MARY REICHARD, HOST: Today is Friday, August 24th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day.
Good morning. I’m Mary Reichard.
NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher.
Coming next on The World and Everything in It: Megan Basham reviews Muscle Shoals. It’s a 2013 documentary about a small town where some of the world’s best music was born.
MEGAN BASHAM, FILM CRITIC: With all of the tributes being paid to the legacy of Aretha Franklin, it’s a good time to take look at an excellent 2013 documentary that explores the tiny Southern town that helped the Queen of Soul find her sound.
AUDIO: You just have to listen and he will be transported, you will be changed. You’re going to hear some of the greatest voices that ever were.
That’s Bono talking about Muscle Shoals, Alabama. And, of course, Franklin was just one of the many, many singers and bands who benefitted from the influence of the local songwriters, producers, and session musicians whose style became synonymous with that region.
AUDIO: That sound made it through to Ireland and Britain and we felt the blood in that. We felt the sort of pulse of it and we wanted some, you know.
Though Franklin’s vocal talent was undeniable in her early years with Columbia records, she’d been musically miscast. And after nine studio albums, she’d failed to achieve commercial success.
AUDIO: I’ve still got to find out who and what I really am. I don’t know yet. I’m trying to find answer.
Muscle Shoals’ soon-to-be legendary producer, Rick Hall and his soon-to-be famous run-down studio provided that answer.
AUDIO: They had a song, they had an artist, but nobody knew what to do. Not even all these geniuses. But out of that quiet came Spooner with…And I said, “Hey, Spooner’s got it, and Aretha jumped right on it.
The recording session was short and contentious, but it resulted in Franklin’s first bonafide hit and ultimately what is widely recognized as her most accomplished album. The rest is R&B history.
AUDIO: Coming to Muscle Shoals was a turning point…so absolutely it was a milestone and THE turning point in my career.
The film touches on much more than just one career—and its themes span far beyond music. In its reflections on its own little corner of the Civil Rights era, Muscle Shoals offers a message of hope and a model of reconciliation for ours.
Some of the most amusing moments come from the wrong assumptions many made early on about Hall’s in-house rhythm section known as “The Swampers” that backed up the mostly black artists.
AUDIO: The grooves that we set up came from rhythm and blues music. I remember when Paul Simon called Stax Records and talked to Al Bell and said I want the same black backup band I heard on “I’ll Take You There.” He said that can happen but these guys are mighty pale…A lot of people couldn’t believe that my whole band was white guys that played behind me.
While George Wallace was leading segregation rallies and Martin Luther King was writing letters from a Birmingham jail, some white and black Southerners—too poor or anonymous to matter much to the outside world—were putting their heads down to make some joyful noise together.
AUDIO: When I was a boy, if I met the white boy I had to say this is Mr. Robert or Mr. Jimmy but in the studio we got away from all that. It was Jimmy, it was Robert. You just worked together…you thought about the common thing and it was the music.
In the decades that followed, the reputation of Rick Hall and the Swampers grew so international that everyone from Bob Dylan to Bob Seger was clamoring to work with them. That led to them playing formative roles in the careers of Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Allman Brothers and the birth of Southern Rock.
MUSIC: [Sweet Home Alabama]
If I have one complaint about Muscle Shoals, beyond a bit of language that should have earned it a PG-13 rather than PG rating, it’s that it leaves elements that would have proved most interesting to believers on the cutting room floor. Like how success after a series of tragedies and struggles ultimately led Hall to a deep Christian faith. He wrote about that in his 2015 biography. Likewise the movie doesn’t mention the contemporary Christian or gospel albums recorded at his studio.
But what is there is so uplifting that it’s still well worth your time. Unlike most other music-related documentaries, this isn’t a salacious account of sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll trying to disguise itself as a cautionary tale. It’s just the story of some small town guys who loved music so much they made the whole world notice their excellence—giving proof to Proverbs 22 observation that a man skilled in his work won’t stay obscure for long. Even if he never leaves Alabama.
MUSIC: [Pressing On To the Higher Calling of My Lord]
For WORLD Radio, I’m Megan Basham.