“There’s something in that mud” declares Bono in the opening interview of Muscle Shoals. The town of Muscle Shoals hits musicians in the gut, dragging out songs anchored by deep base guitars and base drums. As Bono speaks of the region, director Greg “Freddy” Camalier displays shots of both the Tennessee River and the deep rich thick forests that runs along the town. Though not glamorous in comparison to major cities, Muscle Shoals was a hot destination for many of the leading artists from the 60’s and 70’s who wanted to record music. It is a place where musicians are left alone to quietly work on their craft.
So how does a sleepy Alabama outpost become a must for musicians ranging from Wilson Pickett to Aretha Franklin to The Rolling Stones? The “Muscle Shoals Sound” came from the vision of producer Rick Hall, the founder of FAME Studios, and his musician buddies who became the Fame Rhythm Section (a.k.a. The Swampers). Many of Hall’s advancement at the FAME Studios helped to revolutionize the music world. It was Hall’s idea to mike the base drum separately which had never been done before. Hall’s life story is full of personal tragedy yet he managed to put these tragedies aside in order focus on the music. This resulted in Hall gaining a reputation as a being a legendary taskmaster who would push artist to achieve the perfect sound. He could not always articulate what he wanted but knew when he heard it…even if it took 40 attempts to get there.
The first international hit artist for Fame Studios was Percy Sledge. Hailing from nearby Leighton, Alabama, Sledge had done odd jobs such as picking cotton and working as an orderly prior to becoming a star. One day he came into the studio and began to sing, as he always did while working in the field, and that recording sessions led to the hit “When a Man Loves a Woman”. After Sledge’s success other artist such as Wilson Pickett and Aretha Franklin were sent to Muscle Shoals to work with the label. For Franklin, these session produced “I’d Never Loved a Man (The Way I Loved You)” and her biggest hit “Respect.”
The dynamic in the studio was the polar opposite to the reality of the time. Alabama is the State where Governor George Wallace stood in the schoolhouse door favoring segregation, and black people had to address white citizens as Mr. and Mrs. In the Fame Studios none of that existed. Everyone worked together equally to get to the music just right. The white Fame Rhythm Section played in the background many of the biggest soul records from the mid 60’s through to the mid 70’s.
The true essence of the film is found in the songs themselves as well as the old footage and photos from the recording sessions. Muscle Shoals is filled with classic music such as: Wilson Pickett’s “Land of a 1000 Dances” and “Mustang Sally”; The Rolling Stones’ “Wild Horses” and “Brown Sugar”; and The Staple Singers’ “I’ll Take You There” to name a few. Not to be missed is the Wilson Pickett / Duane Allman impromptu version of “Hey Jude” that Rick Hall labeled the start of Southern Rock, due to Allman’s slide guitar work on the track.
Muscle Shoals is a joyful ride that will delight the senses. As the line goes from the song Sweet Home Alabama, “Now Muscle Shoals has got the Swampers/And they’ve been known to pick a song or two.” Audience members will not only be keeping beat to the music throughout the film, but will also leave the theatre humming many of the legendary songs.