The 75th anniversary of the publication of I’ll Take My Stand ought to cause traditionalist Southerners and other Americans to look closely not only at the current state of our society but at their own personal spheres of community, family, and church. The authors warned that the South was in danger of being snatched from its organic agrarian roots and given over to the artificial and contrived, if it accepted modern industrialism. 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 from the wall.” I live in a place that, perhaps unwittingly, has taken Lytle’s sage advice for some four decades. The Shoals, a four-city area (population 63,000) in northwest Alabama, comprises 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 beautiful river valley bordered on the south by a range of hills and mountains along the Tennessee River Divide. Since the passage of 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 those who settled here after them 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 also lift you up again like a choir of heavenly angels. Like the South, it is its own contradiction.
I am sure that, when Mr. Lytle admonished his readers to “take down the fiddle” and make their own music, he did not exactly have in mind the types of music—soul and R&B, rock and blues (in addition to bluegrass, country, and gospel)—that have come out of the Shoals. But those musical genres, like the traditional music of Lytle’s South in the 1920’s-1940’s, come out of the folk traditions of the rural parts of Dixie. It is not the vapid, deracinated product of Los Angeles, New York, and even Nashville today; it is the story of real people—written, sung, and played by real people.
Having grown up in this rich and fertile musical setting in the 1950’s and 60’s, I could not wait to get back here after some 30 years in exile. Upon my return in the spring of 2003, I began to establish (and in some cases, reestablish) contact with the folks in the Shoals music community. My first 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 1970’s. Hood also is chairman of the Muscle Shoals Music Association (MSMA) and currently plays bass with The Decoys, a local five-piece group.
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 1960’s and early 70’s 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. 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 am sure that a young Van Morrison, way over in Ireland, would have swum the ocean to have been in the Shoals in 1965 instead of listening on European radio to the soul and R&B hits coming out of northwest Alabama.
A recent event will illustrate my point. A local bar in Florence hosted a Hurricane Katrina relief jam on a Sunday afternoon and evening in mid-September. As I got out of my car in the overflowing parking lot, the first person I saw was Spooner Oldham, 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 County, Alabama, which makes him my distant cousin) on such soul classics as “I’m Your Puppet” and “Out of Left Field.”
Upon entering the crowded bar, I literally ran into Scott Boyer, lead singer and guitarist for The Decoys, scheduled to play a set that afternoon. Scott had founded a Southern rock band back in the 70’s called Cowboy, toured and recorded with Gregg Allman, and penned a hit song for Eric Clapton entitled “Please Be With Me.” To describe The Decoys as merely a “local band” is to give the impression that they are small-time. Everyone and every band must be from somewhere, however. This reminds me of when I was at the Atlanta Pop Festival in July 1970 and explained to a fellow from New Mexico that the group taking the stage was a “local band” from Macon—the Allman Brothers. He was amazed that a bunch of local boys could be so good!
The Decoys are another local band from the Shoals. Besides Scott Boyer and David Hood, the band lines up with Kelvin Holley (the Little Richard Band, Bobby “Blue” Bland, and The Amazing Rhythm Aces) on lead guitar, one of the most incredible players I’ve ever seen live; N.C. Thurmond (Percy Sledge, Gregg Allman, and Hank Williams, Jr.) on keys; 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 70’s-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 best damn slide guitar player in town) and me before taking the stage, held forth on just how real and natural it was playing here 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-famous W.C. Handy Blues Festival is an annual week-long celebration of north Alabama’s rich musical heritage. Over the past three 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 whom you will see strolling into the place from the local music scene or from out of town. The Midnighters have been around now for over 15 years and play some of the best down-home soul and funky blues you would 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 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, 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 his period.
What Allman did for “rock” music can still be heard in the many late-night jam sessions in 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, you can find several jams open to anyone who can play. There is no pretense, no professional jealously, no egotism—simply 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 coauthor of the classic-rock anthem “Layla.”
The Shoals is but one small point on the map in today’s burgeoning worldwide music scene. Though the glory days of the 1960’s and 70’s are well behind it 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 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.