May 12, 2014

Muscle Shoals

Greg "Freddy" Camalier, 2013
Nestled just south of the Tennessee River in Northwest Alabama lies the small city of Muscle Shoals. Population 12,000, it's a working class town decorated with green hills and sunflower fields. But there's something magical that exists there. Something inexplicable. The unassuming Muscle Shoals has been the recording home of some of the most influential music ever put on tape. Rolling Stones' Wild Horses. The Staple Singers I'll Take You There. Wilson Pickett's incredible rendition of Hey Jude (encouraged by Duane Allman). Tell Mama by Etta James. When a Man Loves a Woman by Percy Sledge. At first glance, Muscle Shoals surely wouldn't reveal itself to be such a recording mecca. But there is an ethereal quality to the area. Some would say it's an energy, a certain essence that remains from the days that the area was inhabited by Native Americans. Descendants of the original settlers say they still hear voices singing above the surface of the water.

Camalier's comprehensive doc does a great job of showing all of the various facets of the musical culture that was present in Muscle Shoals. People started hearing some of the music coming out of the area, and there was a certain buzz that was created where musicians from all over wanted to record with the soulful black studio musicians who were considered to the pioneers of the Muscle Shoal Sound. Much to everyone's surprise they turned out to be white men. This element certainly brought up the racial issues surrounding the area at that particular point in American history. The film is enlightening in pointing out the importance of music at that point in time, due to the fact that the artists pressed on the wax were without color. It appealed to everyone. It transcended the racial bigotry.

The doc is filled with interviews with the very people who experienced it all. But it also is filled with some amazing stock footage and photography. The first hand accounts from Keith Richards and Mick Jagger of their experiences are enticing enough, but then to go on to be treated with old footage of the late Ronnie Van Zandt singing Free Bird in the early days is just the cherry on top. There's a certain nostalgia in their eyes. When Richards admits to always wondering what their non-Shoals songs would have sounded like had they been recorded there reinforces the impact of the Alabama studio.

Muscle Shoals is like David Grohl's 2013 documentary Sound City but more meaningful, more sentimental. It's a piece containing stories of regret, longing, reflection, and importance. Maybe none of us were there to experience any of it directly, but at some point a piece of it has been in all of our ears. 

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