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Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Sean Kelly

Hot Docs 2013: My Thoughts on Muscle Shoals

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It might be just a coincidence, but we seem to be getting a lot of “studio nostalgia” documentaries these days.  It was earlier this year when Dave Grohl released the documentary Sound City, about the classic rock studio.  Now we have Muscle Shoals, which is about a town in Alabama, which is home to FAME Studios, run by Rick Hall.  In this studio, with his house band “The Swampers,” Rick Hall developed what would become known as the “Muscle Shoals sound,” which included the soulful R&B songs from the likes of Percy Sledge, Wilson Pickett, and Aretha Franklin.

FAME Studios is also known for being a place where segregation did not exist.  While the rest of Alabama remained heavily racist, black and white artists recorded together in harmony.  In fact, many of the black artists who came to record at FAME Studios were surprised the find that the soulful sounds of The Swampers were created by a group of white men.  With the help of guitarist Duane Allman (later of The Allman Brothers), the Muscle Shoals sound developed into Southern Rock.  The Swampers eventually left FAME to form “Muscle Shoals Sound Studios,” which recorded songs from the likes of The Rolling Stones and Lynyrd Skynyrd, who reference Muscle Shoals and The Swampers in their song “Sweet Home Alabama.”

The best thing about these “music nostalgia” documentaries is learning all the great songs that were recorded at either one of the two studios featured in the film.  These songs include “When a Man Loves a Woman” by Percy Sledge, “Respect” by Aretha Franklin, and “Wild Horses” by The Rolling Stones.  Without a doubt, Muscle Shoals has a very firm place in music history.  Of course, the films also emphasizes the “magic” of the Muscle Shoals sound, which is something you can feel deep down in your stomach.  The film features a lot of natures shots of the Muscle Shoals area and seems to be suggesting that the area itself affects the music.  This perhaps has to do with the Native legend of the “Singing River” in the area, in which you can “hear the river’s songs.”

Muscle Shoals also focuses heavily on the life of Rick Hall, who was unfortunate enough to have a number of people close to him die tragic deaths, including his wife, brother, and father.  These tragedies went on to influence the songs he produced, particular the song “Patches” by Clarence Carter.  Hall also felt a bit betrayed when The Swampers lefts to create their own competing studio.  However, Rick Hall is still seen as the mentor of the Muscle Shoals sound and the film ends with The Swampers returning to FAME Studios to record with Alicia Keys.

Overall, while I can probably give or take the supposed magic of the Muscle Shoals area, I thought that the area still has a very firm place in music history and that Muscle Shoals quite competently told its story.

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Sean Kelly

About Sean Kelly -

Sean Patrick Kelly is a self-described ├╝ber-geek, who has been an avid film lover for all his life. He graduated from York University in 2010 with an honours B.A. in Cinema and Media Studies and he likes to believe he knows what he’s talking about when he writes about film (despite occasionally going on pointless rants).