“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?”
— Lynryd Skynryd, “Sweet Home Alabama”
The Swampers were the crack house band at Rick Hall’s FAME Studios in tiny Muscle Shoals, Alabama, until they left Hall and opened their own studio down the road, called Muscle Shoals Sound Studios.
Immortalized by the most famous song about Alabama — sorry, Bob Dylan, “Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again” isn’t that famous — the interesting thing is that the Swampers weren’t the Swampers until their name surprisingly appeared in Lynryd Skynyrd’s classic song.
“We weren’t really known as the Swampers until ‘Sweet Home Alabama,’” said one of the Swampers, bass player David Hood (and father of the Drive-By Truckers’ Patterson Hood). “We were known as the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section.”
That small tidbit is just one of the many amazing facts about a small part of Alabama that became known for being the birthplace of some of the greatest songs in rock history, including “I’ll Take You There,” “Brown Sugar,” “Mustang Sally,” “Wild Horses,” “When a Man Loves a Woman,” “Kodachrome,” and not to mention the most-requested song at every drunken wedding: “Free Bird.”
And the story about those Alabama studios is finally immortalized in its own film “Muscle Shoals,” debuting at the Sundance Film Festival on Jan. 26.
Interviewees in the film who talk about the magic of the town alongside the Tennessee River — known as The Singing River by American Indians in the area — include such luminaries as Aretha Franklin, Bono, Mick Jagger, Greg Allman, Jimmy Cliff, Alicia Keys, Keith Richards, Percy Sledge, Steve Winwood, and many more.
“It’s just an area of the country that existed where there was something in the air, vibrating,” said Terence Blanchard, the famed jazz trumpet player, about Muscle Shoals.
It is first-time director and screenwriter Greg “Freddy” Camalier who brought the 106-minute documentary to Sundance. Back in 2008, he was driving from the East Coast with a friend to New Mexico when Camalier saw a road sign for Muscle Shoals. Camalier was a music fan who had heard snippets of information about the place for years, but didn’t know much about it. They decided to spend the night in Muscle Shoals, and he and his friend talked about why they had never seen a film about that small yet crucial slice of rock history.
There had been attempts to film the story of Muscle Shoals before, Hood said. The filmmakers behind the acclaimed 2002 documentary “Standing in the Shadows of Motown” had tried several years before until their financing ran out.
So Camalier was free and clear to spend the next four years of his life chronicling the history of Muscle Shoals. “It’s a great American story, musical story, and international story,” Camalier said. “I loved all of the music in this film, but didn’t know its origins.”
Now that he “feels like family down there,” Camalier is convinced, like Blanchard, that there is something in the air. “There is a spirituality to that town,” he said. “There is an energy that is there.”
Even before Hall built his studio near where he grew up to earn a living after his wife and father died, northern Alabama was known for its ties to music history. Sam Phillips, founder of Sun Records, lived in the area and listened to a radio station that merged “white” and “black” music, leading him to eventually blend the two at Sun Records with Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash. In addition, the Father of the Blues, W.C Handy, was a local boy.
But it is when Hall convinced stars to bypass Nashville, Los Angeles and New York City to record in Muscle Shoals that jump-started the legendary Muscle Shoals Sound. Hood said that he and his fellow Swampers believed they were just as good as any session musicians in other cities, and that it fueled their desire to upend others’ expectations that Alabama was a backwater. “We just worked harder,” Hall said.
“I’m very proud of what we accomplished,” Hall continued. He admitted that he still feels a thrill when he listens to satellite radio and hears songs that he played on years ago.
Camalier said the story of Muscle Shoals continues, with acts such as Carrie Underwood, The Black Keys and The Civil Wars having recorded there, and up-and-coming local band Alabama Shakes are up for three Grammy awards in February, including nominations for Best New Artist and Best Rock Performance.
“Lots of young people are coming who have the same desire I had,” Hall said. “That desire and drive is still here.”
Perhaps a sequel will be in order. Start getting that application for the 2014 Sundance Film Festival ready.
Jan. 26, 3:30 p.m., Eccles Theatre, 1750 Kearns Blvd., Park City