Music meccas… New York, LA, Boston, Nashville, Memphis, Muscle Shoals… Wait, what?
Do the names Paul Simon, Aretha Franklin, Percy Sledge, the Black Keys, Etta James, Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, Boz Scaggs, Lynard Skynard, Duane Allman, or Wilson Pickett ring a bell? They (and many more) all recorded great music – in the Muscle Shoals area in northern Alabama.
You can think of Muscle Shoals as being in the middle of nowhere. Or you could easily see it being at the epicenter of what I would call the Natchez Trace crescent – mark an X between New Orleans, Memphis and Nashville and you are probably pretty close to Muscle Shoals. Talk about the heart of American music!
When I say great music, I mean the likes of Brown Sugar (Rolling Stones), When a Man Loves a Woman (Percy Sledge), Mustang Sally (Wilson Pickett), Tell Mama (Etta James), I Never Loved a Man (Aretha Franklin), I’ll Take You There (The Staples Singers), and Before He Cheats (Carrie Underwood). The list goes on and on; and continues to go on and on.
Muscle Shoals is a small, unassuming town in northwest Alabama, but is legendary for attracting great musical talent with fabulous recording studios. The big studio names include FAME Studios (founded by Rick Hall) and the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, founded by four studio musicians. Since the 1960’s the area has been home to the Muscle Shoals sound, and today there could be a dozen sound studios in the area, depending on who you ask.
Us? We happened upon Muscle Shoals by chance. While there is a fabulous documentary done on Muscle Shoals a few years back (you can find it on Netflix), we happened upon Muscle Shoals because we were meeting up again with our buddy Rob Pope – the guy running across the country ala Forrest Gump in the movie (see my post Going the Distance).
While we waited for Rob to finish his day’s running activities, we decided to pay homage to a few of the more notable recording studios.
Founded by Rick Hall, FAME Recording Studios (Florence Alabama Music Enterprises) is an ongoing recording studio and one of the most well known recording studios in the area. While I was not there at a time when they did tours, I was able to pop my head into one of the studios (another was being used in a recording session). In fact, a few days later they were expecting Jimmy Buffett’s sound engineer who was bringing in an artist for a week of recording work.
According to Rolling Stone Magazine, “To date, the studio and its publishing company have been responsible for an estimated 350 million record sales, with songs by everyone from the Beatles to George Strait.” Gregg Allman recorded his final album (Southern Blood) in this studio. Interestingly enough, before Duane and Gregg Allman made their mark with the Allman Brothers, as an aspiring musician Duane pestered Rick Hall for an opportunity; Rick put Duane on Wilson Pickett’s Hey Jude album, and later played on Aretha Franklin’s The Weight. The rest, as they say, is history.
Characterized as the Father of Muscle Shoals Music, Rick Hall passed away earlier this month. In a fitting tribute to his influence, a quote from an editorial in the Anniston Star reads, “If the world wants to know about Alabama — a state seldom publicized for anything but college football and embarrassing politics — the late Rick Hall and his legacy are worthy models to uphold”.
Another one of the most notable studios of this Muscle Shoals magic was Muscle Shoals Sound Studios. Today it is only occasionally used as a sound studio, but it has been largely preserved for tours – which is actually really cool!
Founded by four former studio session musicians from FAME, three of the four original partners (Barry Beckett – keyboards, David Hood – bass, Roger Hawkins – drums, and Jimmy Johnson – guitar) are still around and visit the studio from time to time.
The Rolling Stones recorded Brown Sugar and Wild Horses in the studio but because they were not visa’d to record music (only play) they could not attribute Muscle Shoals on their album. If those walls could talk!
Other artists that recorded here include Paul Simon, Lynard Skynard, Bob Seger, Rod Stewart, Cher, Linda Ronstadt, Willie Nelson – need I say more? And there are LOTS more!
The studio is much as it was in the day – all the way to the cheesy furniture and cheap faux wood paneling. And note the styrafoam packing materials used on the walls for sound deadening!
We missed the Alabama Music Hall of Fame, but next time.
And you know me – I have depth, so I was not limited to just music on this visit. With our buddy Rob now with us for an evening, the two of us decided to add some class to our evening and so headed to a dive bar called Stagger Lee’s. I am sorry – did I say dive bar? I meant liquid lounge. Anyway, it was ladies night (imagine Kool and the Gang kicks in, “Oh yes it’s Ladies Night And the feelings right…”). I’m feeling lucky…
So we brushed back our hair (what there is of mine) and then prepared to strut in like peacocks, looking like Yortek and Georg, only not. Then we opened the door.
Now I will preface that we were able to find a parking spot in the lot. In fact, there was only one other car in the lot.
And when you say lucky? That might presume you were looking for two overweight, cigarette smoking, boilermaker drinking, good ole boys as being your reward. Now I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that – just wasn’t my image of ladies night.
Truth be told, though, there was a ray of sunshine on the bar by the name of Shannan, our bartender for the next 30 minutes. She was great, and was really interested in Rob’s story running across the US. I told Karen when I got home that anytime I was going out looking for ladies from now on, I’m bringing Rob! People glom onto Rob like moths to a light. Hey, I’m still here! Hello? Hello?
But not to worry. You know we will be back because we were not able to get into the Rattlesnake Bar, and no self-respecting flatlander would miss that.
And I did visit Ivy Green – if you don’t know what that is I will tell you more on that later… Talk soon!
Oh, and the guy in the picture on the right? Willie Nelson.