Film Title: Muscle Shoals
Director: Greg 'Freddy' Camalier
Starring: Gregg Allman, Bono, Clarence Carter, Jimmy Cliff
Running Time: 111 min
Since the 1960s, the largest city in Colbert County, Alabama, has been celebrated as the home of the Muscle Shoals Sound. That sound, a fusion of country/gospel/rock/r’n’b, isn’t easy to quantify: it’s Aretha at her funkiest, the Allman Brothers at their most countrified, The Rolling Stones at their bluesiest.
Geographically, it belongs to not one but four cities in the area: Florence (the so-called birthplace of the Blues), Muscle Shoals, Tuscumbia, and Sheffield. In terms of personnel, Muscle Shoals was forged between Rick Hall, the founder of FAME recording studios, his former house band The Swampers and more than a dozen acts who laid down seminal riffs by the banks of the Tennessee River. Bob Dylan, Wilson Pickett, Eta James were among the chosen.
In an era when most serious music consumers have access to BBC 4, one quality music documentary starts to look like every other quality music documentary. Over here, Bono talks in spirituals, suggesting a link between the river and the sound, a theory that dovetails with Cherokee legend; over there, Keith Richards plays a fond, Harry Enfield caricature of himself, in which every sentence is punctuated and punctured with a dirty laugh. “I often wonder what Exile on Main Street would have sounded like if it was recorded at Muscle Shoals”, ponders rock’s elder statesman.
That’s not intended as criticism. Similarities within the form only remind us how reliable a subgenre the music-doc has become. In this spirit, agreeable talking heads agree to print the legend. Some commentators, including Percy Sledge, understand the underlying pseudo-science of Muscle Shoals, as a quirk of studio echo. Others talk of magic, of energies, of certain places and times in rock history.
The rival studios that sprang up around the Quad Cities became Alabama’s answer to a cultural melting pot. Against a backdrop of Jim Crow and George Wallace, white musicians borrowed from r’n’b while their black counterparts looked to country. And lo, the musical miscegenation was good.