‘Muscle Shoals’: It’s In The Water, And The Music

Author: Bill Dudley

Since the late 1960’s, some of the most dynamic music to command the world’s attention, has been created in a small Alabama town that is nestled along the Tennessee River, in the foreground of some colorful and beautiful rolling hills. Welcome  to Muscle Shoals.

A strange name for sure, but Aretha Franklin’s career received a huge jump when she recorded her first national hit “I Never Loved A Man” at Fame Studios. The legend is that a Native American spirit inhabits the river next to Fame Studios. This is a peaceful spirit that has brought both black and white musicians together at the dawn of The Civil Rights Movement, to make some of the most creative and respected Rock and Soul music of the past 50 years. The Staple Singers, Wilson Pickett, The Rolling Stones, Etta James, Percy Sledge, Bob Dylan, The Allman Brothers, Paul Simon and Lynyrd Skynyrd have all made magic there.

First time director Greg Camalier has made a stunning documentary on not just Fame Studios, where it all started in1964 with a modest little song called  “Steal Away” by Jimmy Hughes, but also the story of the man who created the Muscle Shoals sound, Rick Hall.

At the peak of racial tensions in the 1960’s, Rick was the man who brought together talented black and white musicians, who changed the American music scene forever. Rick’s energy charged house band The Swampers were so unique and dynamic, they actually broke away from Fame Studios to create their own Muscle Shoals Studios.

Both entities thrived, although each of them let two major Southern talents slip away without ever being signed – Greg Allman, and Lynyrd Skynyrd. The latter thought so much of The Swampers, that they were mentioned in Skynyrd’s best known song, “Sweet Home Alabama.” Anyone who has listened to Rock n’ Roll in the past 40 years has heard the line, “In Muscle Shoals they have The Swampers.”

Alicia Keys, Bono (of U2), Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Steve Winwood, Clarence Carter and Jimmy Cliff are all interviewed in the film, giving unique perspective on their experiences in Muscle Shoals.

You will also see historic  footage of Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, and the Staple Singers. The rare vintage film of Etta James recording session for “Tell Mama” was a personal highlight for me. Rick Hall candidly comments on both his influence, and mistakes he made at Fame over the years, as do The Swampers.

Is it the water? Is it the the peaceful serene setting along the river? It doesn’t really matter, Muscle Shoals is simply one of the two best music documentary films I have seen in years.

The other 2013 release, 20 Feet from Stardom, which focuses on background singers should soon be available on home video. Muscle Shoals is currently in theaters. Both are a must for the serious music fan.

Watch the trailer below:

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