One of my favorite books is entitled I’ll Take My Stand, by Twelve Southerners. A close reading of the book ought to cause traditionalist Southerners and other Americans not only to look closely at the current state of our general society but also at their own personal spheres of community, family, and church. The authors of ITMS warned the South that it was in danger of being snatched from its authentic and organic agrarian roots and given over to the artificial and contrived if it accepted modern industrialism. Culturally speaking, music is one of the areas deeply affected by the triumph of modern industrialism.
Andrew Nelson Lytle, one of the Twelve Southerners who contributed to ITMS, admonished his fellow Southerners in 1930 to “Throw out the radio and take down the fiddle down from the wall.” I now live in a place that, though perhaps unwittingly, has taken Lytle’s sage advice for some four decades. The Shoals, a four-city area (pop. 63,000) in northwest Alabama, is comprised of Florence (on the north bank of the Tennessee River) and Sheffield, Tuscumbia, and Muscle Shoals (on the south bank). It is a largely white but poor region set in a naturally beautiful river valley bordered on the south by a range of hills and mountains along the Tennessee River Divide. Since NAFTA, the area has lost some 5,000 textile jobs and the economic prospects of the Shoals are not favorable. Life has always been tough here for the Scots-Irish and others who settled afterwards because of poor soil and rugged terrain. But the hard conditions have produced a character in the people that spills out into their music. It is rough, passionate, sweet as honey, sharp as vinegar. It can knock you down like a set of brass knuckles at a country juke joint. But it can lift you up again like a choir of heavenly angels. Like the South, it is its own contradiction
I’m sure that when Mr. Lytle admonished his readers to “take down the fiddle” and make their own music, he didn’t exactly have in mind the types of music—soul and R&B, rock and blues (in addition to bluegrass, country, and gospel)—that has come out of the Shoals. But those musical genres, like the traditional music of Lytle’s South in the 1920s-1940s, come out of the folk traditions of the rural parts of Dixie. It is not the vapid, deracinated product that comes out of Los Angeles, New York, and even Nashville today; rather, it is the story of real people—written, sung, and played by real people—set in song.
Having grown up in this rich and fertile musical setting in the 1950s and 1960s, I couldn’t wait to get back here after some thirty years in exile. Upon my return in the spring of 2003, I began to establish (and in some cases, re-establish) contact with the folks in the Shoals music community. My first contact was with famed Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section bass player David Hood. Hood, along with guitarist Jimmy Johnson, drummer Roger Hawkins, and keyboardist Barry Beckett, were immortalized as “the Swampers” in Lynyrd Skynyrd’s anthem “Sweet Home Alabama” in the 1970s. Hood also is chairman of the Muscle Shoals Music Association (MSMA) and currently plays bass with The Decoys, a local five-piece group that I will discuss a bit later.
Anyhow, my contact with Hood and the MSMA gave me an opening into the Shoals still vibrant and vital music scene. Though things have certainly changed since the mega-hit days of the 1960s and early 1970s when the likes of Aretha Franklin, Percy Sledge, Wilson Pickett, Bob Dylan, and the Rolling Stones could be seen on Jackson Highway and Avalon Street, there is still something truly special about the place and its music.
Understand this. Though there are many “stars” in the musical constellation hereabouts, this ain’t Hollywood or New York City. In other words, these folks are approachable and often quite humble, considering many of them are recognized worldwide by name (if not by face) as the creators of something known and revered as the “Muscle Shoals Sound.” I’m sure that a young Van Morrison, way over in Ireland, would have swam the ocean to have been in the Shoals in 1965 instead of only listening in on European radio to the soul and R&B hits coming out of northwest Alabama.
A particular event held a few years back in the Shoals will illustrate my point that the music makers here see themselves as merely kinfolk and friends and not as some type of rock & roll royalty. A local bar in Florence hosted a Hurricane Katrina relief jam on a Sunday afternoon and evening in mid-September 2005. As I got out of my car in the overflowing parking lot, the first person I saw was Spooner Oldham (since inducted as a sideman into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame), the legendary songwriter and keyboardist. Growing up in Center Star, Alabama, about six miles from where I live at present, Spooner collaborated with Dan Penn (Pennington, of the Pennington clan of Lamar Co., Alabama, which makes him my distant cousin) on such soul classics as “I’m Your Puppet,” and “Out Of Left Field.” I told you all this stuff was close and personal.
Upon entering the crowded bar, I literally ran into Scott Boyer, lead singer and guitarist for The Decoys. They were scheduled to play a set that afternoon. Scott had founded a Southern rock band back in the 1970s called Cowboy, toured and recorded with Gregg Allman, and penned a hit song for Eric Clapton called “Please Be With Me.” To describe The Decoys as merely a “local band” is to give the impression that they are small time. But everyone and every band must be from somewhere. This reminds me of when I was at the Atlanta Pop Festival in July 1970 and explained to a fellow sitting next to me from New Mexico that the group taking the stage was a “local band” from nearby Macon—the Allman Brothers Band. He was amazed that a bunch of local boys could be so good!
So, The Decoys, too, are a local band from the Shoals. Besides Scott Boyer and David Hood, the band lines up with Kelvin Holley on lead guitar (the Little Richard Band, Bobby “Blue” Bland, and The Amazing Rhythm Aces)—one of the most incredible players I’ve ever seen live; N. C. Thurmond on keys (Percy Sledge, Gregg Allman, and Hank Williams, Jr.), and Mike Dillon on drums. On this particular day, The Decoys played a crisp 45-minute set of both originals and covers and then backed acclaimed Shoals performer Donnie Fritts on some of his tunes. Besides being a terrific songwriter for the likes of Ray Charles, Charlie Rich, Waylon Jennings, Jerry Lee Lewis, Dolly Parton, and The Box Tops and one of the original movers and shakers in the Shoals music scene (along with Rick Hall of FAME studios, Billy Sherrill, Norbert Putnam, Arthur Alexander, Jerry Carrigan, David Briggs, and Dan Penn), Fritts co-starred in several 1970s-era Sam Peckinpah movies, including a role (along with buddy Kris Kristofferson) as a motorcycle tough in the cult classic, “Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia.”
Fritts, who stood and talked with Wayne Counts (of The Midnighters, and the damn best slide guitar player in town) and me before taking stage with The Decoys, held forth on just how real and natural it was playing in such a venue and mixing with his friends, fans, and fellow musicians in such an informal manner.
The Shoals area has many events each year that bring the local musicians into close contact with their fans and friends. The world-renowned W. C. Handy Blues Festival is an annual weeklong celebration of north Alabama’s rich musical heritage. Over the past several summers I have had the pleasure of seeing (and occasionally being allowed to play with) some of the talented performers who grace the many stages throughout the area. One of the most loved and admired local bands is The Midnighters, a sextet that includes brothers Wayne (guitar) and James Counts (drums). Their business, Counts Brothers Music, is one of the favorite hangouts for local players in the Shoals. On a typical day, there is no telling who you will see strolling into the place from the local music scene or from out of town. The Midnighters have been around now for nearly twenty years and play some of the best down home soul and funky blues you’d ever want to hear. Not only do the Counts Brothers hit the note at the local nightspots but their store provides a crucial hub for musicians to meet and to acquire the goods and services to keep them playing. And by the way, all the fellows who work there are great players themselves, especially bassist extraordinaire Terry Richardson. Feel like playing? Just walk in and someone will surely oblige you.
The tight-knit Shoals music community benefits greatly from places like Counts Brothers Music in Muscle Shoals and Max’s Music in Sheffield. The latter, owned and operated by local music legend Max Russell, is a Mecca for impromptu late night jams and recording sessions by some of the Shoals best pickers, including famed California transplant bass player and vocalist Tom “Pizza” Hillmeyer. The jams that happen at Max’s and other venues best illustrate what Mr. Lytle meant when he advised Southerners to eschew “canned” entertainment and to make their own.
The creative genius of true “folk” music, as opposed to the antiseptic forms of popular music such as pop, hip-hop, rap, and heavy metal, among others, has always been found in the musicians’ ability to work improvisations off of a skeletal framework. While some musicians make a career by recording three-minute songs in the studio and then duplicating them note for note night after night in live performances, this formula does not allow for the spark of creative genius that gave us, say, a Duane Allman. Allman, the founder and leader of the Allman Brothers Band from 1969 to his untimely death in October 1971, was known for his brilliant, highly original extended guitar solos. Along with Jimi Hendrix, Allman was unquestionably one of the two most original electric guitarists of the period.
What Allman, following the path blazed by jazz impresarios such as Miles Davis and John Coltrane, did for “rock” music can still be seen (or rather heard) in the many late-night jam sessions in towns like the Shoals, Memphis, Macon, and countless other places where the music communities pay homage to the old forms and structures of blues, jazz, R&B, and soul. On any given night hereabouts, one can find several jams open to anyone who can play. There is no pretence, no professional jealously, no egotism. Rather, there is a celebration of the good music that permeates this place like hickory smoke does good pork barbecue. Hell, you might even find yourself jamming with Bobby Whitlock, keyboardist for Derek and the Dominos and co-author of the classic rock anthem “Layla.”
The Shoals is but one small point on the map in today’s burgeoning worldwide music scene. And though the glory days of the 1960s and 1970s are well behind her now, this northwestern corner of Alabama still has some magic left, at least on certain warm, humid nights when the cicadas find themselves competing with the sweet notes of a blues guitar and vocals so deep and soulful that you’d swear that they were oozing up from the mud of the Tennessee River. People here may not be familiar with Mr. Lytle’s words, but you can bet they know the music. Live well . . .