Western-themed concert venue invests in recording studio, seeks to attract local artists

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Courtesy of Saloon Studios

John Littlewood in the recording studio of Saloon Studios in West Jefferson. Owner Mike Jones and his staff invested in a recording studio to make the Western-themed concert venue more appealing to artists.

David Brashier

West Jefferson, N.C. — For Mike Jones, owner of Saloon Studios in West Jefferson, the pandemic meant total shutdown for his 19th-century Old West Town replica and saloon-themed concert venue. Unable to host shows, Mike Jones and his staff invested in business alternatives to make his establishment more well-rounded: opening a production studio for artists. 

            “We have reconfigured the staging and equipment for a live stage recording studio,” said John Littlewood, production manager at Saloon Studios. “We’re planning with a very positive frame of mind right now, hoping we don’t go through 2020: part two.”  

For a music venue meticulously designed like an old western saloon, the stage itself is the least western thing about it. This design choice was intentional in order to make the venue appealing to any artists looking to use the space to record regardless of genre. 

Saloon Studios is offering discounted rates this winter to attract local artists looking to produce work in a professional setting. The studio is currently booking clients for recording songs, music videos and concert films on a stage with state-of-the-art acoustics, Littlewood said. 

“We are trying to combine experiences here at Saloon Studios with great acoustics and 4K video,” Littlewood said. “We don’t just want to give you a place to record a song, but give you an MTV-ready video.”

Mike Jones and Littlewood hoped the venue could resume hosting outdoor shows by summer. However, even with restrictions lifted on the size of outdoor events, the venue would have been unable to break even hosting shows with fewer than 50 patrons, Mike Jones said. 

With live events no longer an option, Mike Jones and Littlewood were willing to try just about anything. They considered pay-per-view concerts for some of their regularly scheduled shows, however, this proved too low of a profit margin. As summer turned to fall, they invested heavily in recording studio equipment and considered other uses for the property. 

“We’re also courting anybody who would like to use the Old West Town as a movie set,” said Littlewood. “I’m willing to do anything people in commercial media would like to do. We’ve even discussed the possibility of making Saloon Studios a mini TV station.” 

            Littlewood also intends to host masterclass workshops taught by well-known musicians. He and Mike Jones are also booking those same performers for a podcast they will produce at the studio, where they’ll discuss classic and southern rock and their respective communities in the music industry. 

            Saloon Studios is just one component of the Old West Town replica that Mike Jones constructed in 2017. From Mulatto Mountain Road, where the property is located, one would have no idea that a town straight out of a Clint Eastwood-style film would be nestled on an Appalachian mountainside just beyond the trees. 

The Old West Town contains a mix of buildings, including a general store that serves as a gift shop, a functioning cantina, a post office, a dress shop and others. The saloon, positioned at the north end of the property, was to be the centerpiece of the town and serve as a speakeasy, but during construction, Mike Jones thought about expanding it into an intimate concert venue. 

            “I built this old western town just for me and my friends to have fun with,” Mike Jones said. “The music stuff didn’t really come in until it was almost done.”

            Some of the replica’s furnishings such as the saloon’s 160-year-old roulette table and the saddle barstools are authentic, purchased from antique dealers across Ashe County. 

“Given that it’s an old Western town, it had to look authentic,” said Laura Jones, co-owner of Saloon Studios. “We did a lot of research into what the style was. We’d watch classic Western movies, take screenshots and say ‘Yeah, that’s how we want the saloon to look.’”

Other details, however, are more deceiving. Canvas paintings, wallpaper and even doors appear fully functional but are actually soundproofing material to make the sonic experience more enjoyable for patrons.  

            For Mike Jones, the patrons’ experience is paramount to everything else. He specifically designed the saloon to host no more than 100 guests so that they can experience once-in-a-lifetime experiences with classic rock icons and never be too far from the stage. Artists who have hailed the saloon’s stage include Artimus Pyle of Lynyrd Skynyrd, Atlanta Rhythm Section, Alto Reed from Bob Seger’s Silver Bullet Band and a host of others. 

            “The whole idea behind this venue is small capacity,” said Mike Jones. “Everyone is a VIP. When the band finishes playing, they walk down the stairs, say ‘Hello,’ shake hands, sign autographs and take pictures with you.”  

            Mike Jones and Littlewood encourage local artists of all genres in the High Country to book recording sessions during the winter and take advantage of their discounted seasonal rates. They hope to resume their regular performance schedule in late May 2021.