Now Muscle Shoals Has Got The Swampers...
When you have a chance to fulfill a childhood dream, you have to jump at it, right? That was how we ended up in Muscle Shoals, Alabama last weekend.
In 1969, Cher made an album no one cared about: 3614 Jackson Highway. Growing up an extremely loyal Cher fanatic, I was one of the few who did care. I pored over the liner notes (a handwritten letter from Cher herself, in which she earnestly uses the word “groovy” twice) and examined the cover many times when I was younger, imagining the place in time and space that this album came out of. After learning it was in Alabama, I figured I’d probably never get there, and figured there wouldn’t be too much there, anyway.
Fast forward a few years, to a time where Young Laura would be shocked to learn Current Laura lives only two hours from 3614 Jackson Highway, or the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio. This is also a time in which Muscle Shoals has had a bit of a renaissance in the cultural lexicon: a popular Netflix documentary (which if you haven’t seen, you should) lends credence to the small town’s claim of being the “Hit Making Capital of the World.” There is renewed interest in Muscle Shoals, from tourists and investors alike-- Beats Music is involved in an equipment and structural overhaul of the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, and the two famous studios in town have exhibits and tours ready for curious fans. And, for the record, I saw 3614 Jackson Highway this weekend up on the wall at a record store going for $50 with a note that said “with the Muscle Shoals Crew.”
While I originally learned of Muscle Shoals from the Cher album, it began to pop up in other places: I read about the sessions there that contributed to Sticky Fingers, I Never Loved a Man The Way I Loved You, and some Wilson Pickett and Paul Simon songs. The documentary connected all of the dots for me, and filled in the missing spaces I didn’t know about from a product of not necessarily being up on my Allman Brothers discography, and the like. All of these artists came to town for the in-house talent, called The Swampers.
Our first stop was 3614 Jackson Highway, the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio. It was uncanny to see such a personal image come to life on a little unassuming road in northern Alabama. The building itself remains as it is seen on Cher’s album cover (the address sign, however, was added to the building after her album was released to mimic the cover).
Inside, we were greeted by a very friendly woman who happily shared stories about the studio and those who had been there. A key detail: the area was dry until the mid-1980s, which in my mind, is the ultimate endorsement for The Swampers that the Rolling Stones came to an alcohol-free area to record with them.
The Muscle Shoals Sound Studio doesn’t have a formal tour, and does not have recording equipment in the building any longer. All of that will change with the coming Beats Music overhaul, which will convert it back into a working studio, but a few sets of branded headphones and speakers were the only sign of that. After not even five minutes of walking around, standing in the booth where Mick and Keith sang “Brown Sugar” and “Wild Horses,” looking at photos and stories on the wall, I turned to Casey and declared, “this alone was worth the trip.” It is always surreal to walk in the footsteps of your heroes, even down to visiting the basement below the studio and smiling while imagining the Stones partying there in a quiet Alabama town. We picked up a Muscle Shoals Christmas ornament (you know, to go with our Bruce Springsteen album art ornament) on our way out.
Our next stop was FAME Studios, the first major studio in town and the original home of the Swampers. The Swampers later broke off and started Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, but the two now have an amiable relationship. FAME was founded by Rick Hall, a music publisher and producer from Alabama. The studio is known for its ties with Atlantic in its early days-- artists like Percy Sledge, Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett and Aretha Franklin all recorded there, but the relationship fell apart after a dispute during an Aretha Franklin session. By the end of the sixties, the Swampers had departed, and the studio became the home for pop and country hit making. The studio is still a working studio today, a fact that prompted someone on our tour to ask, in so many words, if he could cut a demo or two there.
FAME does have a formal tour, and ours was led by a studio assistant. We also had a bonus tour guide-- a lady with a Snoopy ankle tattoo who couldn’t stop loudly name dropping studio musicians she knew. While very cool to be in Studio A of FAME, the tour was mainly hearing about the studio assistant’s job, punctuated occasionally by a rapid fire listing of hits recorded in the location. I would recommend going to FAME to see the studio, but I hope your tour is more fulfilling than the one we had.
We ended the day with lunch in downtown Florence, which was a charming little area that rounded out the day perfectly. If you’re in the area or ever within driving distance, Muscle Shoals is absolutely worth the stop.