I have written before here at Abbeville about the legendary music that came out of the Muscle Shoals area in the 60’s and 70’s, and that was before I’d seen the excellent new 2013 documentary film called Muscle Shoals.
The film centers mostly on Rick Hall, the founder of FAME Studios, and his influence on everything that happened locally and globally in conjunction with (or in opposition to) his music. The film draws many analogies to rivers and water, and Rick Hall is portrayed as the “big river” in the film. According to the film, everything else that happened is just a smaller branch from the big one.
To begin with, I’ve actually met Rick Hall in the studio. One of his former engineers named Terry Woodford, who founded a rival studio in Muscle Shoals called Wishbone Studios, introduced us in 1980. If I had to come up with a quick description of Rick Hall based on my own experience, it would easily be, “son of a bitch.” The man simply does not rub you the right way. His first words to me were, “You look too much like Mac McAnally to take you seriously.” At the time, I was young, dumb, and stupid, and I had no idea what kind of musical royalty I’d just met. All I knew is that I didn’t like him at all. Since then, everything I have to come to know and learn about Rick Hall has slowly erased the toxicity of my first impression, and I’ve realized that my experience tends to match the experiences of other people who knew Rick Hall. At first, they’ll talk forever about how great he is, how important he is, how much of a visionary he is, and how much of a genius he is. But if you ask them what it was like to actually work with the man, they’ll quickly throw out vicious descriptions that make my first impression pale in comparison.
With all of that in mind, I can only barely describe how moved I was to hear Rick describe in the film his own pitiful childhood in north Alabama, as he reinforced his point that he and his family “lived like animals.” I was utterly stunned to learn how difficult his life had been, and it gave me a brand new insight into his abrasive personality. He lost his younger brother after he fell into a bucket of scalding water and died painfully three days later. His parents split up after that tragedy, and his mother abandoned them to become a prostitute. Later, Rick bought his father his first tractor, which flipped over on him and crushed him to death. At one point in the film, Rick Hall said, “We’re all just country people,” which I think nailed part of the magic of the music of Muscle Shoals. Portions of the film make attempts to uncover the sources of the musical magic, but “we’re all just country people,” probably says it the best. It’s not about black or white. It’s about shared lives and experiences that allow all kinds of different people to have more common ground than they might have originally believed. More on that later.
Before I go any further, I have to appease my north Alabama brothers and sisters and perform the necessary clean-up of some confusing geography that often pops up in discussions of the music of Muscle Shoals. The area known as “Muscle Shoals” is actually a quad-city area that exists on both sides of the Tennessee River and in two different Alabama counties. The cities are Florence (Lauderdale County), and Muscle Shoals, Sheffield, and Tuscumbia (Colbert County). Rick Hall’s FAME Studios was actually located in Florence, as FAME stands for Florence Alabama Music Enterprises. The legendary Muscle Shoals Sound Studios formed by The Swampers and Jerry Wexler was actually located in Sheffield. Rival Quinvy Studios was also in Sheffield. The only one of the major Muscle Shoals studios to be actually located within the city limits of Muscle Shoals was Wishbone Studios. However, the whole area and all of the music produced there is collectively known as “Muscle Shoals.” The film draws material from interviews with some of the artists who worked and recorded there, and it’s easy to tell through their words that they “get it” in terms of the differences between the cities and the various studios. When you hear people talk about it who’ve never been there, their ignorance and naiveté usually comes through.
Speaking of people who’ve never been there, what in the wide world does Bono have to do with anything? Why is he even in the film? The opinionated lead singer for U2 never recorded a single track in Alabama or with any Alabama musicians, which makes his appearances throughout the film slightly annoying. I’d much rather listen to Aretha Franklin and Percy Sledge talk more about the musical, political, social, and historical ramifications of black and white musicians working together in George Wallace-era Alabama than Bono. Apparently, his only qualifications were that he grew up listening to the hit music recorded in Alabama, and that he’d read some things and seen some things on TV about civil rights. So who didn’t? At least when you listen to the ramblings of Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones in the film, you can accept the authenticity of his experiences, because he actually recorded there. You might not be able to understand half of what Richards says, but at least he was there.
Early in the film, a dynamic reference is made to the Uchee Indians who settled the area of northwest Alabama, and how they referred to parts of the Tennessee River as “The River That Sings.” The Uchee were often aligned with the Creeks, but they were very different and remained autonomous. A story is related how one particular Uchee woman walked back to Alabama after being removed to Oklahoma because the water in Oklahoma apparently didn’t sing. From that moving illustration, the film begins making the powerful point that the magic of the music of Muscle Shoals “comes from the mud.” Speaking as someone who sat along the banks of the Tennessee River and composed songs, I completely agree. There is definitely a compelling sonority in the area, and I appreciated how much attention the film paid to the pervasive water. Frequently, while you are listening to voice-overs of musicians describing their experiences in the recording studios, the background scenes simply seem to float up and down the Tennessee River.
The most important aspect of the film suggested how the unique music of Muscle Shoals came from a blending of the sounds found in both black and white communities of rural Alabama. I’ve read books and attended lectures about Muscle Shoals that make misguided attempts to explain the music by preaching that it was a simple case of white musicians sounding black. I’ve always disagreed with that notion, and this film is the first presentation of an idea that I hear frequently from the musicians themselves. The music of Muscle Shoals was not mimicry – it was a true blend to create something new and unique. If it had simply been a case of white musicians sounding black, then it wouldn’t have been authentic. Why would anybody even bother with that? If Rick Hall had plenty of black singers at his disposal to make records, why would such a perfectionist as he hire white instrumentalists to assimilate a black sound? Why not just start off by hiring all-black instrumentalists and save a step? What Rick Hall created was a totally new sound that consisted of authentic white sounds blending with authentic black sounds. To me, this is infinitely more magical than imitation, especially considering the social and political climate of Alabama in the early 60’s. When the white musicians were instructed by Rick Hall to play “smooth,” they didn’t just switch over to R&B, or play what they thought Soul might sound like. Instead, they took high energy rock ‘n roll and simply slowed it down. When that happened, as Aretha Franklin pointed out twice in the film, the music became “greasy.” That may be my favorite word from the entire film, by the way. And when Aretha eventually returned to New York to finish making her debut album with Atlantic Records, she could have easily hired local black musicians in New York to accompany her with typical soul sounds. However, she went to the trouble to bring The Swampers to New York all the way from Muscle Shoals because what they created together was unique. It was a blend, not an imitation.
As keyboardist Spooner Oldham explained, it wasn’t white musicians playing black music. It was black and white musicians blending their own sounds to create a new sound. Each contribution was a unique and vital ingredient to the overall product. This is also something that Yankees would really rather not have to face – the concept that Southern whites and blacks have plenty of successful experience in getting along with each other on a man-to-man and face-to-face basis. It has frequently worked well in the South, despite the enlightened Yankee narrative of hatred, and the music of Muscle Shoals will always stand as a monument to that reality. No matter how hard they try to rewrite the events of history, the music will continue to shout it down. We will always have the ability to drag out those old records and listen to the way it really was. Just turn it up.