' Cinema Romantico: Muscle Shoals

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Muscle Shoals

The overriding question of director Greg Camalier’s “Muscle Shoals” is how……how did a relatively obscure town of 12,000 in the northwest corner of Alabama become such a major player in defining the sound of popular music for well for over a quarter-century? The opening of the film might suggest something mystic, Camalier’s camera surveying the lay of the land, gliding over the Tennessee River carving its way through the countryside, peering in on swamps and cotton fields. “The songs,” says famed U2 frontman Bono, “came out of the mud.”


That might sound overblown, but it might not. Consider the local native who recites the tradition of his great-great-grandmother, a Yuchi Indian, whose people believed that a young woman lived in the Tennessee River and sang songs that protected them. Alas, the Yuchis were moved off their land and all the way to Oklahoma, but there were no songs to be found. So the great-great-grandmother spent five years walking all the way back to the Tennessee River just to hear the music once again. It’s a beautiful story, and one that hints at the aura consuming the southern land where the movie is set. Perhaps it describes the Muscle Shoals Sound, or perhaps it can be described as something else.

Perhaps it can be described as the vision of Rick Hall, the mustachioed proprietor of the FAME studio, a man whose mother walked out on him and who is more than willing to concede he was driven by slights and not merely the want to make something of himself but to be the very best at what he did. He has an argument that he was, and the many immensely talented subjects interviewed stand as his witnesses.

Percy Sledge had never recorded a song until he entered Hall’s studio in Muscle Shoals and proceeded to lay down the immortal “When A Man Loves A Woman.” Aretha Franklin’s significant talent was misused at Columbia, until she signed with Atlantic, Jerry Wexler brought her to Muscle Shoals and the Queen of Soul was born. Wilson Pickett seemed suspicious of his surroundings, until he began recording and realized he was in his element and matched by Hall’s musicians. A trend emerges. These were black artists, but the Muscle Shoals backing band, The Swampers, were all-white.

If ever there was definitive proof of the absurdity of a racial barrier, it was Muscle Shoals, a few mega-talented non-descript white men uniting with Aretha to create R-E-S-P-E-C-T. No, music can’t offer a cure-all, despite the yearnings of my romantic heart, yet place musicians of different races and creeds in a studio and it all falls away. Hey, no ethnicity was prescribed to the woman in the Tennessee River singing songs.


Eventually The Swampers separate from Ron Hall, opening their own studio in Muscle Shoals. Each one garners high quality acts, though the film seems evasive about whether or not this elicited a genuine rivalry. Hall indicates initial anger, though claims later that it passes with time. I’m not so sure, and while I possess no doctorate in psychology I think it’s fairly easy to detect lingering resentment in Hall even as he tries to downplay it. But the film’s intent is not to wrestle in the mud, just to focus on the music emerging from it.

The answer to its ultimate question is never really explicitly given, rather organically forming itself in bits and pieces through the various observations from those who made the Muscle Shoals sound and those who recorded with it. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards and The Rolling Stones came to record several tracks, including “Wild Horses”, one of the few songs from the most hedonistic era of that magnificent band in which Mick doesn’t simply sneer but sings with genuine heartfelt affectations. Of the recording, Jagger says: “Muscle Shoals inspires you to do it a bit differently.”

And maybe that’s how Muscle Shoals did it. It offered an alternative, a different way of attacking the music, influenced by the area, by its pace and behavior, stirred by its mystery. Or maybe they were lured like the great-great-grandmother, by the music, by the songs emerging from those mystical waters.

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