Muscle Shoals: pretty words that evoke righteous sounds in the mind’s ear, perhaps Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” or the sinewy country rock of “Wild Horses” by the Rolling Stones. Muscle Shoals is a place that’s been celebrated on compilations (including the very new Small Town Big Sound tribute) and elucidated in an excellent documentary. But because it’s out of the way and lacks landmarks like Sun Records or the Ryman Auditorium, it’s hard to picture, an obscured geography.
How and why this humble collection of four towns hugging the Tennessee River in N. Alabama became a musical hot spot is an improbable, wonderful American story. But I grew interested in Muscle Shoals of today. More and more, roots and rock and roll musicians have been traveling there to record. A string of remarkable bands and songwriters, including Jason Isbell, John Paul White, St. Paul and the Broken Bones, Dylan LeBlanc and The Secret Sisters, has emerged from the area in recent years. A half dozen studios are in demand and busy. It’s became clear that Muscle Shoals is no museum. It’s a scene. So the only thing to do was to go there and listen.
The new episode of The String is a radio field trip to the new Muscle Shoals with a focus on the five-year-old label Single Lock Records. While a lot is happening in the area, Single Lock has become a kind of coordinating influence, a vehicle to reveal local talent to the world. Over two days in November, I met musicians, producers and entrepreneurs who are full of pride, energy and optimism about the Shoals and its role in tomorrow’s music business. Here are some highlights of the hour:
3614 Jackson Highway - A first-time visitor should get grounded in the history, so I started at the free standing studio where the rhythm section known as The Swampers set up shop from 1969 to 1978. Barry Beckett (keyboards), Roger Hawkins (drums), Jimmy Johnson (guitar) and David Hood (bass) had established themselves working for Rick Hall’s FAME Studios. They split off to control their own destiny, leasing space in a former coffin showroom. They treated it for sound with yards and yards of burlap and set about making records. I met Colin Lott, recording industry senior at University of North Alabama and tour guide who said the place doesn’t just represent the past. It’s open to the public by day and in use as a studio after hours.
“I see a living breathing studio. Just in the previous year we’ve worked with Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys. Bishop Gunn recorded their first full-length record here. Rival Sons was just here in April. And that’s just scratching the surface.”
Judy Hood, David’s wife, helped spearhead the effort to save the studio and works with the four city region to improve the conditions for further growth of the music industry.
“The community has taken more pride in the legacy than ever before I think. The municipalities have joined hands to conduct a music study. They interviewed local officials and local musicians. The fact our cities wanted to do that and paid money to do that tells you the commitment is there.”
Portside Sound at Cypress Moon Studios - The Swampers wanted to expand at Jackson Highway but the property owner wouldn’t sell. So they moved, building two studios from scratch in a Naval Reserve station on the Tennessee River two miles away. This served as Muscle Shoals Sound Studios for decades longer. The building changed hands and is now owned by Tonya Holly.
“We’re creating all the time. All the offices down this hallway, we’ve got so many up and coming (artists and songwriters) from heavy metal, country, pop, contemporary Christian. At any time of the day you can hear people recording or rehearsing in their suites.”
Her tenants include Portside Sound, a collective of engineers including Albert Rothstein, who moved to town from Philadelphia after some friends in his band had come ahead and told him the scene was dynamic.
“I saw Single Lock Records starting and my favorite bands and favorite people were involved in it. The amount of younger bands and artists around here and the talent level - it’s still mind blowing.”
Recording on the day I visited was Kevin Leigh Robinson. The task at hand was a keyboard overdub being played by Ben Tanner, who pops up later in the story. Robinson partly grew up in Muscle Shoals, launching a successful rock/pop career there in the 90s. Now he’s moved back and jazzed about how the area is changing. Studio B was one of the first places he ever made music on tape.
“It’s just a very special righteous place, and when you’re making music all those unspoken things really come through. I’d always made it a point that if I had my druthers I’d be there again, and life just mandated that it was so.”
The Nutt House - I visited with recording engineer and producer Jimmy Nutt at his studio The Nutt House, built into a bulwark of a 1950s bank in downtown Sheffield. The vault with a man-sized round door two feet thick is a highlight of the tracking room. Before setting up shop himself, Nutt was the house staff engineer at FAME Studios, where he worked with a young Jason Isbell among others.
“It’s crazy. I’ve been making a living in Muscle Shoals in the music business for 18 years. And it blows my mind. I always think is this going to end? Am I going to have to get another job? But it keeps going.”
Single Lock Records - My last stop was a house in a historic district of downtown Florence where I was welcomed by label partners Ben Tanner and Reed Watson. There was a grand piano in the front hall, a room with drums to the right, and past that, a room lined with vintage keyboards and amplifiers. This studio was assembled about a year ago. Its maiden voyage produced the gorgeous album Plays Well With Others, on which Lera Lynn wrote and recorded duets with friends and colleagues, some of them Single Lock people, like label co-owner and founder John Paul White.
Ben said the label got going as a sort of collective that reflected the inter-woven network of music makers in Muscle Shoals.
“It was really on a record by record basis that we figured it out and continue to figure it out. So it was a lot of making it up as we went.”
Reed arrived in town about eight years ago from Tuscaloosa. He’s a drummer and the label’s general manager. He says the company started as a “hyper-local project” but over the course of more than 20 releases in five years, they’ve figured out how to scale up and have widespread impact.
“We have a really great opportunity because of where we’re located to open doors. I can go anywhere in the world and say we’re from Muscle Shoals and people immediately pay attention. But there’s (also) a lot of responsibility there.”
If you’re interested in Southern music and the particular passion that comes from risk takers in the independent sector of the business, you’ll enjoy this hour of radio.