More than 40 years ago, when Robin Crow was a young artist signed to RCA, he visited Caribou Ranch, producer James William Guercio’s barn-turned-studio in the Colorado Rockies where Elton John, Chicago and Dan Fogelberg recorded now classic albums in the 1970s. “‘Well, that’s heaven,'” Crow recalled at the time.
His career as an instrumental guitarist never took off – and he was never able to record at Caribou, which was damaged by fire in 1985 – but the studio left a lasting impression on Crow. That was exactly what he had in mind when, in 1993, he opened Dark Horse Recording in Franklin, Tennessee, charging $134,000 on multiple credit cards to pay the bill.
Inspiration: Like Caribou, Dark Horse is in the woods; Crow even planted 240 evergreen trees on the 10-acre property, “to make you feel like you’re in the mountains.” Then he took the idea of rustic luxury several steps further. The 9,000 square foot wood-framed main complex houses The Lodge, the largest studio on the lot, as well as a gourmet kitchen and living room upstairs. The Lodge’s control room, with its Bud Wyatt-modified Trident console, features a 33-foot cathedral ceiling and 142 windows — and it’s quite the view: Hundreds of acres of forest surround the property. , as well as a river in which guests can fish or kayak. The smaller Barefoot Studio can be used as an extension of The Lodge, but it’s also a favorite for artists like Heart’s Ann Wilson, Yes’ Jon Anderson and Wynonna Judd, who have all recorded vocals and overdubs there.
The Clientele: It’s just 20 miles south of Nashville, but Crow says only 20% of Dark Horse customers are country artists. Keith Urban, Carrie Underwood and Dolly Parton have all recorded there, but also Neil Diamond, Jeff Beck, Korn and OneRepublic. And given its own history, Crow has always backed new and independent acts — including an aspiring artist named Taylor Swift, who recorded her self-titled debut in 2006 at Dark Horse. “No one knew she was going to be Taylor Swift at that time, but we treat everyone exactly the same,” Crow says. “And we try to give everyone a great experience.”
The set up: Dark Horse sleeps 12, with accommodation ranging from luxury apartments to a four-bedroom bunk room, so many entertainers have just moved in. Matchbox Twenty stayed “four months and four days”, says Crow, to record 2012. North. Even though Tim McGraw lives in Nashville, “he likes to sequester” while recording. “He has an entourage of about 30 people. They had to bring tourist buses to sleep many of them. He rented every studio, every apartment. He brought in chiefs who stayed put.
The future: With its bucolic setting and beautiful wooden interiors and exteriors, Dark Horse has also become a prime film and TV location. Reba McEntire shot most of her 2021 Hallmark movie, Christmas in tune, here; the next Apple TV+ Global Singing Competition, my kind of country, made it his base camp for 47 days; and Ford hired him to film a Ford F150 commercial with Rascal Flatts.
And soon, the demand for this quiet refuge will probably increase even further. A planned expansion will include an 8,900 square foot building with another studio; a gym equipped with massage tables, saunas, a juice bar and space to sleep 12 additional people; and a 2,200 square foot air-conditioned “Party Barn” capable of hosting much more than jam sessions.
“My goal is for Dark Horse to be a gathering place,” says Crow, who also started the Dark Horse Institute to train the next generation of studio pros and songwriters. “Obviously it will always be with music at its heart, but it might be something where a group of people who are trying to help fight climate change come to summit. Or it might even be a retreat yoga for a weekend. It’s kind of our niche: instead of trying to compete with everyone else, I just try to be more of who we already are.
This story originally appeared in the October 8, 2022 issue of Billboard.