The real Woodstock, N.Y. -- Why bands love recording in the small town and why locals aren't keen on sightseers

By Tim Appelo
Updated June 26, 1992 at 04:00 AM EDT

About the only sign of the 1969 Woodstock Festival you’ll find in Woodstock, N.Y., today is a trunk backstage in the Bearsville Theater that reads, ”Fragile: J. Joplin.” The Woodstock Nation has long since crumbled, but the town itself is hipper than ever. Visitors are apt to catch Bobby McFerrin skinny-dipping between recording sessions with Yo-Yo Ma, or Garth Hudson of The Band growling dirty sea chanteys with Michelle Shocked.

At Bearsville Studio, 10,000 Maniacs take a nosh break. ”Don’t come here!” lead singer Natalie Merchant warns. ”The food is terrible, the movie theater is unheated, they put LSD in your tea — and there’s poison ivy everywhere!” Merchant would rather you didn’t know how popular Woodstock has become: R.E.M., Metallica, and Indigo Girls have laid down tracks in one of the area’s two studios. Band members Hudson, Levon Helm, and Rick Danko live thereabouts, as do Donald Fagen, Marshall Crenshaw, and B-52’s Kate Pierson and Keith Strickland. Crenshaw’s recent Bearsville concert was broadcast worldwide.

The town is clearly happening; but one thing that never happened here was Woodstock, man. If you ask to see the festival site, ”people will be only too happy to direct you to the recreation field up Rock City Road,” says Bearsville’s chief grizzly, Ian Kimmet. ”Then they’ll laugh at you.” That’s because the event was actually held in Bethel, N.Y., 50 miles away.