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?
— Lynyrd Skynyrd, "Sweet Home Alabama"
The Swampers were the crack house band at Rick Hall’s FAME Studios in tiny Muscle Shoals, Ala., until they left Hall and opened their own studio down the road, called Muscle Shoals Sound.
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 band didn’t take on that name until it was name-checked in Lynyrd Skynyrd’s classic song.
"We weren’t really known as the Swampers until ‘Sweet Home Alabama,’ " said bass player David Hood (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 corner of Alabama that’s noted 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" and "Kodachrome." Topping the list: "Freebird," the most-requested song at every drunken wedding.
The place is immortalized in the documentary "Muscle Shoals," debuting at the Sundance Film Festival on Saturday.
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 luminaries such as Aretha Franklin, Bono, Mick Jagger, Gregg Allman, Jimmy Cliff, Alicia Keys, Keith Richards, Percy Sledge and Steve Winwood.
"It’s just an area of the country that existed where there was something in the air, vibrating," said jazz trumpet player Terence Blanchard about Muscle Shoals.
First-time director and screenwriter Greg "Freddy" Camalier brought the 106-minute documentary to Sundance. Back in 2008, he was driving from the East Coast to New Mexico with a friend when Camalier saw a road sign for Muscle Shoals. Camalier was a music fan who had heard bits 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 music 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 worked on a project until their financing ran out.
So Camalier spent four years chronicling the musical history of Muscle Shoals. "It’s a great American story, musical story and international story," he 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’s something in the air. "There is a spirituality to that town," he said. "There is an energy that is there."
In the 1950s, Hall built FAME studios — Florence Alabama Music Enterprises — near where he grew up, aiming to earn a living after his wife and father died. But even before that, northern Alabama was noted in 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.
When Hall persuaded 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. That ambition fueled their desire to upend others’ expectations that Alabama was a musical backwater. "We just worked harder," Hall said.
He added: "I’m very proud of what we accomplished. 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. Acts such as Carrie Underwood, The Black Keys and The Civil Wars have recorded there, as has the up-and-coming local band Alabama Shakes, which was nominated for three Grammy Awards including 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."
‘Muscle Shoals’ premiere
When • Saturday, Jan. 26, 3:30 p.m.
Where • Eccles Theatre, 1750 Kearns Blvd., Park City
— David Burger
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