Muscle Shoals is a 2013 documentary about a legendary recording studio in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, way up in the northwest corner of that state, a 150-mile drive from Memphis, Tennessee. Actually, it’s a documentary about two legendary recording studios in that little city — FAME Recording Studios, established in 1959, and Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, whose owners and house musicians broke away from FAME in 1969 to start their own business.
FAME Recording Studios was co-founded by Rick Hall, who soon took over sole ownership. A serious and driven man, Hall was raised in abject poverty in adjacent Franklin County and has survived several devastating traumas over the course of his life. Thanks to Hall’s dogged determination and canny skills, Muscle Shoals quickly became a music Mecca, turning out hit records like Arthur Alexander’s “You Better Move On,” Jimmy Hughes’ “Steal Away,” and “When A Man Loves A Woman,” by Percy Sledge. Pretty soon Atlantic Records wizard Jerry Wexler was bringing Aretha Franklin and Wilson Picket there to record.
Key to the success of these records were the FAME Studios session musicians — the “Muscle Shoals Horns” and the “Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section,” a.k.a. “The Swampers.” They were a bunch of unknown white guys, many of whom became legends themselves, like organist Spooner Oldham, bassist David Hood, guitarist/producer Jimmy Johnson, drummer Roger Hawkins, and keyboardist Barry Beckett.
The last four of these are the guys who split to start Muscle Shoals Sound Studio a couple of miles away in 1969. They had enormous success as well, recording Cher, Boz Scaggs, The Rolling Stones, The Staple Singers, Paul Simon, Bob Seger, Bob Dylan, and many more — including Lynyrd Skynyrd, who immortalized The Swampers in the lyrics of “Sweet Home Alabama.”
As a documentary, Muscle Shoals — directed by first-time filmmaker Greg “Freddy” Camalier — feels like a bit of a patchwork. There are artistic shots of the local environment, and a nod to the area’s significance to Native American history via Tom Hendrix and his commemorative stone wall. There is artistic footage of Rick Hall as well, as he drives his truck and tells his tragic stories. There are interviews with music stars like Keith Richards, Aretha Franklin, and Percy Sledge, among others, which often have the interviewee seated in a lone chair in the midst of a large room. And there is some amazing historic footage from inside the studios in the 60s and 70s. (The Rolling Stones’ portion has been recycled from the 1970 documentary Gimme Shelter.)
Some of the material here could have been trimmed away. The film could use more shots of the studios’ interiors and exteriors over the years, and less about the mystical powers of the area’s river and mud — particularly the interview segments with U2 frontman Bono, whose nebulous babble is included for no clear reason. There’s a point about 12 minutes before the movie’s end when about 30 big name artists are rattled off in a quick succession of photos and album covers, as if time for them has run out. It would be nice to hear more about those sessions.
Still, Muscle Shoals has many outstanding moments. There’s the story of Aretha Franklin’s husband getting into a squabble with one of the FAME horn players, and Hall trying to rectify things after some drinks. There’s the magical story of southern rock being suddenly born during Wilson Pickett’s recording of “Hey Jude” with a session guitarist named Duane Allman. There’s Duane’s brother Gregg Allman explaining how a bottle of Coricidin and Taj Mahal’s first album repaired their relationship and sparked a musical revelation. There’s Percy Sledge giving us goosebumps when talks about just singing the same melody he had wailed in the cotton fields. There’s the tale of a roadie named Billy Powell who, during a break, adds a piano part to a song called “Free Bird” and is immediately asked to join Lynyrd Skynyrd
If you love music, Muscle Shoals is an entertaining hour and 51 minutes. Rick Hall is a formidable personality, and this movie fills in a good deal of essential background to one of the holy places of rhythm and blues, rock and roll, southern rock, and more.