Watch the Tunes: Muscle Shoals

On April 29, 2016

There is an absurdly vast selection of music movies and documentaries available on Netflix, Hulu, HBO Go, and on and on and on. But it’s hard to tell which ones are actually worth your 100 minutes. Watch the Tunes will help you pick what music doc is worth your Netflix and Chill time every weekend. This week’s edition covers Muscle Shoals, which is streaming over at Netflix.

As a southern boy born and raised in North Carolina I can directly attest to the fact that there’s an undeniably mystical power to be found in the lands that lie below the Mason–Dixon line. The mountains are old, there’s a naturally lazy rhythm to life, and the food is made with real lard (accept no substitutes). The rivers though, that’s where the real energy flows out of if you ask me. Not far from the banks of the Mississippi is where you find Sun Records and Ardent Recording Studio in Memphis, the crossroads where Robert Johnson sold his soul, and literally everything that ever came out of New Orleans. Music can flourish and sprout everywhere, but there’s something about red clay down there that’s just so aggressively fertile for bringing out the best in a musician.

It might not be the Mississippi, but Colbert County, Alabama sits right along the southern side of the Tennessee River, which is arguably the rushing and propulsive geographical feature that powers the hitmaking machine that is the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section. In his film Muscle Shoals, which documents the rhythm section, Greg 'Freddy' Camalier makes that apparent early and often. The group, made up of some of the most famous session musicians ever assembled, was affectionately known as The Swampers. They got their start at Rick Hall’s FAME Studios but eventually struck out on their own and started Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in Sheffield, Alabama.

There’s a whole lot of plot and other ephemera crammed into this film, and it more than validates its almost two hour run-time. The title is vague enough to cover so many aspects of this soulful little nexus of southern music. We get a look at the city of Muscle Shoals, the group of musicians who make up the rhythm section, and the studio itself, all in relatively equal measures. There’s a huge chunk of the film, doled out in dribs and drabs, that’s dedicated to covering the musicians who eventually would conflate all three of those elements into the Muscle Shoals mecca worth trekking towards in order to find some kind of new inspiration. It’s such a huge part of the film that for as dixie fried as the resulting sounds might have been, the first three faces you see on screen are Bono, Steve Winwood, and Keith Richards. For all the musical tourism though to wander into either FAME or Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, the real heart and soul of the place seems to be in who they either discovered or had a part in breaking wide open.

There are pointedly extended sections examining Aretha Franklin, Etta James, Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, and Clarence Carter, each of whom had career-altering moments thanks to recording in Muscle Shoals with The Swampers. It’s in these county lines that Duane Allman invented southern rock, “Freebird” was recorded, and where Percy Sledge laid down “When a Man Loves a Woman.” All said and done, The Swampers were the musicians on 75 gold and platinum hits, as well as untold numbers of other tracks that slipped through the cracks.

In the same way that bagels made in New York just taste better, there really is something in the water down south, and The Swampers, along with Rick Hall who ran FAME Studios, just pulled the greatness from each and every person who they came into contact with in those recording sessions, and Muscle Shoals does an admirable job telling the complex story of how it all came to be.

Profile Picture of Chris Lay
Chris Lay

Chris Lay is a freelance writer, archivist, and record store clerk living in Madison, WI. The very first CD he bought for himself was the Dumb & Dumber soundtrack when he was twelve and things only got better from there.

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