My word processor is unhappy with me for apparently coining the term “marvelousness,” but in the Revised Turner Edition of my own personal dictionary, “marvelousness” is defined as “what you get when you go past, and continue to stay in the place of something that is genuinely marvelous.” That definition more than aptly applies to a documentary entitled, simply, Muscle Shoals.
The movie is an engaging, beautifully filmed piece about the history of two recording studios located in the Shoals: Fame Studio and Muscle Shoals Sound. On any number of levels, what came out of there, and what was known as the “Muscle Shoals Sound” could only be deemed properly by the use of the word “remarkable.” I could take up the rest of the space allotted for this column by just listing the recording artists that walked through their doors, but I will hit the highlights for the purpose of underscoring what kind of world changers we have in our back door. However, Clarence Carter, the artist who recorded the hit song “Patches,” summed it up best when he said, “Each time a person went to Muscle Shoals, they came out of there with a hit.” That included Aretha Franklin, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Wilson Pickett, Willie Nelson, Joan Baez, Percy Sledge, Jimmy Buffet, Simon and Garfunkel, the Rolling Stones, and the iconic Bob Dylan, for starters.
First, let’s talk about Rick Hall, the founder of Fame Studio, and the Swampers, the studio band that broke every type of racial, musical, stylistic and educational barrier that could possibly exist in the music recording industry. Rick, and the founding members of the Swampers, Barry Beckett, Roger Hawkins, David Hood, and Jimmy Johnson, and others, were somehow riding the wave of what was a sociological and technological revolution, without the slightest awareness of doing anything besides making amazing music. Some were dirt poor local boys, Rick having grown up in a place with no electricity or indoor plumbing. They had little to no formal musical training, and let’s just say that back in that day there were no Calhoun College degrees in recording technology available.
But there was something so much more poignant that occurred there than just cranking out astounding hit records at the rate of around 50 per year, and ones that have endured through the decades. It was the inarguable power of reconciliation and healing that is inherent in music. It was the ‘60s, and Alabama Governor George Wallace was standing in the door of UA Tuscaloosa symbolically blocking the entrance of college students of African descent, and spouting the embarrassing, “segregation today, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever” speech that was part of his Inaugural Address in 1963.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, no one believed that Aretha Franklin’s studio band, (i.e., The Swampers) that recorded her breakout hit “I Ain’t Never Loved A Man,” could have that much soul, let alone be white. Paul Simon wanted “those same black players,” and was told “That can happen, but these guys are mighty pale.” No one on any level paid any attention to skin color in that bubble of the recording studio, while madness was all about, virtually outside the doors.
I think of how the Bible tells of David chasing away evil spirits of insanity and jealousy from King Saul through his music, and it makes me wonder, as we seem to become more and more polarized, is it time for a new wave of groundbreaking music, and, could it happen again near the banks of the Tennessee? Stranger things have certainly happened, and God is able to do wonders with the jawbone of an ass.
Muscle Shoals is Oscar worthy, mesmerizing, and it even makes kudzu look beautiful. It is playing in Florence at the Regency 12, can be downloaded on ITunes and various on demand services, and worth seeing more than once. I dare you to not break out into “Sweet Home Alabama” with the rest of the viewers, and you’ll leave proud that you live in Alabama the Beautiful.
By: Ali Elizabeth Turner