Here are some recommended albums recorded at Frogville by musicians who play frequently in Santa Fe and elsewhere in New Mexico. Most are available at frogvilleplanet.com.
Bill Hearne Honest, passionate acoustic folk-country. Heartaches and Honky-Tonks will surely put a tear in your beer.
Bill Palmer’s TV Killers Last year’s eponymous album and the new The Mines have a Tom Petty-esque sound and feel.
Boris McCutcheon This poetic, rootsy singer-songwriter has a repertoire of amazing CDs, with his latest, Might Crash, being his finest. The Salt Licks are a stellar backing band. (See “Salt of the Earth,” Dec. 2013, or mynm.us/borismcc.)
Joe West He puts the alt in alt-country, with a skewed wit. Start with South Dakota Hairdo, one of his first, or Blood Red Velvet, his latest. (See ”Joe West’s New Mexico Songbook,” Dec. 2012, or mynm.us/jwest12.)
Round Mountain Neo-folk in the vein of the Avett Brothers and the Lumineers. The Goat is their latest and best.
Saving Damsels Find My Way features heartfelt, straight-ahead rock with Native overtones. (See “To the Rescue,” Aug. 2014, or mynm.us/svgdams.)
BY ANY MEASURE, Santa Fe’s Lensic Performing Arts Center is a world-class venue—the finest international musicians of all genres perform in the concert hall. So it was a mite unusual that in February the theater presented a bill of local artists who usually play in bars and restaurants from Albuquerque to Taos. Entitled “Sounds of Santa Fe–Frogville Records,” the evening showcased four bands that have recorded some of the best music the capital city has ever produced. At last these hardworking professional musicians were getting quality time on the big stage.
A receptive audience filled the hall to hear Round Mountain, Boris McCutcheon and the Salt Licks, Anthony Leon and the Grievous Angels, and Bill Palmer’s TV Killers play without the distractions of talk and televisions and cash registers. And they responded with warm appreciation—this was a poignant moment, a communal recognition of something worthy, homegrown, and a decade in the making: an excellent representation of the Santa Fe sound.
Composed mainly of variations on the theme of the rootsy folk rock known as Americana, the sound that’s been incubated over the years at Frogville Studios is distinguished by an organic, unhurried approach that harks to nothing less than the pre-digital-era classics of the genre, like the legendary recordings Bob Dylan and the Band made at Big Pink in the sixties. That’s partly because a lot of the house amps and instruments are of that vintage. It’s also because the studio, under the baton of musician/engineer/producer Bill Palmer, specializes in a certain vibe that comes through in the recordings.
“I’ve been refining a particular style of producing—coaxing very realistic, intimate performances out of musicians,” says Palmer, who estimates that some 200 albums bear his imprint. “Our clientele and sounds are getting more stellar every year.”
In brief remarks made from the Lensic stage, Frogville’s founding owner, John Treadwell—known to all as “The Dude” for his resemblance to Jeff Bridges’ Big Lebowski character—drily explained the genesis of the studio: “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. When life gives you musicians, make records.”
A 47-year-old Dallas native, Treadwell came to town in 1989 to attend the College of Santa Fe. He and fellow Texan Palmer, 41, met in the nineties as followers of the band ThaMuseMent, tagging along on treks back and forth between Texas and New Mexico. Palmer picked up on a band led by Grant Hayunga, called Goshen, which featured members of ThaMuseMent.
“I was like, ‘What in the hell are they doing up there in Santa Fe?’” Palmer recalls. “It sounded like some sort of weird, kind of Native American ghost dance movie soundtrack. I thought, ‘I gotta go up there to Santa Fe and see what the hell’s in the water.’ There was a sound here.”
The first Frogville sessions were for Palmer’s own former band, Hundred Year Flood. Treadwell fronted the expenses, they borrowed gear, and they recorded in Treadwell’s living room. The engineer fell ill, “so I ended up having to do the overdubs and mix it in a week, not having any idea of what I was doing,” says Palmer. “I think I did a pretty decent job of finishing the record.” So did local musicians, who started approaching Palmer to record them.
“Back in the day, Frogville was equal parts soup kitchen, roots music oracle, and homeless shelter,” says Grant Hayunga. “Easy to dismiss, impossible to sustain, and undeniably capable of creating analog miracles.”
Frogville continued to develop as Treadwell acquired recording equipment and expanded the studio to 3,300 square feet. There’s also a well-used bunkhouse upstairs that sleeps eight, which is attractive for bands that come from elsewhere to get the vibe. But it’s still local talent that defines the Frogville ethos.
“Every time I go up there, I have the feeling of being part of something bigger,” says Joe West, the beloved Santa Fe bandleader who’s worked on 10 albums there. He likens the studio to a cooperative.
“In addition to Joe West, Boris McCutcheon has been a huge influence on us,” says Treadwell. “Those two guys go all the way back, and have made one cool record after another out of here.”
Palmer counts Shannon McNally, Taj Mahal, Johnny Gimble (of Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys), John Popper, Gary Farmer, and Ryan McGarvey among the other notables who’ve recorded at Frogville. “Over the last two years we’ve had bands in from Texas, Oklahoma, California, and a lot of the best stuff from Albuquerque is coming through here,” Palmer says.
“Saving Damsels won Best Rock Album at the Native American Music Awards. We did a Spanish album with Consuelo Luz. We’re trying to expand, and be a part of all the music genres that are around up here. But Americana pays the bills.”
Given Frogville’s identity as a studio that specializes in a recognizable, atmospheric sound, it’s appropriate that their role model/white whale is Daniel Lanois—a producer who puts his own stylistic signature on recordings by the likes of U2, Bob Dylan, Emmylou Harris, and Willie Nelson.
“We would love it if Daniel Lanois would do something here,” says Treadwell. “That’s been our mantra. We’ve been getting the place ready for Daniel Lanois. As people do landscaping, work on the drainage, it’s all preparing for the arrival of Daniel Lanois.”
Until Mr. Lanois makes an appearance, Frogville Studios will be busy recording upcoming projects by Santa Fe artists Paula Rhae McDonald, Drastic Andrew, Stephanie Hatfield, and a host of other musicians looking to capture that distinctive New Mexico sound. And Frogville is certainly where they’ll find it.
Eric Davis previously interviewed Jono Manson and Nacha Mendez in these pages.