The Band's 'Music From Big Pink' Turns 50: How Upstate New York Informed the Americana Classic

AP Photo
Bob Dylan, center, performs with drummer Levon Helm, left, Rick Danko, second left, and Robbie Robertson of The Band at Carnegie Hall in New York City on Jan. 20, 1968. 

When Rick Danko discovered the ranch house, located about five miles out of Woodstock, NY, in the rural region of West Saugerties that locals called ‘Big Pink’ because of its faded salmon paint job, he was looking for a place of desolation rather than inspiration for himself and the other members of The Band. The four-bedroom home, located at 2188 Stoll Road (now 56 Parnassus Lane), was set back from the street and surrounded by trees and was dirt cheap to rent—only $125 a month. And once the papers were signed, Danko, pianist Richard Manuel and multi-instrumentalist Garth Hudson moved in and settled down after spending nearly a decade on the road with Bob Dylan or rockabilly legend Ronnie Hawkins when they were called The Hawks.

“It was a different vibe for them up there,” says Sid Griffin, who wrote about The Band’s time at Big Pink with Dylan in the 2007 book Million Dollar Bash: Bob Dylan, The Band and The Basement Tapes. “They were relaxing. The guys were getting up at a reasonable hour and having breakfast, doing all these things they never got to do as The Hawks and being on the road all those years. The context of where your situation is means everything, and for them it was living rooms and basements, so there was no reason for them to be loud, which informed their writing.”

According to an interview he gave to Uncut Magazine in 2015, guitarist Robbie Robertson—who actually lived on the property of Dylan manager Albert Grossman at the time—described Big Pink in a way you could picture any of the crashpads your friends in bands inhabited during your college days.

“It was furnished, but not in a very glamorous way,” he told the magazine. “There were leather couches, a dining table, beds in the bedrooms, just like a regular family home. Your basic needs were there.”

The house’s main appeal for the group was the basement that ran the length of the structure, where they could set up shop and do some recording, which is what they did throughout ’67 when The Band and Bob Dylan would record 130 tracks that would legendarily be known as The Basement Tapes. However, it wouldn’t be until The Band itself recorded and released their own full-length debut, dubbed Music from Big Pink, that this modest ranch house would become confirmed as the hallowed ground of modern music it is today.

1968, it bears repeating, was one of the most tempestuous and turmoil-embroiled years in recorded history, and the music of the period reflected the unease through escapist psychedelia, chaotic free-jazz and the rise of a harder, more visceral form of hard rock with young groups like the MC5 and Led Zeppelin on the come up. Big Pink, for so many, was this breath of fresh air amid the noise. These songs, which include gussied up versions of such faves from the Basement Tapes sessions as “Tears of Rage,” “This Wheel’s On Fire” and the haunting “I Shall Be Released” as well as beloved Band standards like “The Weight” and “Chest Fever," were truly born from the property on which they were conceived.

“They were on a retainer, so they had time to write music,” said guitarist Jim Weider, who replaced Robertson in The Band when they reunited in the mid-80s. “They were able to be their own band and develop those songs. I think a lot of it came from having the time and being around Bob and when you put great musicians all together in one room and they got the time to experiment and write, always something great comes out of it. And, of course, Big Pink is a landmark. That was the beginning of Americana, which wasn’t a label back then. It was totally anti-psychedelic and everything everybody was into at the time. The songs had a story, and you could relate to them. They took you on a journey. And you had all these musicians living up in the area at the time like Van Morrison, Todd Rundgren, Tim Hardin and even Jimi Hendrix, all of whom were inspired by The Band. Meanwhile, Robbie and the guys were inspired by just being able to hang with Dylan and write songs at their leisure.”

“When it was decided that the guys were going to do an album, Robbie called me up to see if I was on the same wavelength as they were,” explained John Simon, who produced Music From Big Pink. “And then the day before I got up there, Levon Helm showed up because the guys felt they had enough material to work up an album and were itching to get to work. They had been living in the house for about a year, just off and on, like a clubhouse. So when we had the chance to really do an album, we rehearsed those songs and practiced them and arranged them in that house and got them so together that when we went in the studio we recorded like five of them in one day.”

There was always something about those sessions at Big Pink that has given the northern part of Ulster County a sense of romanticism amongst rock fans in a way not unlike Laurel Canyon in the Hollywood Hills where the likes of The Byrds, Crosby, Stills and Nash and Frank Zappa lived and jammed, or the town of Esher in Surrey, England, where The Beatles recorded The White Album. For all the film, jazz and rock ‘n’ roll royalty that live up in the region, all the towns which have been inhabited by members of The Band through the years—Stone Ridge, West Saugerties, Marbletown, Bearsville, Accord, Krumville—still very much exhibit the essence of that rural spirit conjured up a half century ago. It’s a feeling that envelops you once you place the needle on Music From Big Pink, an expanded edition of which will be released on Aug. 31 to coincide with this landmark anniversary. And also why Big Pink remains a beacon of inspiration for all who travel up north on the New York State Thruway to visit the original house, which for the last 20 years has been operating as a kind of Airbnb for music freaks under the loving ownership of Don and Sue LaSala.

“Once Levon came up here to Ulster County from Arkansas and he experienced these mountains and the country people, not the phony bullshit of the people in the music business in New York City, he just knew this was where he wanted to be,” explains Butch Dener, former Levon Helm/The Band road manager. “Meanwhile, those Canadians, they were on the road for so many years as The Hawks, by the time they settled in at Big Pink, that was a healing time for them. It was a workspace but it was also home to them. Guys like Happy Traum would come over and hang out when they were in the area. The music was constant, and Rick would always say, ‘The five of us would be writing constantly, then one of our friends would come by and we’d start to have fun and you know what happens when you have too much fun!’”  

“They were like our hometown heroes,” proclaims Weider, who keeps the upstate spirit of The Band alive as leader of The Weight Band, whose excellent new album World Gone Mad was released in February. “But all that inspiration as far as to me, I think those guys living here, writing at Big Pink and working with such a great songwriter and the inspiration of the environment here that we all grew up in. These songs were about mountain living and there's a real connection to the music and the hills up here and the mountains and the streams, and just that mellow laid back consciousness that was happening at the time.”


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