In 1971, Joe Walsh was looking to make a break from his old life so that he could explore new territory, both geographically and musically. Tired of his work with the James Gang – the band with which he recorded four albums, one of which included the minor commercial hit “Funk #49” – Walsh yearned for the freedom to fully explore his creativity. Friend and producer Bill Scymczyk, who had decided to move away from Los Angeles after the 6.6 magnitude San Fernando Earthquake that struck earlier that year, suggested that Walsh move out with him to Colorado. Hoping for isolation, privacy, and a change of scenery, Walsh agreed.
What Walsh ended up discovering was the soon-to-be-famous Caribou Ranch. Built on 4,000 acres of land outside Nederland, Colorado, Caribou Ranch was the improbable home of a budding recording studio. In time, it would become one of the finest studios in the world, recording legendary musicians such as Stevie Nicks, Tom Petty, U2, Chicago, and Billy Joel, among others. Elton John recorded his 2x platinum album Caribou
But when Walsh arrived at Caribou Ranch in 1972, it was little more than a partially renovated barn, with only one room fully completed. During the recording of Barnstorm
, the eponymous first album made by Walsh’s new band, the band members had to urinate down an elevator shaft. But James William Guercio, Caribou Ranch owner, had hired Tom Hidley, ex-Beach Boy and now one of the top designers in the world, to transform the ranch into a world-class recording locale. Guercio's association with the Boys stemmed from filling in on a few of their tours in the early '70s. Barnstorm
was only moderately successful, stalling out at No. 79 on the pop charts. But the album was a prelude to the outfit’s second musical endeavor, 1973's The Smoker You Drink, the Player You Get
, which featured on it a little ditty titled "Rocky Mountain Way." Based largely on the strength of that single, which reached #23 on the Billboard Music Charts, Walsh had his first major commercial hit, and established himself as an artist capable of reading the pop music audience.
"Rocky Mountain Way" was simply a song about Walsh’s fondness for his new Colorado home. Having broken free from the past and the artistic limitations he was feeling with the James Gang, Walsh appreciated the majesty of the Rocky Mountains and the new culture that he was living in. "Rocky Mountain Way" is a song about new beginnings, personal liberation, and excitement for the possibilities of the future.
Walsh says that "Rocky Mountain Way" came to him while he was mowing his lawn. When the lyrics popped into his head, he ran inside his house to write them down, leaving the lawn mower to run out of control and destroy his neighbor’s garden. When Walsh croons that he “Spent the last year/ Rocky Mountain Way/ Couldn’t get much higher,” he is not only singing about the elevation of his new digs, but about the great altitudes he had found emotionally.
It will surprise few people to hear that a recording studio isolated in the mountainous wilds of Colorado became not only a place to make great art, but also a place to enjoy some good, old-fashioned drunken and drug-induced debauchery. There were even some local girls who lived full time at the ranch, performing basic chores by day, and satisfying some of the artist’s other basic needs by night.
In 14 short years Caribou Studios had risen from a dilapidated barn to the home of dozens upon dozens of albums made by some of rock and roll and folk music history’s most recognizable names, meeting its demise in March, 1985, when it burned to ashes, taking with it numerous irreplaceable Gold Record plaques housed on the studio's walls. The Smoker You Drink, the Player You Get
was the last studio recording by Walsh’s band Barnstorm. In addition to Walsh, Barnstorm had included Joe Vitale and Kenny Passarelli, later adding Rocke Grace, and using studio musicians Paul Harris and Joe Lala. Vitale would go on to play drums with many other top acts, from the Eagles to Dan Fogelberg to Peter Frampton. He is still active today. Kenny Passarelli went on to play with Elton John, Dan Fogelberg, Stephen Stills, and Hall and Oates. Vitale, Passarelli, and Rocke Grace are all listed co-writers of "Rocky Mountain Way" on the album.
Walsh, of course, went on to become a music legend. He is listed as Rolling Stone
Magazine’s 54th Greatest Guitarist of All Time. His contributions to the Eagles, particularly Hotel California
, are widely known and respected. It’s crazy to think how much resulted from a single risky decision to move from Northeast Ohio to Colorado and record an album with a brand new band in a renovated barn miles from any major population center. But in so doing, he proved to himself and the world that the Rocky Mountain Way was, indeed, better than the way he’d had.
~ Jeff Suwak
(Thanks to the Phil for the Songplace suggestion.)Songplaces contributor Jeff Suwak is a writer and editor living in the Pacific Northwest. He is the author of the novella "Beyond the Tempest Gate" and various works of short fiction. He also writes for The Prague Revue. He loves being berated on Twitter @JeffSuwak and receiving visitors at jeffsuwak.com.