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The Muscle Shoals Documentary: A Tale of Two Studios, One Sound

Posted by Kelly S. Osato, October 17, 2013 03:50pm | Post a Comment
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From Dave Grohl's Sound City to 20 Feet From Stardom there have been some really great music-related documentary films released recently, perhaps none so overwhelmingly transcendental as the story of a reliable hit-maker and an iconic sound rooted in a sleepy corner of Alabama called Muscle Shoals
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Between providing the most literal rendering of "I'll Take You There" and dabbling in discovering the metaphysical origins of what has come to be lauded as the "Muscle Shoals sound," Muscle Shoals blends reflective interviews of those who lived and tracked the music, bolstered by snippets and loops of the iconic sound itself, with layers of pastoral vistas and rustic rural vignettes of the surrounding countryside, playing like a gorgeous cinematographic back-mask. Combined with the fleeting highs and the tragic lows experienced by musician, songwriter and Fame Studios producer Rick Hall, his session players, The Swampers (who would later found a similarly nondescript recording studio across town in a former casket factory), among others still living in the glory of the Muscle Shoals nexus, the film also depicts the triumph of a phenomenon bigger than anyone can fully understand nowadays: the earthly crossroads of soul, country, funk and rock and roll at a time when "separate but equal" was the order of the day. 



Along with the release of the official companion soundtrack to the film, here are a list of other Muscle Shoals related goodies that'll surely satisfy those who, like me, just can't get enough of that sound:  

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Various Artists - Hall Of Fame: Rare and Unissued Gems from the Fame Vaults, Vols. 1 & 2

These two collections are simply a must-have for both hard core scholars and casual enthusiasts of the Southern Soul sound. Featuring the a spectrum of captured tracks that have slipped through the cracks with the passage of time there are plenty of diamonds in the rough featured within both of these selections, the most intriguing of which are credited to an "unknown male" or unknown female." If you already have these sweet babies I'm going to assume you also have this:
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Various Artists - The Fame Studios Story - 1961-1973

Three discs, 75 tracks, fab color booklet housed neatly in a sleek box -- every bit of this nugget focused on the famed Alabama recording studio with special attention paid to those artists associated with the Fame label. All funky inclusions aside (The Osmonds?!) this, like the two above releases, only serves as a testament to the power house that is the Ace/Kent crack reissue dream team. 

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Various Artists - The Muscle Shoals Sound 

This 18-track Rhino comp is a great place to start. It offers a nice and neat cross section of the patent Muscle Shoals sound, kicking off with crucial early hits that solidified the region as hit-maker central, like Arthur Alexander's "You Better Move On," Jimmy Hughes' "Steal Away" and Percy Sledge's "When A Man Loves A Woman." It moves along chronologically, hit after hit, and includes what is referred to in the film as the very first Southern Rock song ("Hey Jude" performed by Wilson Pickett and Duane Allman) as well as Rick Hall's autobiographical song "Patches" as performed by Clarence Carter. Now out of print, used copies come in now and again. 

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Lynyrd Skynyrd - Skynyrd's First: The Complete Muscle Shoals Album

Speaking of Southern Rock, the one and only Lynyrd Skynyrd cut a heck of a lot of tracks at the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in 1971 and 1972 with the intention of releasing it as their debut, only to see it shelved indefinitely. Nineof these tracks would later be released as Skynyrd's first posthumous album, Skynyrd's First and...Last,  in 1978 (following the tragic plane crash that killed six of the thirteen souls on board, including three band members). The remaining unreleased recordings restored and expanded for this re-release in 1998 thus becoming an essential album in the Skynyrd oeuvre. 

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Cher- 3614 Jackson Highway

Now, I have to say I was a little miffed at how this record was briefly mentioned yet totally dismissed by the Muscle Shoals doc as a flop. Sure, it isn't a great record, especially considering the consistently amazing body of song flowing out of the area at the time. But who cares that this is essentially a collection of Cher's freedom rock covers recorded in 1969? The funky wonders woven by The Swampers on this record make digging into this slice of refried gold worth the trouble (especially if you can get your paws on the 23-track 2001 reissue). Faves include a surprisingly great rendition of Stephen Stills' "For What It's Worth" and a funky take Dr. John's "I Walk On Guilded Splinters." 

Cher - "I Walk On Guilded Splinters"
 

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Etta James - Tell Mama: The Complete Muscle Shoals Sessions

For me, one of the most memorable moments in Muscle Shoals was the footage and recollections of pertaining to Etta James' recording sessions. This is because I find it interesting the way many of those who recount their impressions of working with her in the studio paint the lady as something of a wild thing, an untamed filly in need of wrangling. Perhaps I am doting too much on sentiments I imagine to be restrained or unexpressed during those interviews, but this aural account -- the remains of those studio collaborations -- is everything a testament to the lady's vivacity nonetheless.

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Various Artists - A Road Leading Home: Songs by Dan Penn 

Spanning nearly fifty years of songwriting, this collection of classic soul songs penned by Dan Penn, including "You Left the Water Running" and "Do Right Woman - Do Right Man," features some lesser known recordings of songs from Dan's golden era. Doubtless the Muscle Shoals beacon would not shine as bright without the genius of Penn, not to mention the skills of his frequent collaborator, Swampers organist Spooner Oldham (a collection of their dual efforts can be found in Ace's Sweet Inspiration comp), as captured in the Muscle Shoals doc. This is the second Penn collection offered by Ace, the first being Dan Penn: The Fame Recordings


I could go on and on, but the journey is half the fun. Let the music take you there. 

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Film (77), Documentary (23), Fame (3), Muscle Shoals (2), Soul (30), Southern (1), Rock (22), Rick Hall (1), Alabama (1)