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Vibrations of the Valley

Stewart Oksenhorn

It’s hard to recall a time when the local music scene has ever been hotter.OK, there aren’t any great clubs to play in Aspen (though, it should be noted, Club Chelsea is beginning to rear its head as a rock venue). And with the end of summer, all those busy outdoors venues, from the top of Aspen Mountain to Glenwood Springs’ Two Rivers Park, are about to grow quiet and cold, which leaves us with the occasional gig at the Wheeler Opera House and the Snowmass Conference Center and, thank the Lord for small rooms, the weekly offerings at Steve’s Guitars and Main Street Bakery.All right, so the live music scene has never been deader. But perhaps as compensation, or maybe because the contingent of local players has so much free time that was once spent on stage, the CD racks are filling with home-spun products. Local musicians have headed to Nashville or California to create their latest works; others have stayed put in tiny employee housing units cramped with old recording equipment. And in one case, a band of national renown has bypassed Los Angeles and Nashville to make its latest album in that recording center of the universe, Woody Creek.Among the brighter points of this digitized world is how the business of making and selling records has become fantastically democratized. It’s no wonder the larger world of the record industry is in such trouble; the model is a dinosaur. Acts huge and tiny have virtually all the resources, from recording to distribution, to make and sell their own products. And with recording equipment becoming cheaper, smaller and better, a CD can be recorded in Woody Creek, or a one-bedroom Snowmass Village condo, without much sacrifice of quality.Following are looks at recent recording projects by local musicians, including how, where, why and for how much they were made.Bobby Mason”Laid Back Up Front”Produced by: Anthony Scott Mason & Bobby Mason.Recorded at: Rancho de la Luna; Joshua Tree, Calif.; June 2004.Duration of recording process: Four days for basic tracks, four days for vocals.

Musicians: Bobby Mason, guitar and lead vocals, with Roaring Fork Valley band Take the Wheel, former Aspenite David Starr on slide guitar, Tony Mason and Bingo on background vocals.Material: rock classics (Chuck Berry’s “Carol,” Rolling Stones’ “No Expectations,” John Hiatt’s “Feels Like Rain”), plus three Bobby Mason originals.Approximate cost: $20,000, travel expenses included.Initial pressing: 1,500 copies.Available at: CD Baby (cdbaby.com), bobbymason.com.”Laid Back Up Front” came out of a conversation Bobby Mason had with his son, who owns a studio in the California desert. “He said his dream was to record me, a record of me doing what I do best, which to him is rock ‘n’ roll and blues,” said Mason. Mason had recorded albums of original material with various bands – including the highly-regarded group Starwood, which had a deal with Columbia – and had made a solo album of new age music, “From the Heart.” “I had never done an album like this, doing what I do. Usually when I record, I take original songs and make them artsy-fartsy cute.”Mason – along with Take the Wheel, which had conveniently just finished recording sessions in Los Angeles – had no idea what songs he was going to record before stepping in the studio. He would call out songs they all knew, and they played and recorded on the spot. He also wrote two tunes – “Equal Opportunity Blues” and “Locals Dance” – in the studio. The bulk of the 12 tunes was recorded live, with Mason adding lead guitar and vocals after.”That’s the greatest way to record,” he said. “It’s like I got on stage with Take the Wheel, because that’s the feel I wanted.”Mason has two more albums – “Buddha’s on the Back Road,” with Mason on his synthesizer guitar and Kim Nuzo on spoken word vocals; and “Mostly I Am,” an album of original tunes recorded with the likes of Jeff Pevar, Bryan Savage and Jimmy Ibbotson – nearly completed. Both were recorded at his Rock Room Studio in his east Aspen home. He has also started work on “Poets of the Roaring Fork Valley,” with local poets setting words to Mason’s music.Mike McCollum

“Just a Workin’ Fool”Produced by: Jeff White.Recorded at: Hilltop Studios, outside Nashville, in December 2003 and April 2004.Duration of recording process: Total of 10 days.Musicians: McCollum, guitar and lead vocals, plus bassist Mike Bub, guitarist-singer Jeff White, fiddler Michael Cleveland, singer Andrea Zonn and more.Material: all originals.Approximate cost: $15,000, travel expenses included.Initial pressing: 1,000 copies.Available at: mikemccollum.com.Singer-songwriter McCollum’s first CD, 2000’s “Simple and Clear,” was all acoustic country-folk. Not simple and clear enough. He wanted his next CD to be “a little more acoustic sounding – no banjo or piano,” he said.”Just a Working Fool” is not only purely acoustic, but as traditional as can be in everything from the romantic lyrics to the arrangements to the George Jones-like vocal style. The album sounds as if it could have been made in 1952, but it was in fact recorded on all digital equipment (mostly live, with some overdubbing). For that, McCollum has producer Jeff White, a guitarist with Lyle Lovett and Vince Gill, to thank. McCollum met White years ago while visiting Nashville to make demos and pitch his songs. White was interested enough in McCollum’s songs to help record the demos.

“That was before he got so popular as a guitarist, and still had time to do that sort of stuff,” said McCollum. White rounded up several of his picking friends to contribute to the album: Andrea Zonn, from Lovett’s band, Mike Bub from the Del McCoury Band, and two-time International Bluegrass Music Association fiddler of the year Michael Cleveland.McCollum, who rarely performs live, aims to generate interest for his songs among other singers with “Just a Workin’ Fool.” It’s working: he was selected to perform two songs from the album – “Pretty Little Weather Girl” and “I’m Just a Workin’ Fool” – at the IBMA’s World of Bluegrass convention in Louisville, Ky., in early October. Also, McCollum has launched the Workin’ Fools songwriting contest. All entrants – in bluegrass, folk, country and gospel categories – will get a copy of the new CD, and a chance to win a Taylor guitar or cash.For further information on the contest, go to mikemccollum.com.Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, “Welcome to Woody Creek”Produced by: U No Who (code for the NGDB).Recorded at: Unami Studios, Jimmy Ibbotson’s home studio in Woody Creek, in February 2004; and Quad Studios, Nashville, later in 2004.Duration of recording process: Five days in Woody Creek.Musicians: NGDB, with Dan Dugmore on steel guitar.Material: original tunes plus covers of the Beatles’ “Get Back,” and “It’s a New Day” by Matraca Berg (wife of NGDB’s Jeff Hanna).Approximate cost: $25,000-30,000, travel expenses included.

Label: Dualtone.In 1996, the Dirt Band’s Bob Carpenter and Jeff Hanna set up shop in Ibbotson’s Woody Creek digs to write and record some demo material. This past November, following an appearance at the Country Music Association awards show in Nashville, the NGDB recorded a track for the Carter Family tribute album, “The Unbroken Circle.” The session had the five Dirt Band hands playing together, live, in a studio for the first time in years. The experience got them thinking about the time in 1996, and the songs they had never completed then. In late November, Carpenter and Hanna returned to Woody Creek and worked up several tunes; in February, the full band gathered in Unami Studios and recorded most of the tunes for “Welcome to Woody Creek.””We have a history in that neighborhood,” said Hanna, noting that, at one time or another in the ’70s, all the members of the NGDB lived in Aspen, and that they recorded extensively, from 1976-81, at Bill McEuen’s Aspen Recording Society in the east end of town. (Hanna himself lived in Aspen from 1976-85.) “We thought, this is really comfortable. We’ve recorded in music towns – industry towns is a better way to put it – and that can always be distracting. There’s an A&R guy outside the door, and you’d pay him to go away.”The NGDB mainly used Ibbotson’s gear, and had Denver producer John Macy bring in microphones and a portable Paris System, a PC version of the ProTools recording equipment. The band recorded most of an album in five days in Woody Creek, the quickest they’d ever worked. “We’d never gone from, here’s a new song we just wrote to having it mastered, like that,” said Hanna, adding that additional tunes and overdubs were added later.It was also the cheapest they’d ever worked. Hanna estimates the budget at less than $30,000, traveling included – “roughly the catering budget for most big records. We’re cheap old guys.”But Hanna says little was sacrificed in quality. “You might think, I was I had that guitar for one song, or I wish there was less leakage on that track,” he said. “You trade those things for an overall vibe. You can work all day in a clinical environment and not get anything.””Welcome to Woody Creek” marks a bunch of firsts for the NGDB. It’s their debut for Nashville’s Dualtone, and their first ever for a truly independent label. It’s the first album of new material to include banjoist/fiddler John McEuen in some 15 years.Damian Smith”Altitunes”Produced by: Damian Smith and Richard Hathaway.

Recorded at: three different Snowmass Village employee housing condos.Duration of recording process: 1997-2004.Musicians: Smith, guitar and lead vocals; Hathaway, bass and vocals; and Al Broholm, drums; with a large cast of local and visiting players.Material: all originals.Approximate cost: $10,000.Initial pressing: 1,500 copies.Available at: cdbaby.com; damiansmithmusic.com.Snowmass Village’s Damian Smith has played in luxurious studios, like the Studio at the Sunset Marquis in West Hollywood, owned by his Take the Wheel bandmate Jed Leiber. Even in his days with Chicago band Funkhouse, Smith had recorded in relatively lavish surroundings.And then there’s “Altitunes,” the ultimate homemade album. The project was recorded on a Tascam 388, a reel-to-reel machine from the late ’70s that Smith calls “a big old beast, an old antique.” The album was recorded entirely on analog equipment which, Smith says, means “you have to have your [act] together.” Smith, and his regular partner Hathaway, did. In his gigs with Hathaway, with Take the Wheel, backing John Oates and more, Smith plays some 150 gigs a year. Thus, the seven years it took to complete the album. But when it was time to record, Smith said sessions went smoothly.”After so many years of playing here, we knew who to plug into different tunes,” said Smith, who paid the players – locals Chris Bank, Terry Bannon and Randy Utterbach, and visiting musicians Richie Cannata (saxophonist from Billy Joel’s band, and Leiber – with home-cooked meals and gas money. “We chose these people because we wanted their sound on here.”Smith says “Altitunes” is intended primarily for people who live and visit the upper Roaring Fork Valley. The album opens with the lines “Welcome back to Snowmass, Colorado/Glad to see you made your way back home,” and includes “Raise Up Your Glass (Song for the Chipster),” written in memory of late local Chip Johnson, victim of a 2000 avalanche. “There are a lot of mementos people can get here, but not many audio mementos,” said Smith. “This album, a lot of it sounds life what life here is like. I wanted it to strike a local chord.”

Smith’s next project will be the debut album by Take the Wheel, planned to be recorded at Leiber’s studio and at Ardent Studios in Memphis.Rob Dasaro and the Camaro”Songs for the Goddess”Produced by: The Reverend Monkey (aka Dasaro).Recorded at: Little Castle Studio, Vt.Duration of recording process: One day for rhythm tracks; two months for vocals, additional keyboard and guitar tracks.Musicians: Dasaro on vocals, keyboards and guitar, with Jamey Fidel, drums; Jamie Caffo, bass; and Horace Williams, lead guitar.Material: all originals, plus cover of Christine McVie’s “Don’t Stop.”Approximate cost: $4,000.Initial pressing: 1,000 copies.Available at: Seventh Hour, Rob Dasaro solo gigs.

A longtime rock singer-keyboardist, Dasaro had only one studio experience, when local band Monkey Train recorded their CD at Denver’s Derryberry Studios in the late ’90s. But after moving back to his native Vermont several years ago, Dasaro had a stack of songs that he felt showed good potential. And things lined up perfectly for recording. Needing a drummer, Dasaro got a call from Jamey Fidel, another former valley musician who had relocated to Vermont. And practically in his backyard in Vermont, Dasaro found an ideal place to record: Horace Williams’ Little Castle Studios, a rustic place in the woods on the back of Mad River Glen ski area.”He has everything in there – grand piano, top of the line mics, reel-to-reel tape,” said Dasaro. “And he charges $35 an hour, the same rate he’s had for 12 years. I told him, I think he could probably raise his rates.”Dasaro spent a week teaching the musicians his songs. The quartet then recorded all the basic tracks in one day. “Which is amazing, because time flies when you’re in the studio,” he said. Dasaro recorded analog, onto two-inch tape, then used Cool Edit software to transfer the music into digital format. Over a two-month period, he added lead vocals and additional instrumentation.Tom Ressel”Tom Ressel”Produced by: P.J. Mullen and Tom Ressel.Recorded at: Mambo Studios, Long Beach, Calif.Duration of recording process: October through December, 2002.Musicians: Tom Ressel, vocal and acoustic guitar, and his three-piece band, Thermos.

Material: all originals.Approximate cost: $7,000.Initial pressing: 1,000 copies.Available at: Local Spirits in Aspen.During his Southern California interlude in late 2002, singer-songwriter Tom Ressel rounded up his band Thermos and recorded an album in Mambo Studios, in the heart of the Long Beach ghetto. “It wasn’t uncommon to see candlelight shrines for someone who got shot on the street corner. But there was a great taco joint, Bright Spot, around the corner,” recalled Ressel. Ressel was pleased with the results – but his drummer P.J. Mullen was not. Mullen mailed it to a music engineer in Boston to have it remixed and remastered until he was satisfied.”I was the lazy guy, saying, OK, fine,” said Ressel. “Fortunately, I loved it. Which is unusual, to get something you really like.”The master recording then sat in his room for months, even surviving Ressel’s move back to Aspen. “And one day, I said, today’s the day,” he said. “In one day I wrote the liner notes, took photos, put it in FedEx and sent it off.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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