Recording’s Great Escapes: Photos of Tennessee’s Dark Horse Recording

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, this is heaven,’ ” Crow recalls thinking at the time.

His career as an instrumental guitarist never took off — and he never got to record at Caribou, which was damaged in a fire in 1985 — but the studio left a lasting impression on Crow. It was exactly what he had in mind when, in 1993, he opened Dark Horse Recording in Franklin, Tenn. — charging $134,000 on multiple credit cards to foot the bill.


The Inspiration: Like Caribou, Dark Horse is in the woods; Crow even planted 240 evergreen trees on the 10-acre property, “so you feel like you’re in the mountains.” Then he took the idea of rustic luxury several steps further. The 9,000-square-foot timber frame main complex houses The Lodge, the largest studio on the grounds, as well as an attendant gourmet kitchen and upstairs lounge. 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 forests surround the property, along with a river in which clients 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’ve all recorded vocals and overdubs there.

Dark Horse Recording
The control room, with its 33-foot cathedral ceiling.
Dark Horse Recording
The control room in the Lodge.
Dark Horse Recording
Isolation Room 1 in the Lodge recording studio.

The Clientele: It’s just 20 miles south of Nashville, but Crow says only about 20% of Dark Horse’s clients are country artists. Keith Urban, Carrie Underwood and Dolly Parton have all recorded there, but so have Neil Diamond, Jeff Beck, Korn and OneRepublic. And given his own history, Crow has always supported new and independent acts — including an aspiring artist named Taylor Swift, who recorded her 2006 self-titled debut at Dark Horse. “No one knew that she was going to be Taylor Swift at that point, but we treat everybody exactly the same,” Crow says. “And we try to give everybody a great experience.”

The Setup: Dark Horse can sleep 12, with accommodations ranging from luxury apartments to a four-bunk bedroom, so plenty of acts just move in. Matchbox Twenty stayed for “four months and four days,” Crow says, to record 2012’s North. Even though Tim McGraw lives in Nashville, “he likes to sequester himself” when recording. “He has an entourage of about 30 people. They had to bring in tour buses to sleep a lot of them. He rented every studio, every apartment. He brought in chefs that stayed on site.”

Dark Horse Recording
The main estate house.
Dark Horse Recording
The steeple on the exterior of the main estate house.

The Future: With its pastoral setting and beautiful wood interiors and exteriors, Dark Horse has also become a prime film and TV shoot location. Reba McEntire shot most of her 2021 Hallmark movie, Christmas In Tune, here; the forthcoming Apple TV+ global singing competition, My Kind of Country, made it base camp for 47 days; and Ford rented it out to film a commercial for the Ford F150 with Rascal Flatts.

And soon, demand for this tranquil hideaway will likely increase further. A planned expansion will include an 8,900-square-foot building with another studio; a gym outfitted with massage tables, saunas, a juice bar and space to sleep an additional 12 people; and a 2,200-square foot air-conditioned “Party Barn” capable of hosting far more than jam sessions.

“My goal is for Dark Horse to be a gathering place,” says Crow, who has also started the Dark Horse Institute to train the next generation of studio whizzes and songwriters. “Obviously, it will always be with music at the core, but maybe it would be something where a group of people that are trying to help with climate change would come and do a summit. Or it could even be a yoga retreat for a weekend. That’s kind of our niche: Instead of trying to compete with everybody else, I’m just trying to be more of what we already are.”

Dark Horse Recording
Main estate house.
Dark Horse Recording
The kitchen in the main estate house.
Dark Horse Recording
The cottage exterior.

This story originally appeared in the Oct. 8, 2022, issue of Billboard.

Josh Glicksman