Muscle Shoals is a little village (pop. 13,000) on the Alabama border – 12-square miles of musical magic alongside the Tennessee River – or as the Yuchie tribe referred to it, “Nunnuhsae” (The river that sings). The word “magic" is uttered often in “Muscle Shoals,” a documentary about two legendary studios and the classic American popular music produced there.
See more of Rick's reviews at the Internet Movie Database (IMDb).
First-time director Greg “Freddy” Camalier blends footage from back in the day and interviews with many of the talking heads who were there at the time (alas, David Byrne seems to be one of the few musicians who didn't record at Muscle Shoals), including Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Aretha Franklin, Bono, Wilson Pickett, Steve Winwood, Gregg Allman, Alicia Keys, Jimmy Cliff and many others.
It's all about the sound
Steve Winwood, Keith Richards and almost everyone else in the film talks about the sound: Percy Sledge’s producers told him there wasn’t another studio in the world that had “that sound”; Jimmy Cliff says there are certain places where there’s a field of energy, and Muscle Shoals is one of them. Speaking for U2, Bono said, “We felt the blood in that; we felt the pulse of that…It’s like the songs come out of the mud.”
Camalier includes time-lapse shots of clouds; water trickling down rock, around and through voluptuous patches of shaded fern, into the Tennessee River; old railroad tracks, sunflower fields, rusted-out gas pumps and dilapidated sheds – images that covey a sense of place.
At the heart of the story is handlebar-mustachiod Rick Hall, who overcame poverty and personal tragedy to create a uniquely American musical scene, beginning with FAME (Florence Alabama Music Enterprises) Studios. Muscle Shouls Sound would later become its rival offshoot.
Hall put together a studio band that came to be called "The Swampers,” a group of 18 and 19 year-old white guys (Rick was closer to 30) who looked like the Beach Boys but sounded “funky and greasy,” according to Aretha Franklin.
Great American pop music stories from “Muscle Shoals”
- Aretha’s overly orchestrated white-bread records being produced by CBS Records weren’t selling. She heard about Muscle Shoals and went down to record some music in 1968. Sitting at the piano, working on a new song, nothing was working – until that deeply soulful chord progression opening “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)” clicked into place. It would go on become her first million-seller.
- Percy Sledge recounts the making and release of “When a Man Loves a Woman.” Rick Hall called Jerry Wexler at Atlantic Records in New York and played a recording over the phone. Wexler loved it, signed Sledge and released the song.
- After Stax Records dropped Wilson Pickett, Wexler brought him down to Muscles Shoals, where he recorded “Land of 1000 Dances,” “Mustang Sally” and “Funky Broadway.”
- A kid named Duane Allman strolled into FAME Studios one day. It didn’t take Hall long to notice the talent: “I never heard a slide guitar played like Duane Allman played it.”
- Allman suggested (to everyone’s consternation) Pickett and the band cover the Beatles’ “Hey Jude.” Southern Rock was born, but Hall later admitted he “missed the boat on that one.”
- The Rolling Stones recorded cuts for “Sticky Fingers” at Hall’s rival studio, Muscle Shouls Sound. Jagger said the location influenced the country feel of “Wild Horses.” When the Stones listened to the finished version of “Brown Sugar,” they immediately knew it was one of the best songs they ever did.
- A roadie working for an unknown band was tinkering with a piece on the piano that sounded like a classical-music flavored ballad. The band was Lynyrd Skynyrd; the music would become the intro to “Freebird.”
- Before they were known as the Swampers, the original Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section opened for the Beatles first live U.S. show at the Washington Coliseum indoor arena on Feb. 11, 1964.
- The Swampers are mentioned in a Lynyrd Skynyrd lyric from “Sweet Home Alabama” – “Now Muscle Shoals has got the Swampers” – which must be one of the most Mondegreened lyrics in the history American music.
Magic contrasts with the real world
The magic of Muscle Shoals was not always reflected in the social fabric of the times. What comprised the ‘60s in urban centers was a very different phenomenon in the Deep South. It was a challenge for mixed-race groups of musicians to go out to a restaurant for a dinner break, in spite of Marin Luther King. It didn’t help that the white guys had long hair.
While musicians may have been colorblind in the music studios, Gov. George Wallace was literally blocking the University of Alabama doorway to keep out African Americans.
“Muscle Shoals” meanders towards the end and could have easily been trimmed here and there, but Camalier's documentary contains enough great stories about the making of some of the great popular American music of the times to make it well worthwhile.
See playdates and locations for “Muscle Shoals” HERE.
Enjoy this article? Receive e-mail alerts when new articles become available. Just click on the "Subscribe" button above.