Finding Famous Music in ‘Muscle Shoals’

Music evokes connections to places: Seattle grunge. Kentucky bluegrass. Delta blues. The Greg “Freddy” Camalier-directed Muscle Shoals (2013) offers another musical connection to consider, this time to a small town in Alabama.

Not one, but two, legendary recording studios contributed to the developments in popular music history. The first, FAME Studios, was co-founded by Rick Hall, a taskmaster with an ear and a skill for making good music. In the studio’s early years, he produced Etta James’s “Tell Mama” and Wilson Pickett’s “Land of a Thousand Dances.” He boosted the careers of Arthur Conley and Aretha Franklin, whose first album with the studio won a Grammy and sold 1 million copies.

The Swampers, the name for some of the studio musicians on some of these tracks, eventually left FAME and start their own studio, the Muscle Shoals Sound Studios. The studio recorded sessions with Bob Dylan, Traffic, and Lynyrd Skynyrd, among others. The Rolling Stones recorded “Brown Sugar” and “Wild Horses” there. Sharp viewers will recognize the archival footage from the iconic rockumentary Gimme Shelter (1970). Other footage appears archival but actually is reenacted footage, which blends in well.

Bono, Mick Jagger, and Keith Richards appear as rock historians in this documentary. Along with the studios’ founders and managers, Camalier interviews the artists and others involved with the recording sessions. He deftly weaves these voices into a coherent narrative not dominated by one voice. Instead, the multiple voices provide a richer picture of what happened during and after some key recordings at both studios. I appreciated the balance among the singers, the session performers, and the producers in these stories.

But what is it about this small town in Alabama that inspired such big sounds? Camalier’s documentary suggests the Tennessee River, with its original name of “the river that sings,” as one source. People and a hard work become another suggestion, as does overcoming adversity. Hall’s life story is full of tragedies, from the loss of his first wife in a car accident to the loss of his father later in life. The departure of The Swampers hits him particularly hard. All of these hardships potentially connect with this sound as well.

Music is as much about people as it is about place, after all.

After watching Muscle Shoals, 20 Feet from Stardom, Standing in the Shadows of Motown, and many blues music documentaries, I am struck by the generational differences. Maybe a better way of putting it is the generational gaps in the musicians who appear in the documentaries. Alicia Keys and John Paul White (one half of The Civil Wars with Joy Williams) are the youngest musicians to appear in this documentary. Makes me wonder how today’s music will be remembered and by whom in documentaries made forty years from now.

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