Sweet Soul Paradox

FAME studio mic

ON THE 2001 album Southern Rock Opera, over a thumping four-by-four beat and three roaring guitars, Drive-By Truckers front man Patterson Hood sang a song about “the duality of the Southern thing,” which he identified as equal parts “glory” and “shame.”

That pretty much sums up the paradox of a place like Hood’s native Alabama, where they celebrate the birthdays of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert E. Lee on the same day. But up in the northwest corner of Alabama there stands a monument to the South’s unalloyed glory—the FAME recording studio in Muscle Shoals.

Beginning in the late 1950s, when segregation was still the law throughout the former Confederacy, at FAME black and white Southerners worked as partners, side by side, to make the sweet soul music that would help change the world. Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman,” Aretha Franklin’s “I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You,” Wilson Pickett’s “Land of 1,000 Dances” and “Mustang Sally”—they were all recorded in Muscle Shoals within a two-year period in the mid-1960s.

And most of the musicians on all those deeply funky recordings were white Alabamans. The bass player, David Hood, was the father of the Truckers’ Patterson Hood.

That’s the story told in Greg “Freddy” Camalier’s film Muscle Shoals, premiering on the PBS series “Independent Lens” on April 21. The film features FAME founder Rick Hall, the FAME rhythm section of Roger Hawkins, Barry Beckett, Jimmy Johnson, and Hood (the boys Lynyrd Skynyrd dubbed “The Swampers”), and some of the artists who came to work with them—Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Percy Sledge, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, and others. Musicians of more recent vintage testify to the abiding influence of the Muscle Shoals sound—such as Bono, Alicia Keys, and John Paul White, a local boy who found fame with The Civil Wars. And it’s all shot against the backdrop of the Muscle Shoals area’s wooded hills, lowland cotton fields, and, most of all, the magnificent Tennessee River upon which the life of the region still depends.

As Camalier’s telling of the story makes plain, the glory of FAME had its roots in the deep shame of rural Southern poverty. Rick Hall grew up in northwest Alabama’s Freedom Hills, the southernmost outpost of Appalachia (and of hill country opposition to the Confederate cause), sleeping on a straw mattress in a house with a dirt floor. “We just kind of grew up like animals,” he says in the film. “It made me bitter and driven.”

Hall’s life story is one of unrelenting tragedy. After his 4-year-old brother was accidentally scalded to death, Hall’s mother abandoned the family and took up a life of prostitution. This left a psychic wound that Hall admits has never healed. In 1955, an oncoming car forced Hall off a local highway. The car flipped and his young bride died. Two weeks later Hall’s father died when he was trapped beneath the tractor his son had recently bought him. But out of all this came both Hall’s drive to “be somebody” and a deep, uncanny ability to empathize with the African-American artists he recorded.

As the film recounts, in 1969 The Swampers left FAME and started a rival studio. But Hall hired a new biracial staff and carried on. After that, little Muscle Shoals (population then 8,000) was home to two wildly successful international recording centers. At the end of Camalier’s film, Rick Hall and The Swampers are reunited, at FAME, to cut a session with Alicia Keys.

It’s an appropriate ending since reconciliation was always what the Muscle Shoals sound was all about. 

Danny Duncan Collum teaches writing at Kentucky State University. He is the author of the novel White Boy.

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