Fort Worth Star-Telegram
July 28, 1993
Edition: FINAL AM
Down the Road & Up the Charts
For more than 20 years, unheralded Pantego Sound Studio has
been making some major recordings
DAVE FERMAN Star-Telegram Writer
PANTEGO - Pantego Sound Studio sits alone at the end of an out-of-the-way road just off Spur 303, and the squat, dirty-sand-colored building much more resembles what half of it used to be - a paint warehouse - than what it is, a state-of-the-art recording studio.
No limos are parked out front, no guitarists loitering about the three unmarked doors. Inside there is no brightly lit, spacious reception area, no secretaries, and none of the goodies (staffed kitchen, pinball machines, sauna, whatever) one might find at some of the bigger studios in L.A. or New York. There aren't even vending machines or couches.
The rooms look a bit faded, the carpet worn; the lobby is small, and perhaps four steps inside one of the doors the control room is pretty much filled by the 16-track recording board. The 20-by-30-foot studio is just to the right; up a step and to the right of that room is the drum room, which looks at first glance
like an empty storage area.
In short, whatever one imagines big-time recording studios to look like, this isn't it.
But over the past 20 years, this homely little building has hosted stars like current metal heroes Pantera; Joe Ely; Delbert McClinton; stellar Dallas-based bluesmen Bugs Henderson and Anson Funderburgh; early '70s heavy rock kings Bloodrock (remember their one big hit, the doomy D.O.A.?;) rising country star and former Fort Worth rock notable Ricky Lynn Gregg; Vince Vance and the Valiants; hotshot guitarist John Nitzinger; Buck Owens; legendary Fort Worth songwriter and producer (Los Lobos,the BoDeans) T Bone Burnett; Gary P. Nunn; Johnny Red and the Roosters; and many others.
Some have come to play live for radio broadcasts; others have come to record demos or commercially released products, such as Pantera's 1992 gold CD, Vulgar Display of Power. But they have kept coming, and come they do still, in this age of "up country" and thrash- and funk-metal, drawn to this remote spot by the promise of leaving with quality recordings.
Jerry Hudson has worked with them all, the country guys and the metal guys and the stone Texas rockers, as he moved up the ranks from a fledgling engineer with no studio experience to a respected producer.
And when then-owner and longtime producer Jerry Abbott decided to head out to Nashville to immerse himself in the country music business in the fall of 1991, Hudson knew one thing: Pantego had to stay in the hands of one of the three guys who had - literally - built it by hand, had put in all those all-nighters helping musicians make music in these cramped rooms.
Abbott, father of Pantera's lead guitarist Darrell and drummer Vinnie, was leaving to chase his dreams and not coming back.
Longtime owner Charles Stewart, who had built the actual building, had sold the equipment and the rights to the name "Pantego Sound" back in the late '80s to concentrate on his chain of video stores, although he still owned the property.
That left Hudson - who was, let's just say, not afloat in mean green. "There was a lot of creative financing," says Hudson with a laugh, relaxing one morning after a long session with Nunn the
night before. "In other words, Charles Stewart was flexible with the rent until I got going, and Abbott sent me a bunch of speakers for the studio.
"It was tough financially, but we didn't have to go into debt. A lot of studios borrow $250,000 to go into business, and I didn't have to. We're not getting rich but we're solvent."
And customers are still coming and still leaving satisfied.
"I like the sound I get, and Jerry's a blast to work with," says Johnny "Red" Latham, leader of Johnny Red and the Roosters. "Sixteen tracks is plenty for the stuff I do. You get a good price - a lot of studios charge twice what Pantego charges. Jerry knows the room and how to get a good sound out of it. He's just been at it so long."
Randy Cates, bassist with local soul/R&B band Alibi, also notes that much of Pantego's appeal is Hudson's ability. "It is a good studio," he says. "Jerry's been doing sound for so many years, and he has a lot of expertise. We can describe a sound we want, and he can come up with it. He's just a wizard."
Now, perhaps; but back in the early '70s, Hudson was just a long-haired kid with some experience mixing live sound for the likes of the Fabulous Thunderbirds, John Nitzinger and Merle Haggard, a little experience managing and booking bands, and a yen to be a recording engineer. So when Stewart ran an ad in Buddy magazine offering an engineering seminar at the studio, Hudson was there.
Stewart, a Fort Worth native, had made some money as an R&B producer but had "a hankerin' " to be a record producer. He was living in Pantego at the time, and a builder friend knew of the site, so he had the building constructed and opened for business with eight tracks in 1973; the other half of it was used as a paint warehouse to generate a little more income.
The first session was Delbert McClinton. For the first six months or so, Burnett - who would go on to tour with Bob Dylan, play with Bruce Springsteen and Roy Orbison, write songs with Bono of U2, record with Pete Townshend of the Who while carving out a very successful solo career - was an engineer, but he left for Los Angeles, and Abbott came in as a session player.
He began learning how to engineer sessions at Stewart's request; Hudson arrived soon afterward and began learning on the job, first helping Abbott on sessions and then doing his own.
"With a recording studio, it's not location as much as sound," Hudson says. "People will seek you out if they like the sound. I always felt like I owned the place, really - Charles and Jerry just made you feel that way. I always felt at home here. This was just our little place."
In 1979, a Buck Owens/Emmylou Harris recording of Play Together Again Again, a song Abbott and Stewart had written, scraped the top of the country charts, and money poured in. So they decided to renovate the studio; the former control room became the drum room, offices were built, and the board went up to 24 tracks. And business got better.
"We started producing all kinds of things, like Danny Wood, and we started to draw a little more from Dallas," Stewart says. "We were more of a production studio than a place where you just came in and booked time. Jerry (Abbott) and I brought in 80 or 90 percent of the people in a production capacity - now we were producing the product."
By the early '80s, Hudson was managing hot Fort Worth rockers Savvy, which recorded its Made in Texas album at Pantego. Hudson left in 1984 to sell musical equipment and work for an air freight company. In "'88 or '89," Stewart sold the rights to the studio to Abbott.
In the meantime, Pantera, having recorded four independent albums at the studio, was signed to Atco and recorded both its major label CDs, Cowboys From Hell and Vulgar Display of Power, at Pantego, the latter with producer Terry Date, who has also worked with Seattle's alternative-metal gods Soundgarden.
In October 1991, Hudson called Pantego and was told Abbott was moving to Nashville as soon as Vulgar was done, which was only a few weeks away. Hudson wanted back in.
"I had missed it, badly," he says. "I'd hate to think this place would close on the first gold record done here - that'd be sad, wouldn't it? I moved in the day he moved out - I had my own little setup and another producer had his for three months and I was working with this borrowed eight-track in the old control room and a storage room. He left in March and I bought his equipment and reopened on April 1, 1992, as a 16-track studio."
Since then, Pantego and Hudson have been extremely busy; Hudson says that this year there have been few nights without any activity in the studio, and he has also expanded to renting out sound systems to nightclubs and is also expanding into artist management, having signed Dallas' Austin Brothers and country singer Tamra Comstock, who is currently cutting demos at Pantego.
"Doing management and having an in-home studio is a good thing," he says, "because bands always need demos. It makes the whole package a little more attractive, because the band doesn't have to go somewhere else and spend $85 an hour recording - they can do it right here.
"The studio could be busier - now there aren't too many bands that don't have day jobs, so the days are slow, but the nights are booked. We work whenever anybody needs to work, and we have something going every day."
Hudson is in no rush to go back to 24 tracks, and he says that he'll probably be spending a little more time on the management ventures than working on sessions. But for now, he's happy - good ol' Pantego Sound is still in the family.
"It feels good - here's this studio that's 20 years old - and it's even had the same phone number for 20 years - and I was able to walk right in," he says. "I've always felt at home here, but actually I might have felt better before, when I didn't have to pay the bills."