According to the native Yuchi people, the Tennessee river (or in their language The Singing River) is home to the Singing Woman, whose songs contain the wisdom to answer all of life’s questions. Sitting alongside the Tennessee River, Muscle Shoals seems to have absorbed that spirit as a disproportionately vast number of seminal recordings have taken place in this tiny town. Artists as diverse and varied as the Rolling Stones, Steve Winwood, Aretha Franklin, and Jimmy Cliff have come, and all recorded career-defining hits.
Muscle Shoals follows the stories of Rick Hall – the founder of Muscle Shoals’ original FAME recording studio, and The Swampers – the backing band he put together, who defined the “Muscle Shoals sound” and went on to form their own successful studio (also, called Muscle Shoals Sound).
Hall’s story is fascinating. Despite crushing poverty and an utterly staggering level of personal tragedy, he managed to put together a studio that recorded primarily black acts with a largely white backing band during the racially-hostile early 60s in Alabama. Using a number of innovative technical tricks (and almost preternaturally good taste in studio musicians) to compensate for a lack of space and resources, he also managed to create a striking signature sound which rapidly became highly sought after around the world.
The Swampers’ story is similarly interesting. Mostly picked out as teenagers by Rick Hall to form the core of his FAME backing band, they grew together into a musical unit. Starting with fairly basic skills, they evolved a raw-yet-disciplined signature groove, which became a vital component of many of FAME (and eventually Muscle Shoals Sound’s) best-known recordings.
These characters and stories alone would make Muscle Shoals worth the watch for a music fan, but the film is also packed with interviews from artists who have used the studios to make some of their best-regarded recordings, and rare live and in-studio footage of artists like Aretha Franklin, Etta James and Wilson Pickett working with the Swampers. There are also extended interviews with many of the artists and extra live footage in the special features.
This is a fascinating look at a seminal piece of American music history, and I can guarantee that you’ll know more of the songs than your expect to. Highly recommended.
- Director’s commentary
- Extended interviews with Jimmy Johnson, Spooner oldham, Candi Stanton and Donnie Fritts
- Harvey Thompson live performance
- Rick Hall’s reunion with The Swampers
Muscle Shoas is available on R4 DVD from Madman.