“Now Muscle Shoals has got the Swampers. And they’ve been known to pick a song or two.” (lyric from the Lynyrd Skynyrd song “Sweet Home Alabama”)
Muscle Shoals is a small town of just under 13,000 people located near the Tennessee River in Alabama. Native Americans called it the “Singing River”. It is also the home of recording studios and musicians whose contribution to R&B, rock and pop is nothing short of amazing. That’s how the documentary film Muscle Shoals came to pass.
Rolling Stone senior editor David Fricke says that if you had to play only one song to “epitomize” the Muscle Shoals’ sound, it would be “I’ll Take You There” by the Staple Singers. However, far more famous groups and solo stars came to drink in the beauty and spirit of the river and make incredible music.
Most of them came to work with Rick Hall, founder of FAME studios. In a South that was still divided along racial lines, it was Hall who found a way to take the differing sounds of “black music” and “white music” and blend them to make something better. FAME stands for Florence Alabama Music Enterprises and the studio was founded back in the 1950s. In 1964 the first hit, “Steal Away” by Jimmy Hughes shot up the charts and started the parade of people coming to town to work with Hall. It was “When a Man Loves a Woman” by Percy Sledge that brought international attention to Muscle Shoals.
While many want to credit things about the area, like the mud that Bono mentions in one of his segments in the movie, it was a group of white men playing black music behind the recording stars that put this small town on the map. They are the Swampers and it is telling that Lynyrd Skynyrd paid tribute to them in one of their songs, in terms of the influence of these session musicians.
The Rolling Stones, The Allman Brothers, Lynyrd Skynrd, Bono, Alicia Keys, Etta James, Percy Sledge and Paul Simon are just some of the musicians who came to town to record. A number of them appear in the documentary and explain what it was that brought them there to record. And what kept them coming back. We learn that in the late 1960s, several members of the Swampers left to form their own recording studio, Muscle Shoals Sound. That did not stop Rick Hall from continuing to produce music at FAME.
Director Greg “Freddy” Camalier has put together an excellent documentary film that is similar to the incredible Sound City from earlier this year, but different. Both films are about how amazing music was put together, but Sound City’s magic seemed to spring from the Neve analog mixing console while it is the river and the locale that inspire the Muscle Shoals sound. Camalier mixes interviews, music and imagery to tell the story of how some of the music industries luminaries chose to come
to this backwater location to work. Rick Hall’s personal story is also told and it is a tale filled with origins in poverty and more than his share of tragedy along the way.
Muscle Shoals is an outstanding documentary and I plan to see it again.