Tuesday, October 1, 2013


New Doc Examines the Mystery of Muscle Shoals
The Rolling Stones recording in Muscle Shoals Alabama, 1969
The Tennessee River was once known as "The river that sings," and the local tribes believed that a female spirit lived there. According to legend, she would sing and protect the people around her. In Greg 'Freddy' Camalier's excellent Muscle Shoals, this legend is offered up as  one of the many reasons for the area's near mythical status as a recording mecca for such artists as Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, Percy Sledge, and dozens of others. Water, it seems, is important to the legacy of Muscle Shoals; Helen Keller lived there, after all, and anyone who has seen The Miracle Worker knows her first word was "water." 

Muscle Shoals was where Franklin stopped singing light pop, found her voice, and revived her career. It was where Pickett recorded his best material. It was where Duane Allman talked Pickett into recording The Beatles' 'Hey Jude,' on which Allman played guitar and laid the foundation for what would become 'southern rock.'  It was also where a roadie for Lynyrd Skynyrd felt comfortable enough to sit at a piano when no one was looking and play some classical chords. These notes would eventually morph into the rolling chords of that 1970s FM classic, 'Free Bird.'
As laid back as an Alabama breeze over the cotton fields, Muscle Shoals tells the story of how Rick Hall, a poor boy with a chip on his shoulder, founded Fame Studios  and created "The Swampers," the ace group of white country boys who provided the backdrop for the great black singers of the day.  As drummer Roger Hawkins recalls in the film, as individuals they weren't great musicians, but when they were together they found the "magic." Bono of U2 describes them as looking like guys who worked at the corner grocery store, but the Swampers could play merciless funk. They were to be Hall's vengeance on the world that had left him bitter.

Hall is the film's dark echo. Burly and mustachioed, he's trotted out frequently by Camalier, just to remind us that it was Hall's hard work and genius for production that made Fame Studio thrive. Coming off as a unique hybrid of Phil Spector and Johnny Cash, Hall describes a life that sounds like a  country music tragedy. He had a brother who burned to death, a mother who left him to become a prostitute, and a first wife who died in a car crash. He claims to have once spent five years alone in a room, writing songs, drinking, and not speaking to anyone. When Hall finally made some money, he bought his father a new tractor; it tipped over and crushed the old man to death.  Even the Swampers would eventually leave him, lured away by the thought of owning their own studio, but not before they helped Hall create some of the best recordings of the late 1960s.

The film tries to explain the magic of Muscle Shoals - even the Swampers' studio, when they broke away from Hall, became an incredibly hot recording spot and yielded many great hits - and we hear from many artists the usual theories about mixing black and white musicians, but the most compelling argument (and the most mystical) comes from Jimmy Cliff, who recorded there in the 1970s. Cliff says there are simply certain areas in the world that are imbued with a certain power, and Muscle Shoals is one of them. How else to explain the way the Swampers, unfamiliar with reggae music, provided Cliff with exactly the backing sounds that he required.

The Swampers' own facility, The Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, struggled for several months before a wave of British rockers rolled in to record, including The Rolling Stones, Traffic, and Elton John.What the Swampers learned from Hall helped them become his equal in the world of record production, as their studio produced albums for the likes of Willie Nelson, Boz Scaggs,  Bob Seger, and Bob Dylan.  There's a sense, though, that the Swampers were never completely happy about leaving Hall, their mentor. If one needed proof that money can't but happiness, it's in the melancholy mood that hangs over this film like a distant storm cloud.

Hall, minus the Swampers, recruited new musicians during the 1970s found more success. The new recordings were less iconic - he began recording the likes of The Osmonds and Mac Davis -  but nearly everything he touched was a hit. Even 'Patches,' a melodramatic ode to Hall's late father recorded by Clarence  Carter, was a major success.

But it wasn't all magic and music and good times. Hall was involved in an ugly feud with Atlantic recording honcho Jerry Wexler, and was nearly thrown off a hotel balcony by Aretha Franklin's drunk husband. Even the hits that came out of Fame Studio came with some struggle. Etta James recalls in the film that she and Hall argued constantly during the sessions for her 'Tell Mama' album, yet she admits now, "He was always right."

The film occasionally meanders, but there's so much history going on that Camalier can't be blamed for going down some side roads. There could've been more attention paid to how black musicians felt playing right next to a cotton field, or how they really felt about playing with white musicians - Camalier seems satisfied to have Hall call Pickett a "soul brother," and leaves it at that. A lot more of this subject could have been tilled.

In a way, I wish Camalier had focused solely on the Swampers. It must have been a coupe to get Mick Jagger to give his thoughts, but Jagger rarely says anything of interest. The Swampers, though, are the real mystery of Muscle Shoals. Even now, as older men, they seem slightly mystified at how they found their gritty sound. They played with the earnestness of high school players, but created a sound so funky that Pickett still marvels at them, 45 years later. Wexler hails the Swampers as being as recognizable on record as The Beatles or the Stones.
So what was the formula for success down there in the swampland? Was it something as simple as mixing white and black musicians?  Perhaps, but I have my own theory. It was the mixing of the famous with the local. The Swampers were just local boys, and when confronted with the opportunity to play behind a Pickett or a Franklin, they were forced to show their best stuff. There was a real fear that they might be fired if they couldn't cut it. Even the indomitable Hall approached every track like a gunslinger walking into a life and death situation, fearing that he'd never get another chance if a record failed. This anxiety manifested as some of the greasiest funk and soul anyone had heard.

Conversely, the famous singers who came in were away from the spotlight of New York or Los Angeles. They were probably able to relax, and push themselves to unexpected new heights. A famous singer relaxing; local musicians playing to keep their jobs. That, to me, is the equation that made Muscle Shoals a special place to record.

Or maybe it was that singing spirit in the river...


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