” MUSCLE SHOALS ” directed by Greg ” Freddy ” Camalier
Just south of the Alabama/Tennessee border, about 26 miles from Mike Cooley’s ” Zip City “, runs a stretch of the Tennessee River where the rocks seem to make the waters sing. Native Americans believed that a woman sang to them from beneath the waves. When extraordinarily rendered to Muscogee, Oklahoma, many grieved for the loss of the songs in the water, and at least one woman trudged by foot for five years to return to Muscle Shoals.
Years later, world-class musicians would heed that siren song and make their pilgramage to this tiny corner of North Alabama ” to record that sweet soul music, that Muscle Shoals sound ” ( Patterson Hood, DBT: ” Ronnie and Neil” ) at Rick Hall’s FAME studio, and later at Muscle Shoals Sound with Swamper/Producer/guitarist Jimmy Johnson and his cohorts bassist David Hood and drummer Roger Hawkins.
The amazing story of how these country white boys partnered with artists of all genres- from Clarence Carter to the Rolling Stones– to make great music is the heart of the film, but it is the personal grief and glory revealed in interviews ( brilliantly edited to answers only ) that make the story so compelling. We hear driven, hard-boiled Rick Hall recounting his brother’s horrific farmyard death, his mother’s abandonment, and his father’s clawing the soil with his nails as he was crushed under his tractor. We hear Jimmy Johnson reveal that while recording the first demo of ” Free Bird ” for then-unknown Lynyrd Skynyrd, they returned from lunch to hear the ethereal piano solo now memorialized in the song being played by then-roadie Billy Powell, who had feared that the band wouldn’t like the fact that he was a classically trained pianist. Jimmy Johnson tells of ” the beginning of Southern Rock “, when Duane Allman sold Wilson Pickett on the crazy notion of covering the Beatles’ ” Hey Jude “, and Rick Hall candidly admits completely whiffing on Duane’s prediction of the popularity of the genre. And brother Gregg tells of dropping off a bottle of Coricidin and a copy of Taj Mahal’s first LP at ailing Duane’s house, and having Duane call him hours later, loudly playing ” Statesboro Blues ” with the emptied Coricidin bottle as a slide.
Surely, the presence of willing interviewees Mick, Keith, Winwood, Aretha, and Bono will draw many to this fine film, but it is the personal vignettes, and the attempt to answer why so much great music came out of this backwater town, that will burn the memory of this film into our cranial hard drives. Why then? Why there? Great soul artists like Wilson Pickett, Clarence Carter, and Percy Sledge testify to the color-blind harmony in Muscle Shoals, even while Alabama Governor George Wallace was standing in the doorways of schools to keep out black children.This contradiction, so powerful that record companies would call Rick Hall to get ” that soul band of black guys ” from his studio , was part of what David Hood’s son Patterson would later call the ” duality of the Southern Thing “, wherein barely schooled poor white country boys would back up soul, R and B, and even reggae artists like Jimmy Cliff, by becoming that artist’s band for the time of the session. In one of the film’s many poignant moments, Clarence Carter notes that perhaps the success of blacks and whites working side by side in Muscle Shoals was demonstrative evidence to the public that peaceful coexistence was not only possible, but a path to great art.
” Meanwhile in North Alabama, Lynyrd Skynyrd comes to town to record with Jimmy Johnson, that Muscle Shoals Sound, and they met some real fine people, not no racist piece of shit, and they wrote a song about it, and that song became a hit..”– Patterson Hood, DBT: ” Ronnie and Neil “
With a tip of the hat to SNL’s Leonard Pinth-Garnell ( Dan Akroyd), your humble correspondent, Nanker Phledge.