The Cherokees who lived in the northwestern corner of Alabama called the river that flowed through their territory “Unashay” — the “Singing River.”
“They believed a muse lived in the river and sang songs to them,” said Greg Camalier, who has visited the area.
Little did the original inhabitants know just how mighty that muse was and how popular those songs would become. Along the river, now known as the Tennessee, lies the small town of Muscle Shoals, home to one of the most legendary and unlikely recording industries in modern music. Among the singers whose tunes have floated out of the Unashay region are Mick Jagger, Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan, Etta James and Gregg Allman. And Paul Simon, Alicia Keys, Bob Seger, Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett. And on and on.
Camalier, a Maryland native who as a boy wanted to be a musician, knew a tiny slice of this history when he and his best childhood friend took the Southern route on a 2008 trip from the East Coast to New Mexico. Passing through Muscle Shoals, a rural town of 13,000, Camalier knew he was in the vicinity where Clarence Carter, Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Allman Brothers Band had made hit records.
“But we had no idea the totality of the story,” Camalier, who lives in Boulder, said. “The town really impacted us. We extended our trip, spent some time there, and said, ‘We can’t believe no one has told this story.’”
“Muscle Shoals,” Camalier’s documentary that shows at 8:30 Wednesday night at Aspen Filmfest, traces how the town became a powerhouse in soul and rock ‘n’ roll. The area, though rural and far removed from America’s cultural centers (though just 125 miles from Nashville, nicknamed Music City, U.S.A.), was naturally rich in musicians.
W.C. Handy, known as the “Father of the Blues,” was born in the neighboring city of Florence in 1873. Some decades later, a group of local players became the house band of a recording studio founded by Rick Hall. Those musicians, who would take the name the Swampers, and that studio, FAME Studios, would make an outsized contribution to popular music.
“This place just oozed and breathed music,” said Camalier, who mixes vintage footage and contemporary interviews in the documentary. “The landscape — the ruralness — contributed to it. The cultural context — the Deep South in the heart of the Civil Rights struggle — and the lives people lived around there contributed to it.”
Rick Hall, who grew up as a passionate music lover in northwestern Alabama, got his start with country music; his songs were recorded by George Jones and Brenda Lee. In 1959, he joined forces with two men in the music business to form Florence Alabama Music Enterprises, or FAME. Hall built a studio in Muscle Shoals, and in the ‘60s attracted a local band that included keyboardist Spooner Oldham, bassist David Hood, guitarist Jimmy Johnson and drummer Roger Hawkins; the group provided the backing on hit songs including “When a Man Loves a Woman,” “Respect” and “Mustang Sally,” creating what is known as the Muscle Shoals Sound. When news spread that all these soul hits were coming out of a backwater recording studio, musicians including the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton and Rod Stewart headed to Alabama to capture some of that magic. Lynyrd Skynyrd memorialized the place in “Sweet Home Alabama”: “Muscle Shoals has got the Swampers/ And they’ve been known to pick a song or two.”
“As they started to make music with the local people at the studio, and started making hits and getting airplay, and it kept happening more and more, people started making the journey there,” Camalier said. “They heard the sound, and they wanted to go after that sound.”