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Muscle Shoals Soul is Making a Big Mark in Americana

Two hours south of Nashville, in a town with a population of 13,831, American music was changed forever. Florence Alabama Music Enterprises, or FAME studios, in Muscle Shoals, Ala. opened its doors over 50 years ago. Visitors come from all over to tour the studio, which is on the Alabama Register of Landmarks and Heritage. But FAME is no dusty museum. It's a place where history - and lots of great music - is still made.

In the 1960s and '70s, FAME became known as the place to go if you wanted a hit record. Artists like Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett and Gregg and Duane Allman flocked to the little studio on Avalon Avenue. Over the years, FAME became a destination for country artists as well. Being outside the hub of Music City gave artists like Jerry Reed and Bobbie Gentry the freedom to experiment and blend genres to create their own sound.

Today, as mainstream country moves farther away from its roots, younger country artists are returning to the birth place of southern rock and country soul to tap into a sound that's both classic and brand new: the Muscle Shoals sound.

Musical Gumbo

FAME studios was founded by Rick Hall, known as the "Father of Muscle Shoals Music," in 1959. Rodney Hall, Rick's son and co-operator of FAME, remembers growing up with legends like Wilson Pickett and Mac Davis hanging around his house. Back then, they were known as just "dad's friends."

"There wasn't a nice hotel so they'd stay at our house. We really got to know them as friends more than just as artists," Hall tells Wide Open Country. "I guess when I started to realize it was something different is when they would leave and a month later I'd see them on Johnny Carson."

Hall says the laid back vibe of Muscle Shoals has helped to inspire decades of great collaborations.

"I think it's the people - the musicians, the engineers, producers and songwriters," Hall says. "I think because we're outside of Nashville and New York we have a little bit of a license to do what we want to. We don't follow any rules."

The first hit out of FAME was Arthur Alexander's "You Better Move On," widely considered to be the first country soul record.

Hall describes the Muscle Shoals sound as "a gumbo of sorts," a combination of country, rock and soul music with a little gospel mixed in. And no one exemplified the swampy, country-funk associated with FAME better than Jerry Reed. He came to the studio to record his signature song "She Got the Goldmine, I Got the Shaft."

But Reed wasn't the first country act to turn to FAME. In 1970, Mississippi country soul singer Bobbie Gentry teamed up with the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section to record her album Fancy.

Swampers and Texas Gentlemen

Country rockers and sought after backing band the Texas Gentlemen recorded their newly released album TX Jelly at FAME earlier this year.

Producer and Texas Gentlemen band leader Beau Bedford says recording at the studio was nothing short of magic.

"That room was built to record live music," Bedford says. "There's something magic that happens with all the instruments being in the room, bleeding into the microphone. It's what you call the Muscle Shoals sound. That's a big part of the mojo and the vibe of what is on TX Jelly."

"As soon as I walked into the room I just felt the weight of the history - standing in the corner where Aretha Franklin sang "I Never Loved a Man (the Way I Love You)," standing in the room where Wilson Pickett and Duane Allman hatched the idea to record "Hey Jude," the beginning of southern rock and roll," Bedford says. "It was just so humbling to be in that room for the first time."

The Texas Gentlemen, who've backed everyone from Leon Bridges to Kris Kristofferson, were heavily influenced by the legendary Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, affectionately known as the Swampers.

"Once you get to meet these guys you realize just the humble and sweet nature that they have and how they're just servants to the music," Bedford says. "It's really inspiring to be around. There's no ego (thinking) that they have to make some unique, absurd sound on a record. They're serving the song."

Country Soul Revival

Hall says he's seen noticed a recent revival in the country soul sound, led by younger artists like Jason Isbell, who worked at FAME studios before joining southern rock heroes the Drive-By Truckers. Hall says Isbell's recent CMA nomination is proof that the tides are turning in favor of the kind of honest music that was pioneered at FAME.

"We never considered Jason to really be a mainstream country artist and he doesn't consider himself to be that but what he's doing is real," Hall says. "He's had this knack from the beginning of tapping into Muscle Shoals and the rural aspect of Muscle Shoals more than contemporary country music."

Nashville-based Americana artist Cale Tyson recorded his 2017 album Careless Soul at FAME.

Welsh alt-country singer and visual artist Jon Langford recorded his upcoming album Four Lost Souls, out Sept. 22 on Bloodshot Records, in Muscle Shoals at Sheffield, Ala.'s NuttHouse. The project came about when Langford met Norbert Putnam, an original Swamper and a member of the famed Nashville Cats.

"He told me I sang like a pirate and I should come down to Muscle Shoals and make an album. He is a legend, a clever, funny man who just happened to produce some pretty amazing records over the years," Langford says. "I based the whole structure of the project and wrote all the songs specifically with Muscle Shoals in mind. I wanted to make an album about the south - integrated music making, horrible history."

Hall says when it comes to recording, FAME studios still subscribes to the if-it-ain't-broke mentality. The studio still operates the same way it has for the past 50 years, with a whole new crop of session musicians working with studio legends. The godfather of southern rock, the late Gregg Allman, made his final album Southern Blood at FAME in 2016. Artists such as the Blind Boys of Alabama, Peter Levin, Vince Gill, Alison Krauss, Alan Jackson and Keb Mo have all recorded albums at the studio this year.

Even beyond Muscle Shoals, the country soul sound is alive and well. Margo Price recorded her upcoming album All American Made at Sam Phillips Recording in Memphis.

Texas-native Bonnie Bishop showcased her soulful voice on her incredible breakout album Ain't Who I Was. That project was recorded in producer Dave Cobb's Nashville studio.

Hall says Muscle Shoals has always been a little bit country in its own way.

"Muscle Shoals has always had an aspect of country music to it. We've just always done it a little left-footed," Hall says, laughing. "We just try to add a little different flavor, a little soul, a little realness to it... People are looking for something a little different. And what's different now is real."

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