You can’t turn on a classic rock or R&B radio station and listen for long without hearing a song recorded in a small Alabama town on the Tennessee River. Muscle Shoals, Alabama has a population of only 8,000, but it is home to two recording studios that have hosted innumerable musical legends. This film, a Magnolia pictures release, examines the fascinating circumstances that led to the creation of some of the most important music of the 20th century, and the unique cast of characters involved. It is a must see for lovers of rock and R&B music.
The cast is a who’s who of the music world. Keith Richards, Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, and Alicia Keys are just a few of the artists interviewed. The scenery of Muscle Shoals provides the backdrop, from the river to the fields to the quaint old buildings including the recording studios themselves. There’s also tons of rare photos and footage from inside the studio showcasing the immortal artists who’ve played there. Near the conclusion we see Alicia Keys recording a cover of the Bob Dylan song “Pressing On,” which is the theme for the film.
The main narrative revolves around Rick Hall. Hall founded Florence Alabama Music Enterprises (FAME) studios in the late 1950’s. The operation was moved to Muscle Shoals in 1963, and the first song recorded at the new location, Jimmy Hughes’ “Steal Away,” was a hit. Hall soon recruited a group of studio musicians, only teenagers at the time, who would go on to play behind some of the greatest tracks of all time. They became known as The Swampers. Duane Allman of the Allman brothers was a late addition. For a studio band The Swampers were famous in themselves, even receiving a mention in Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama.” In 1969 a few of the members left Hall and FAME and formed a competing studio in town, Muscle Shoals Sound Studio. Both are still in operation today. The split created a lot of animosity, but it appears they have made up since.
There’s a scene that flashes through a portion of the discography recorded in Muscle Shoals, and it is stunning to see. It features Bob Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel, Steve Winwood, Willie Nelson, The Rolling Stones, Bob Seger, Percy Sledge, Bobby Womack, Jimmy Cliff, Cat Stevens. The list goes on and on. The town is unquestionably a part of music history, and this film is a thorough look at how that history was made.
See the trailer here