“Now Muscle Shoals has got the Swampers, and they’ve been known to pick a song or two. Lord they get me off so much, they pick me up when I’m feeling blue. Now how about you?” So sang Lynyrd Skynyrd in ‘Sweet Home Alabama’, a song which has been the soundtrack to my weekend thanks to a beautiful film about “a small town with a big sound” – Muscle Shoals.
With a cackling contribution from Keith Richards, amidst a host of other reminiscing stars from Percy Sledge, to Aretha Franklin, Mick Jagger, Eta James, Greg Allman, and Alicia Keys, even Bono’s presence can’t dim the light of this gem of a film. Nor can it detract from the true stars of the show – Rick Hall, whose FAME studios established Muscle Shoals, a little town on the Tennessee River, as a centre of the recording universe in the late sixties and early seventies, and his former house band, the Swampers, who went on to create their own equally essential studio across the road at 3614 Jackson Highway.
Hall comes across sympathetically, as a rather damaged genius driven to succeed by growing up in poverty and the early rejection of his mother, but ultimately as someone who just loves great music. The Swampers retain the aura of people who just can’t believe their luck – having spent a life playing on many of the greatest recordings of the last fifty years, all without having to leave the little town where they were born.
The only thing I knew about Muscle Shoals before seeing the film is that it was where the Rolling Stones recorded most of Sticky Fingers, including ‘Wild Horses’ and ‘Brown Sugar’. Now I realise the list of great music that came out of this place is almost endless. I will leave it to the reader and t’interweb to do the research, but to get you started the current Jeb’s Jukebox hit (a regular feature on my favourite website, Caught By the River,) is a lost Muscle Shoals classic – Jimmy Gray Hall’s ‘Be That Way’. Pure aural pleasure.