That Muscle Shoals Sound

Nick said everything necessary about “It’ll Get You There” in his last post, all of which I’ll endorse. But let me add one thing: Willful or not, it’s an answer record to the Staple Singers’ “I’ll Take You There”. The Staples do a call-and-response that Rilo Kiley can’t pull off, but structurally the songs are awful similar, volleying evocative abstracts (“No smilin’ faces”, “All the hostages you take”) back and forth with their respective titles. Yet the differences are telling. Neither song shows its cards, neither explicates, both hedge their bets. The Staples are guardedly carnal in their messianic gospelism, Jenny Lewis and RK see distressed but informed capitulation as a world-weary path to a different salvation. Both kill.

“It’ll Get You There” and “I’ll Take You There” go their own ways musically, but they embrace their period’s archetypes perfectly. RK create a pop version of the swelling chaotic ether-binge miasma that Sonic Youth nailed, luxuriously crescendoing in contrast to the stop-start herky jerky of SY’s offspring, the Pixies and Nirvana. Both of whom drew their tension, let it be told, from songs like “I’ll Take You There”, with its funky spaces, its interrupted momentum, it’s gospel sonority, and its handclapping pop glory. Nirvana and the Pixies and Sonic Youth and “It’ll Get You There” speak to a world populated by mostly white post-teens struggling with urban alienation and economic disparities that, through music, shares a nuanced brother/sisterhood— minus the brutal historical oppression of course— with the reticent optimism in post-Civil Rights-era African American culture. It’s a truism because it’s true—the great intersections of black and white American culture are music and sports, to this day.

 “I’ll Take You There”, like so many other soul records in the sixties and early seventies outside the James Brown-Sly Stone-P-Funk axis, comes from the formula of singers in front of a studio band: Think Motown and Stax and, later, Philly Soul as the majority position. But “I’ll Take You There” was recorded in Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in 1971, with forgotten wastrel Eddie Hinton playing lead guitar and David Hood (Patterson’s dad) laying down the unforgettable staccato bass line, along with the rest of the Swampers, the great backing band who anchor the outstanding, newly issued documentary “Muscle Shoals”. In other words, white guys.

Directed by Freddy Camalier in what amounts to his first big gig, “Muscle Shoals” takes its time (this is Alabama after all) to explain how one little town of no great distinction near the Tennessee border became a literal musical Mecca and a figurative MLK dream— the Shoals are just up the road from Selma, after all. And the primacy of Muscle Shoals in both of these domains really is an enigma— up until then, almost every great musical city (think New Orleans, think Memphis, Chicago, Detroit, heck even Liverpool) was both a cultural waystation and a metropolis. Muscle Shoals is neither. The genius of the tale-telling in “Muscle Shoals” is that none of the interviewees seems to get the whole picture of how this came to be (although Wicked Wilson Pickett comes the closest), and yet the entire story is told nonetheless.

And let’s go ahead and say it, the content of the curiously Brit-loaded high-brow voice-overs stands in stark contrast to the reality of why Fame Studio and Muscle Shoals Sound Studio gave us so much great music. Bono can go on and on saying ridiculous stuff about the music coming out of the mud of the Tennessee River, but fortunately it’s the Glimmer Twins bringing us back to earth, Keith emphasizing the acoustics of the studio where they recorded “Brown Sugar” and “Wild Horses” (imagine if the Stones had followed up Exile on Main Street with a full album done at Muscle Shoals Sound—- Goat’s Head wha?), and Mick gets down to the nut of it—the leadership and the inspiration. 

For the secret of Muscle Shoals has nothing to do with swamps or hoodoo or things that go bump in the night. It’s Rick Hall. I’ll leave the movie to explain to you how tragedy drove Hall to popularize black music in the 60s—moreso than any entrepreneur not named Barry Gordy, and arguably from a higher moral ground. I give Hall the moral high ground for truncating a chunk of his legacy going mano a mano with Aretha Franklin’s first husband for generally disrespectful behavior toward the Queen of Soul—which triggered a chain of events leading to Jerry Wexler’s ultimate betrayal of Hall—and I say arguably because the one topic not addressed in this otherwise authoritative documentary is how well the black musicians who brought a live wire to the pop and R&B charts actually got compensated.

I didn’t even have time to tell you about all the music made in Muscle Shoals that you probably don’t know about (it’s a crazy-long list that some album-flipping toward the end of the documentary only hints at). And the cinematography of “Muscle Shoals” is georgeous like “Lawrence of Arabia”. Did I tell you that Camalier donated his proceeds to the people? Take that Ken Burns. And the Alicia Keys finale, of Dylan’s “Pressing On”— worth the price of admission on it’s own, we live for these moments.