The New Sound of Muscle Shoals
In the crook of the foothills of the Cumberland Plateau, up in northwest Alabama, the land rolls out like a quilt unfurled, a patchwork of farms and small towns pieced together with barbed wire and kudzu. Here, the cities of Florence and Muscle Shoals ﬂank opposite sides of the Tennessee River just before it jackknifes back up into the state from whence it came. Roots run deep here, where families are neighbors and neighbors often seem like family. It's like so many other rural pockets of the south—except this one also happened to produce some of the most important American music of the past 50 years.
In the decades following the 1959 founding of FAME Studios in Florence and, later, the formation of the Muscle Shoals Sound Studios, the area drew in some of the biggest names in early rock, soul, and country music, among them Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, and The Rolling Stones. These acts all found a musical home in the shoals, but they mostly hailed from elsewhere; the town and its studio space were more traveler's rest than homestead—until now.
A bumper crop of talent has recently emerged from those wide rolling hills. The new generation of the Muscle Shoals sound includes everything from retro revivalists to backwoods-gothic rockers, but they all share a deep-rooted connection to the corner of the south they call home.
The Secret Sisters
Just outside Florence stands the little house that Laura and Lydia Rogers' maternal grandparents built as newlyweds, home to family gatherings that fostered some of their earliest musical memories. "We would eat there every Saturday and sing gospel songs around the holidays," Lydia says. "Our grandfather was always playing his mandolin and singing old songs."
These days, the sisters perform sweet, shufﬂing old-time country as The Secret Sisters, their sound an homage to some gauzy, gingham-checked past. Appearing onstage in crinoline-lifted dresses and bright red lipstick, the sisters seem plucked straight out of the 1950s. Their music is like a time capsule, which seems appropriate: Life in their "itty-bitty sweet hometown" can resemble one too.
Downtown Florence looks much as it has for a half-century or more, with the grand marquee of the Shoals Community Theatre lighting up the corner of North Seminary and Mobile Streets and the old brick storefronts housing local favorites such as Ricatoni's Italian Grill (home of "the best bread and herbs you'll ever put in your mouth," Laura declares).
Their grandparents' house was sold after their grandfather died a few years ago, but when it went back on the market Laura jumped at the chance to bring it back into the fold. She now maintains the family homestead with her two cats and dog; Lydia's apartment in Florence is just a few miles away.
It can be hard to leave this close-knit world and hit the road. In April 2011, when a series of tornadoes devastated North Alabama, The Secret Sisters were on tour in Australia. Their families were untouched, but Laura and Lydia felt heartbroken and helpless, so they coped the best way they knew: they wrote a song. "Tomorrow Will Be Kinder" is a gently sorrowful, hymn-like elegy, and it found an unexpected second life on the movie soundtrack for the ﬁrst installment of the wildly popular Hunger Games series. And the Rogers sisters weren't the only Alabamians on the roster.
John Paul White
The Civil Wars, helmed by Florence boy John Paul White and California native Joy Williams, joined The Secret Sisters on the sound track, cutting a song with Taylor Swift that became the album's lead single. The searing "Safe and Sound" evokes the same kind of sepia-toned drama that infused The Civil Wars' 2011 debut, Barton Hollow, for which the duo nabbed two Grammys in early 2012.
You don't get that far without a good amount of creative drive, and White's was sparked early on by his proximity to musical greatness.
"Any time you walked into a club or saw a show, you'd end up seeing somebody who played on a record you grew up loving," the singer, songwriter, and guitarist says of coming of age in the Shoals. "You knew that was the kind of musician you had to become to play around here."
White's North Alabama roots didn't just fuel his work ethic—they're also entirely evident in The Civil Wars' songs. (At press time, the band has announced that they're taking a break.) In White and Williams' lyrics, sons take daunting train trips home ("My father's father's blood is on the track / A sweet refrain drifts in from the past") and old letters crackle and age with time. "Barton Hollow," the album's title track, tells a tale of sin and thwarted redemption in a town just west of Florence: "It's not Alabama clay / That gives my trembling hands away," the guilt-wracked narrator sings. White's songs celebrate his corner of the South by illuminating its spooky side—like all good folk tales should.
When White thinks about the music that best embodies the Shoals, he names not W.C. Handy (the self-appointed "father of the Blues," who grew up in Florence) or Percy Sledge (who recorded "When a Man Loves a Woman" in nearby Shefﬁeld) but Jason Isbell, whose rowdy alt-country songs are also peppered with hallmarks of North Alabama life.
And like White's, Isbell's reference points aren't always pretty. "Seven-Mile Island" narrates a local man's poverty-driven suicide on the eve of his daughter's birth, and "Alabama Pines" is an ode to returning home after a wrecked love affair, welcomed by a speed-trap in Boiling Springs and goods from Wayne's, the only local liquor store open on a Sunday. Even Isbell's backing band, the 400 Unit, takes its name from a Florence psychiatric treatment center.
White's admiration is longstanding; he remembers seeing Isbell, a few years his junior, play guitar around town as a teenager. "He was always the kid in the band I wanted to steal," White says. "I wanted him in my band."
Most of Isbell's early gigs were at La Fonda, a Mexican restaurant out on Florence Boulevard that fashioned its neon-lit, beer-banner-plastered dining room into an under-the-radar spot for local music. "It was one of the only places that'd let me play underage," says Isbell, who, at 33, still pops in for an occasional set. After some time away, he moved back to the Florence area and made his three solo records at the legendary FAME Studios, continuing to till the turf from which he sprouted.
Growing up in town, Isbell met David Hood, one of the original proprietors of the Muscle Shoals Sound Studios, who played bass with The Swampers. (If you've heard the Staple Singers' "I'll Take You There," among countless other tracks, you've heard him play.) Hood's son, Patterson, had grown up locally, too, and then moved to Athens, Georgia, where he started the darkly rollicking Drive-By Truckers with Mike Cooley, another kid from Florence. Isbell soon joined the band, playing guitar and singing on a handful of records before splitting in 2007.
David Hood played a huge role in the music that made the town famous, but his son didn't exactly grow up as the crowned prince of Muscle Shoals. While kids at school dished football stats and went to church every Sunday, Hood was down in his parents' basement pawing through their records and writing his own songs. "I was a bit of an outcast, to put it mildly," Patterson Hood recalls with a laugh.
Nowadays the community is more aware of the local music legacy, but for a while, Hood says, "It was kind of like Dad was in a secret society." He's only half kidding; discretion was so paramount to The Rolling Stones that when they came to the shoals in 1969 to record "Brown Sugar" and "Wild Horses," David Hood put his wife and son on a plane to visit family out of state.
The younger Hood still lives in Georgia but often returns to the area to visit family, usually making a pit-stop at Bunyan's BBQ for a pulled pork sandwich and a mound of its famous red slaw. During one homecoming in the summer of 2011, he made time to swing by Pegasus Records, a music store a few blocks from downtown, to catch an in-store performance by a young local act called the Alabama Shakes. He didn't know it, but he was about to change their lives.
Among the racks of new CDs and used vinyl, singer Brittany Howard led the band through a slow-burning set as if they were playing to a packed arena. "I was blown away," Hood says. He recruited Alabama Shakes to open some shows for the Drive-By Truckers on the spot. That helped the band get noticed by ATO Records, which released their debut album, Boys and Girls, in April 2012. It cracked the Billboard top 20 the week it hit shelves—not too shabby for a bunch of friends from Athens, Alabama, 40 miles east of Florence and Muscle Shoals, who funded their studio sessions through their day jobs and with cover-band gigs all over North Alabama.
If Alabama Shakes' blend of bellowing soul and raggedy rock 'n' roll echoes any element of regional sonic influence, it's almost an accident. Growing up, guitarist Heath Fogg says he was only vaguely aware of the Shoals' legacy. "I knew it was there, and I knew something really important happened there musically," he says. "It just took growing up to start digging and realize what did go on."
What could explain all this talent bubbling up from these kudzu-tangled hills? The Civil Wars' John Paul White suggests it may have something to do with a new generation feeling the need to prove itself in light of the locals who shone before: "They don't want to rest on their laurels," he says. "They know they won't get anything handed to them just because they're from the Shoals."
In fact, the success of Alabama Shakes and their many cohorts may be due to a complete lack of expectations. "In North Alabama, you can't really join a band to make money, or join a band to travel the world," Fogg says. "You can hope to, you can try, but that's not why you join a band. That's the last thing that would possibly happen to you."
Instead, you work hard—just like you were raised—and you get good on your own terms, not because you want the world to hear you but despite the fact that it might not ever. But when it does happen—well, there may not be a sound sweeter than that.