"Soul nirvana" is what one writer calls Muscle Shoals, that area of the Quad Cities in northwest Alabama where such legendary musicians as Percy Sledge, Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan, and Duane Allman as well as Lynyrd Skynyrd and The Rolling Stones once recorded, in addition to Alabama's own Wilson Pickett and Spooner Oldham whose career spans 50 years and who was recently inducted into the Alabama Music Hall of Fame. Other all time greats include Leon Russell whose producer Denny Cordell first referred to the sound of the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section as sounding like "swamp music." Henceforth, they were known as the "swampers" and were immortalized by Lynyrd Skynyrd in their hit Sweet Home Alabama.. Chad Driskoll has this to say about Leon Russel: "Born in Oklahoma, Russell served a tour of duty at the famous Muscle Shoals Studio in Alabama, where he soaked in the flavors of R&B, Swamp Pop, and southern Soul. As a result, Russell seems to evoke a dream South where races harmonize and the longhaired stranger is welcome at every table."
In the last decade , The Drive-By Truckers (Patterson Hood is the son of Swamper David Hood), Bettye LaVette, Jason Isbell, Sons of Roswell and a host of others have recorded in the Shoals. Wikipedia makes the following observation: "What is most unusual about the area, musically speaking, is the cross-pollination of musical styles that originated in Muscle Shoals. Black artists from the area utilized white country music styles in their work and white artists from the Shoals frequently borrowed from the blues/gospel influences of their black contemporaries, creating a generous melting pot of music."
That was then, some people might say, but what about now. The answer is, in 2010, Muscle Shoals still rules.
This week two of the hottest alternative rock bands in the United States each released a long awaited album, and both albums were at least partially recorded the Shoals. The Black Keys recorded fifteen songs in ten days for their album Brothers in the old Muscle Shoals Sound Studio on Jackson Highway in Sheffield, Alabama. The studio has been a museum since it was purchased by Noel Webster in 2000 and has not been used for recording in many years, but producer Mark Neill (a native of Valdosta, Ga) and vocalist/guitarist Dan Auerbach wanted to record at Muscle Shoals Sound. They trucked in equipment, set up a studio in the museum, and recorded what drummer Pat Carney believes is their best album yet---sparse, minimalist, and haunting---like the studio itself in the 21st century. Carney says “The record has this feeling of absolute isolation. It’s heavy. It’s dark. And I think it’s our best yet.” (photo of Muscle Shoals Sound Studio and band members Pat Carney and Dan Auerbach courtesy of John Peets, Florence Times Daily)
However, as Mark Neill is quick to point out, it is the musicians and the engineers who create the sound, but there can be no denying the sense of place that imbues the music After listening to album on NPR, I agree with Carney that Brothers is a blockbuster. I am particularly fond of "Black Mud," the band's homage to Jimi Hendrix, and the bluesy "I'm Not The One."
Band of Horses also released its brand new album Infinite Arms on May 18. A portion of the songs of this album were also recorded atFAME Studios in the Shoals. As the press release explains, "The rich musical heritage of Muscle Shoals, AL, the sublime beauty of Asheville’s Blue Ridge Mountains, the glamorous Hollywood Hills and the vast Mojave desert all influenced the sounds on Infinite Arms and helped yield the group’s most focused and dynamic recordings to date. The serene woods of Northern Minnesota and the band’s native Carolinas inspired the songwriting, lending the compositions an air of comfort and familiarity." Being both melodic and nostalgic, Infinite Arms exemplifies place in music. (Photo of band members Ben Bridwell, Creighton Barrett, Ryan Monroe, Tyler Ramsey and Bill Reynolds)
Infinite Arms is the band's third full length LP, but in a sense it is really the first true Band of Horses album. "Through touring together in support of Cease to Begin and during breaks in the Infinite Arms recording process, the band have become a cohesive force with all members making invaluable contributions to the unmistakable sound that founder [Ben] Bridwell has crafted since the band’s inception. As Bridwell himself concedes, 'in many ways, this is the first Band of Horses record.' "
Regarding their stint at FAME Studios (which will celebrate its 50th anniversary this year), Bridwell said: "Muscle Shoals and FAME in particular was an incredible experience for us. We really were blown away by all the great records that came out there. Everybody seems to have a story to tell about the rich musical history of the area and everybody seems to be a part of it to this day. There really has to be something in the water, or aligned in the stars to breed that many talented players and writers."
The Muscle Shoals sound, FAME Studios the Swampers, the great R&B musicians of the sixties and seventies, Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Rolling Stones are all part of a glorious past that is currently being chronicled in at least two documentary films. One of these films is Sweet Home Alabama: The Music of Muscle Shoals. For more about the making of this documentary see my feature Sweet Home Alabama: Movie Making and Music in Muscle Shoals. But the story of Muscle Shoals is not just about the glory days, it is an ongoing saga of music and magic as young musicians look to their roots for inspiration. Muscle Shoals is not just where it happened, it is the happening place.
Stay connected with Swampland's review section for reviews of these two fantastic new albums and for more about the artistic future of the Shoals. Swampland archives also contain a rich cache of articles on the music and musicians of the Shoals, including a soon to be published interview with Mark Neill. Meanwhile, why not be the first in your neighborhood to own a copy of both Brothers and Infinite Arms.
---by Penne J. Laubenthal