"People would just start shaking, and the room would go quiet,” a man known as “Cajun” Dave Harbour says of those long-ago Friday nights when Grande Rojo, a gigantic miner, would stride through Nederland’s historic bar, the Pioneer Inn. If you were a cheat, a thief, or a wife-beater, Grande Rojo would hear about it and dispense bare-fisted frontier justice.
“He hit one guy so hard he flipped over twice,” Harbour says. That was back in the ’70s, when Nederland had just one cop and Grande “was the original Nederland therapist.”
That was also the era when Caribou Ranch, the legendary recording studio, attracted a staggering list of rockers to the small mountain town and consequently, to the Pioneer Inn, or PI, as locals call it.
“It’s a capsule of music history in Colorado,” says Bunny Spangler, who opened the Pioneer Inn nearly 40 years ago.
Talk to some of the guys who lived in Nederland at the height of James Guercio’s nearby Caribou Ranch recording studio, and it sounds like the Wild West never really died, it just met the hedonism of the music scene from the 1970s to mid-’80s. Jimmy Buffett passed out on the bar. Dan Fogelberg once worked behind it and played a little show. Womens’ underwear hung off the antlers of the stuffed deer, and drugs piled up on the pool table.
“Bunny was an extraordinary woman to have made it through all that,” says Cindy Shaw, who, with her husband, Dave Lyons, recently bought the bar. “But that’s not the way it is here anymore.”
The soul of the Pioneer Inn is still the food and the close sense of community, she says, adding, “It’s like the ‘Cheers’ of Nederland.” And, as PI celebrates its 40th anniversary on Aug. 20, it’s especially about the music.
“We don’t have all those famous musicians anymore, but there are, per capita, more artistic, talented people here than anywhere else,” she says.
“When I first moved to Ned in February of ’71, the population was less than 500 people: miners and cowboys,” Spangler says.
The stereotypes, while romanticized, were true in the sense that the spirit was one of tough-minded individualism, she says.
“It was old Colorado. ... A lot of those people are long gone, in one way and the other, but Nederland has maintained as a very unique mountain town,” she says. “The townspeople want to keep our special character.”
Musician and producer Guercio hit town just a couple years prior to Spangler, buying up the 4,000-acre property called Caribou Ranch and opening the eponymous recording studio in an old barn. No one, perhaps not even Guercio, knew how successful the studio would become, or how integral the Pioneer Inn would be to its success.
“It was great, what can I say?” John Carsello, Guercio’s long-time studio manager, says of the early days at the Pioneer. “Some of the best music in the world came out of Caribou, but when these stars would go into the Pioneer, just to hang out between sessions, their egos were just gone, and these were people that played these giant stadiums. They would just mix with the local people. They were almost locals.”
The ranch was off limits to locals, and that was where the Pioneer came in — the stars would come to the locals instead of vice versa. But according to Carsello, some locals were as good, or sometimes better, than the stars.
“Man, some of these guys could hang with anyone in the world,” Carsello says. “Michael Roach would blow your mind. He played the blues better than Clapton. I’d take the stars in there to see him play, and they were just mesmerized. He was one of the greatest blues guitar players I’ve ever seen.”
Carsello says that musicians moved from all over the country to be a part of the Nederland scene.
“Musicians would move to Ned because they just wanted to be in a scene like that,” he says. “It was totally unique. I mean, where else can you walk into a place in the middle of nowhere and there’s Billy Joel sitting at the bar?” “It was the mainstay of Nederland, the one consistent, reliable place,” Spangler says of those early days, when the musicians whom Guercio had at the Ranch needed a place to hang out between recording sessions.
But the locals weren’t too keen on “longhairs.”
“The culture was very much miners and cowboys, and they didn’t particularly like the influx,” she says.
They eventually got used to the newcomers, though. As Harbour tells it, “They didn’t like the hippies, but they couldn’t chase them away.”
A regular customer for the past four decades, he hops behind the bar and pours himself a drink as he tells stories of the good old crazy days when Guercio’s recording operation was at its peak, and all the excesses of the music scene of those heady times visited Nederland and the Pioneer Inn.
Michael Jackson once rode up to the bar on a horse, looking terrified. Another night everyone but Stevie Wonder was too drunk to drive.
“Oh, we put him behind the wheel, then I went and called a cab,” Harbour says. “But he made it home!” The stories roll on. There was the time that, in a dispute over a bar tab, or because he wasn’t allowed to chisel free the deer lodged in the stonework wall, one miner threw dynamite on the roof, but the explosion didn’t bring the place down, and everyone kept partying. Another night, there was a harmless drive-by shooting.
“Everyone hit the floor,” he says, adding that the shooter pulled over, reloaded his pistol and drove by, shooting, again. “Even the bartender hit the floor that time, and he wasn’t afraid of nothin’.”
The studio attracted big-name musicians to the small town. Figures like Elton John (whose first album recorded at Caribou was named Caribou), John Lennon, Billy Joel, Waylon Jennings, Michael Jackson, U2, Rod Stewart and a list of other iconic musicians recorded at Caribou Ranch and hung out and played at the PI.
“The Pioneer, without question, started the whole music scene in 1972,” Spangler says. “And year after year it was built on and of course was a main source of musicians. Incredible talent started out from the Caribou Ranch, and that built on itself and attracted more and more musicians.”
It couldn’t last forever, though. Like the frontier mining town it was named for, Caribou Ranch Records was gutted by fire in 1985. Guercio had been in the music and motion picture industries most of his life, and after the fire he never rebuilt the studio and instead began either developing, selling off, or converting his vast ranch to conservation easement. He moved into other business dealings — cattle ranching and mining — and he even bought and sold an entire television network, Country Music Television.
“Sometimes he talks about bringing it back,” Spangler says, “but things have changed. We’ve gotten old.”
A few miles up a dirt road outside Nederland lie its roots: the remains of the 1860s silver boomtown of Caribou. There are a couple of stone structures there, some collapsed wooden houses, and here and there closed-off mine shafts. It’s so sparse the place barely qualifies as a ghost town, but its richest mine made Nederland.
There weren’t any Tombstone-like shootouts, nor the debauchery of Dodge City or Deadwood, at least not as recorded by historians, but by the early 1870s, Caribou had some 3,000 residents — more than Nederland has today. But at 10,000 feet, the climate was harsh, and the small town of “Middle Boulder,” a couple thousand feet lower, with smelters, railroad connections and a post office, became a favored place to conduct business.
Miners, of course, came first, followed by the attendant species of frontier characters: general store owners, iron workers, preachers, newspapermen, saloon-keepers and, presumably, even a few single ladies.Sometime between 1871 and 1873, the Caribou Mine, nearly played out, was sold to the Nederland Mining Company for about $3 million. By 1877, when William Henry Jackson snapped a tintype, the only known photo of the town, Caribou was an outpost on the decline. The photo shows several miner’s cabins, a few saloons, a church and heaps of tailings scratched out on a cold, treeless and windblown bit of high country.
The mine was sold to Colorado entrepreneurs, but Caribou’s fate was already sealed, and in 1879, much of the town burned down. Some hardy miners hung on, but Caribou’s popula tion remained fewer than 50 until the 1920s, the last time anyone cared to count. Gradually everyone left, and Caribou became a ghost town.
Legacy lives on
The demise of Caribou Ranch didn’t spell the end for Pioneer Inn’s musical legacy.
“If you look at the long list of people who have played here from the end of the recording studio ’til today, you’d be very surprised,” Spangler says of the post-1985 PI. “I have calendars with, for instance, Big Head Todd, from the days when no one knew of them outside of this very local market, and it goes on and on, so it’s always been ‘the place.’” Nearly four decades was enough, however, and a couple years ago Spangler began looking for someone to take over for her. But not just anyone — Spangler was selling her life’s work.
“Wonderful Cindy [Shaw] and Dave [Lyons] came along, and they really love it, and they are very experienced in the restaurant and music industry, and I couldn’t have asked for better new owners.”
“When I first came in here, of course, I couldn’t conceive of it,” Shaw says of being the owner of the same bar, restaurant and music venue where she met her husband, Lyons, some 16 years ago. “I just walked in one night and there he was, playing. I thought he was very talented and cute, and evidently, he liked me, too.”
Shaw, who moved to Colorado 20 years ago from Wichita, says her first job in Colorado was at the Stage Stop, another old bar, checking guns at the door. It was her husband’s dream to own a venue from which he could advance his own music, as well as the bands he works with at his recording studio, School House Records.
Lyons, who has played the PI for the past 25 years, finally decided to buy the place.
“If I’m going to keep playing gigs here, I might as well own the place,” he says.
He and Shaw, however, bought a business that had been in steady decline for the past 10 years.
“We need to legitimize the Pioneer for the kids,” he says. “Thursday, hiphop night, is our biggest night. It’s packed, and it’s not gangster rap. It’s great music. They sing about social issues and local, everyday life.”
He says that people come up from Boulder for the “mountain rappers.”
“Twelve weeks ago when we took over, there was music one night a week. The place needed help,” Lyons says. “We’ve started to turn it around. Now we have live music every night. Without music, no one would come here. There’s no reason for the Pioneer to exist without great music.”
John Carsello agrees. “Leftover Salmon and some other great bands came after the studio burned, but even today the music scene is great. It’s carrying on in Ned, and it’s all because of the Pioneer Inn.”
Respond: firstname.lastname@example.org See www.boulderweekly.com for a slideshow of photos from the era.