The tiny town of Muscle Shoals, Ala., a quiet spot off the highway, changed American music forever. If that sounds dramatic, do yourself a favor and watch the award-winning documentary Muscle Shoals for the full picture.
Muscle Shoals was a hotbed for musical innovation hundreds of miles away from the nearest music industry town up in Nashville. It was also a safe place for black and white musicians to collaborate brilliantly in an otherwise volatile and violently racist environment (and state).
FAME Studios (Florence Alabama Music Enterprises) was at the heart of it. Considered the birthplace of the “Muscle Shoals Sound,” producer and studio founder Rick Hall led the charge. “The Swampers,” a group of his friends who were in high school went they first began, were the house musicians before opening their own studio in 1969.
That studio, Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, carried on the legend of the sleep Alabama town as one of the most talented corners of the world.
So now you finally understand this verse from Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama”:
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 bout you?
Rick Hall would also go on to open his own publishing company. He and his writers, like Jason Isbell, had hit songs with just about every country star imaginable, from George Jones to Reba and Tim McGraw.
FAME Studios is still in use today, making it one of the few legendary studios to keep its luster through all the ups and downs. Muscle Shoals Sound Studio is currently in the process of a historic restoration. Here are some of the essential country songs recorded in Muscle Shoals.
Mac Davis — “Texas In My Rear View Mirror”
Mac Davis recorded more music than any other artist at FAME Studios. His 13 albums recorded at the same studio are pretty amazing. Produced by Rick Hall, “Texas In My Rear View Mirror” off the album of the same name reinvigorated Davis’ career.
Bobbie Gentry — “Fancy”
Bobbie Gentry recorded “Fancy” as an ode to women’s liberation, and it’s still one of her most well-known songs. She earned a Grammy nomination for Best Female Vocalist. The album also features the famous tune “In The Ghetto,” penned by FAME regular Mac Davis.
Jerry Reed — “She Got The Goldmine (I Got The Shaft)”
Rick Hall and Jerry Reed scored two back-to-back No. 1’s in the early 80s out of FAME Studios, which completely reinvigorated Reed’s career as a recording artist. “She Got The Gold Mine (I Got The Shaft)” was the first of the two, and is classic Reed in its wit and delivery.
Shenandoah — “Two Dozen Roses”
Shenandoah was actually a personal project of Hall’s, in a way. The group was a house band in Muscle Shoals, and Hall had heard them play several times. He brought in a few of the guys in the band as regular studio musicians before helping develop Shenandoah into one of the biggest country groups around from 1987 to 1997.
Willie Nelson — “Bloody Mary Morning”
Sandwiched between his debut album for Atlantic Records and his iconic Red Headed Stranger, Phases and Stages is one of Nelson’s often overlooked releases. It was a precursor concept album about a divorce told from both sides. “Bloody Mary Morning” was the only single released, but it’s become a classic. Nelson almost always plays the song in his live shows.
Oak Ridge Boys — “Bobbie Sue”
Another classic country/rock crossover album from country’s elder statesmen the Oak Ridge Boys, Bobbie Sue was recorded between both Nashville and Muscle Shoals. It proved to be one of their most successful albums ever, perhaps second only to Fancy Free.
Lynyrd Skynyrd — “Free Bird”
Before the southern rock legends had a record deal, they spent three years off and on recording at Muscle Shoals Sound Studio. Technically, Skynyrd had to re-record “Free Bird” in Georgia for their debut album after landing a deal, but the band attributes their time at Muscle Shoals to the creation and maturation of one of America’s most iconic songs.
Alabama — “Reinvent The Wheel”
You’d think a band named “Alabama” would record at that state’s most famous studio before their career was already decades old, but the country megastars didn’t make their way to FAME until 2001. Still, it’s a testament to the studio’s legacy amid the booming studio culture of other towns like Nashville and Los Angeles.
Jamey Johnson — “Two Outta Three Ain’t Bad”
Leave it to Jamey Johnson to make a Meat Loaf song from the 70s sound like one of the most gut-wrenching country songs of the 2000s. Johnson cut his country version of the tune at FAME studios and it went on to become a staple in his catalog.
For a great primer on the “Muscle Shoals sound,” check out this 10-minute video with more music recorded, written or produced in the sleepy corner of Alabama.