.

“A spiritual place, no distractions… you could spend a week or a month trying to get the drum sound you wanted. And then if the performance wasn’t working, we could take a horseback ride, eat some dinner, and come back. And that’s why the creativity flourished.”

There were countless incredible moments at the studio in its operating years, but one of Guercio’s favorite was with Stevie Wonder.

“One time Stevie Wonder was there in a cabin with his girlfriend and his brother. It was a little bit of a walk up to the mess hall, so I would pick him up and drive him in this tiny army jeep. Stevie hopped in, and I said ‘Hey, Stevie, you want to drive it? C’mon, we’re not going that far.’ And I would just tell him where to go… ‘a little to the left, a little to the right, slow down.’ We were hardly moving… like a mile per hour, but he had the greatest time.”

After the studio fire, Guercio made the decision not to rebuild. He was raising three kids at the time, and the experience of his brother’s death in 1978 had affected Guercio more than he initially realized. The fire also happened when music was transitioning from analog to digital – a sound Guercio is not as fond of.

“The difference between analog and digital is a hardness,” Guercio describes. “It doesn’t have the warmth of the sound I like.”

The Guercio family eventually moved down to the lower ranch, which, Guercio reports, has “a lot better weather.” After placing conservation easements on the land, Guercio sold the upper ranch to the Walton family, founders of Walmart.

“We considered many excellent developers, but in the end, the best outcome for the property and our legacy was to sell it to Ben Walton, the grandson of the founder of Walmart. He is an ardent environmentalist with a beautiful family.”

Though the ranch’s recording days are in the past, the spirit of the space is still being preserved by Guercio and the Walton family. The studio was inducted into the Colorado Music Hall of Fame on August 13, and the induction celebration and concert included tribute performances by many celebrated artists, including Amy Grant and Garth Brooks.

To learn more about what’s happening at Caribou Ranch today, including their all-natural, grass fed beef, visit CaribouRanch.com.