IT’S A COLD and rainy October night in Fayetteville. The little house actually resides just within the city limits, but sitting several hundred feet back from the road down a gravel drive, there is a solitary, pastoral quality to the place. Inside, a pot of vegetarian chili simmers on the kitchen stove, the perfect dish for tonight’s weather. “Grab a bowl if you’re hungry,” Meredith Kimbrough says. This property’s been in her family for four generations—the house itself previously belonged to her great-grandmother—but now it’s home to Meredith, or “Merey,” and her longtime partner, Eric Witthans … and their four cats, of course.
And where’s Eric? Oh, he’s in the control room.
Down a short hallway just off the kitchen is the room where Eric spends much of his time at home. Despite the array of equipment lining the walls of the small space—a few racks of analog outboard gear, a reel-to-reel tape machine and Eric’s new toy, a 1970s-era Allen & Heath Mod2 16-track analog mixing board, to name a few—the room doesn’t feel crowded or stifling. In fact, it’s rather cozy, what with the soft warm glow from the vintage lamps and the comfy cushions on the midcentury-inspired couch against the wall.
Eric’s seated at the control board, making sure everything is ready for the evening’s proceedings. See, this place is where Eric and Merey live—it’s their home, first and foremost—but it’s also where Eric works to capture some of the best music coming out of Northwest Arkansas and beyond through his studio, Homestead Recording.
But tonight is a little different.
Instead of tracking a record with the likes of Handmade Moments or laying down songs for the next Dylan Earl album, tonight Eric is recording a performance directly to analog tape in front of a live audience.
Oh, and the concert is happening in his living room.
“I END UP with these beautiful moments in time,” Eric says over the phone a few days before the concert at Homestead, reflecting on the studio’s previous house shows. (Full disclosure: I’ve known Eric since around 2008 when we met through mutual friends in Fayetteville.) “It goes along with my idea—and a lot of people’s—that recording is like a snapshot or like a picture, literally, of a moment.”
Around the studio, you can find these snapshots, fully developed, in the form of the LPs, CDs and cassettes put out by the artists who’ve recorded here—tangible manifestations of those moments in time. Eric’s been capturing moments like these since launching Homestead Recording in 2016, but the studio is really a dream come true for him that was years in the making.
The Fayetteville native started playing the guitar at the age of 10 and performed in bands throughout high school. Then in 2008, a couple years after graduating, he followed Merey to Austin, Texas, where the two of them decided to make a run at becoming career musicians. It was there, while performing as a blues trio with Merey and Austinite Kevin Allen under the moniker Mother Merey & The Black Dirt, that Eric first started building what would become Homestead Recording.
When it comes to the vintage and analog side of recording, Eric says he really fell into that world more or less by accident. He gained a mentor in King Electric Recording Co. (then Shine Studios) owner Justin Douglas, who helped direct Eric on his path toward collecting recording gear.
“I had an idea of what I wanted, but he would keep an eye out on eBay and Craigslist—Austin Craigslist is just a dream,” Eric says. “So he would send me these things, and they’d always be ridiculously expensive. Like, Ah, I don’t have $600 right now. Somehow though, I was always so excited I would always just make it work.”
Over the next few years, Eric began to amass a respectable collection of mostly vintage recording equipment. “The tape machine I found on my own and then a few key pieces,” Eric says. “But looking at the room right now … so many pieces in this room are from the ’70s. And there’s always room for all types of gear—I don’t mean to discriminate. But I just kind of found myself gravitating toward that.”
Once Eric and Merey moved back to Fayetteville, he worked a short stint at the Guitar Center, where he came by even more equipment. If a customer brought in a piece to sell that was missing a knob or that the company deemed too old or not relevant, Eric would offer to buy the item for himself with whatever cash he had on hand.
“I’d say, Let’s go out in the parking lot,” Eric explains. “And sure enough, that’s how I got a good handful of things, just old Arkansas folks trying to clean out their attics and stuff. If Guitar Center wouldn’t take it, I would do my best to acquire it myself.”
But when you work with older analog equipment, there’s a fair amount of tinkering and maintenance that goes on, Eric says. “I think in order to have an analog studio, you either have to have a lot of money to hire a tech or you have to become a tech,” he says. “I’ve never had a lot of money, and studio stuff is insanely expensive. So I honestly pride myself in that if I want to get something new and exciting, I kind of have to make it myself.”
That’s why, if you know what to look for, you’ll find curious items in Homestead’s arsenal of gear, like a drum machine that Eric took out of an old Story & Clark organ (“I can assure you nobody else has a piece like that in their studio,” he says), or the CB trucker microphone that Eric uses to communicate with musicians when they’re recording in the living room on the other side of the house. The mic was even used on the first track of the album Let It Be Strange by Eric’s own band Lost John.
“Little fun things like that, I got joyful just thinking about that evening and how fun it was to use that mic,” he says. “And that mic wouldn’t have existed if I hadn’t had the … I don’t know if it was boredom or taking a chance or what. But that’s just kind of my nature. Honestly, things might’ve played out differently if I did have a huge budget, but I’m really glad that they didn’t because that’s kind of my thing now.”
But having the right equipment is only part of the equation when it comes to running a recording studio. There’s another reason so many musicians choose to make their records at Homestead: They come here for Eric.
“A lot of people that hear about me like the way that [the albums I record] sound, which is really flattering,” he says. “Not to toot my own horn, but a lot of people say, I want your ear on this. I want your ideas. … It’s really crazy when people drive all the way from Austin to record here. No pressure. We just drove eight hours with five of our bandmates to record 10 songs.”
THE LIVING ROOM looks not unlike a living room in just about any average home. There’s a sofa, an armchair, some ottomans. A television, a record player and a couple of bookshelves. There are some art prints hanging on the walls and some houseplants in the corner. But at one end of the room, there’s also a PA system set up. There’s an amp and a microphone, and Austin singer-songwriter Taft Mashburn is sitting on a dining room chair positioned front and center, softly fingerpicking a white Les Paul-shaped electric guitar and singing with a voice that, cliches be damned, can only accurately be described as angelic.
There are about 12 people in the audience—a mix of local music fans, friends of the studio and Merey’s dad, who lives just down the gravel drive on the family’s plot—and all of them are listening intently to the performance. When Taft finishes, the small audience erupts in applause. Eric says there are usually about 20 to 30 folks at these intimate house shows, but it’s hard to imagine a more perfect amount of people than what’s here now to really appreciate a performance such as this.
Homestead doesn’t host these concerts often, and when they do, they send out invitations in the mail to a select guest list, rather than promoting the concert on social media, and those who attend end up with a digital copy of the performance. The lineup consists of two acts, typically an artist or group that’s recorded at the studio and another that’s usually a friend of Homestead who happens to be passing through town. Tonight, Taft stopped in on his way from a show in Springfield, Missouri, to a Halloween gig in Dallas before returning home to Austin. (Eric admits that part of the reason he asked Taft to perform is because he selfishly relished the opportunity to record an artist he holds in such high esteem.)
Closing out the show tonight is Eric’s longtime friend Lee Zodrow, whose band Basement Brew recorded their most recent record, Big Dam Ocean, here at Homestead. For Lee, there was no question about where he wanted to make that album.
“You feel at home,” he says over a beer after the show is done. “You come in, Hey, there’s a pot of coffee in the kitchen. You pour yourself a cup of coffee. … Recording in a formal setting is not always conducive to being creative because you feel like you’re on the clock a little bit. Not to say that it’s not professional [here], not to say it’s not the same way. But it doesn’t feel that way. When you’re here, it’s like, Let’s create something. Let’s do something good.”
To state the obvious, it feels like home here at Homestead because it is a home. After tonight, when the show is over, when Taft’s guitar and Lee’s keyboard have been packed up and taken away, Eric will break down the remaining gear and put the furniture back where it’s supposed to be. It’s the same when Eric finishes a recording session with artists such as Willi Carlisle or bands like Ten High.
“I’ll say goodbye to a band after we finish a record, and then I have an entire house to clean,” Eric says. “Because, when I do a record, the whole house is game. And that’s the only way you can do a record. We’re using mattresses. It’s a small house, so we’re putting amps in the kitchen. And I’m really thankful that Merey puts up with that because that’s a huge thing to ask of a significant other.”
For Merey, though, the trade-off is worth it. “He’s very good about kind of working with me on breaking it down and letting us have a home in between,” she says. “I’ll be honest: The times when he’s really busy, it’s a little bit tough, but it’s balanced also by the experience of having all of these people in here making music. I wouldn’t have it any other way. I’ve gotten to hear so many things that I never would’ve heard, otherwise.”