Walking, Strumming and Singing in the Footsteps of History
Poor Alabama. So often overlooked by Canadian travellers in their rush for the sun and sand of the Gulf coast. After a few days here, it was clear to us that Alabama had something special; something that other destinations could not possibly match.
By Josephine Matyas & Craig Jones
Alabama is a place where history was actually made. Across the state, battles were fought in the Civil Rights movement of the turbulent 1950s and 60s. The outcomes shaped the course of American history. And, in the northwest corner of Alabama, in the foothills of the Cumberland Plateau known as the Shoals, musical history was created.
Music flowed from the Shoals’ unassuming sound studios, though it seems unlikely that so much creative mojo could have come from this speck on the map. The Shoals were the workplace of Sam Phillips, the genius behind Sun Records and the man who developed the talent of Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison and Jerry Lee Lewis. It was the birthplace of The Father of the Blues, W.C. Handy. Music happened here.
“It’s the way the parts are interlocked,” explains Ben Tanner, a former studio tech at FAME and keyboardist with the Grammy-nominated band Alabama Shakes. “There’s a feel to the way these guys played together that translated into hits. People wanted a part of that experience; they wanted to make their music here.”
And make music, they did. The Shoals’ recording studios were favourites for A-list talent including Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Paul Simon, Willie Nelson, The Rolling Stones, Percy Sledge and Aretha Franklin, among others.
Talent may have streamed in from out of state, but it’s the home artists that are celebrated at the archive-stuffed Alabama Music Hall of Fame. Hank Williams, Nat King Cole, Wilson Pickett, Emmylou Harris and Lionel Ritchie are all natives of Alabama. In The Shoals they half-jokingly speculate: “there must be something in the water.”
“The talent pool is wide and deep here,” understates the museum’s curator Dick Cooper, pointing at dozens of inductees on the Hall of Fame wall.
The tour of FAME Recording Studios touches hallowed ground for fans of the sounds that rolled out of the 1960s and 70s. The understated property has been under the steerage of musical titan Rick Hall since 1959. His story and the story of the Shoals have come to the big screen in the Sundance-acclaimed documentary Muscle Shoals.
Aretha Franklin, Etta James, Dwayne Allman, Wilson Pickett, Clarence Carter and countless others all stepped up to the microphones in FAME’s Studio A. Much of the setup and equipment remains the same – the floor space is dominated by the grand piano that’s been there since the 1970s.
In 1969, The Swampers and Rick Hall parted ways and the group of funky-sounding musicians established their own small shop, Muscle Shoals Sound at 3614 Jefferson Highway. Bob Seger came to town to record his hit Old Time Rock & Roll and there were suddenly two powerhouse studios in a very small corner of the state.
Some of the most enduring music of our generation came from oft-overlooked Alabama.
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