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Sweet home Alabama... where the 'singing river' put magic into records

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: December 06, 2013

By Jackie Butler

  • Jimmy Cliff interviewed for the Muscle Shoals documentary

  • Aretha Franklin interviewed for the Muscle Shoals documentary

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There's a line in Lynyrd Skynyrd's perennial rock anthem Sweet Home Alabama that goes like this: "Now Muscle Shoals has got the Swampers... and they've been known to pick a song or two."

I've sung along to it a hundred times without a clue what it referred to. But when you start looking behind those simple words, you touch upon the remarkable story of a recording studio tucked away in the Alabama backwoods and a house band that played a significant part in the development of modern music.

Without it, some of the most brilliant tracks of the 20th century could have turned out pretty different, if at all – like Aretha Franklin's Respect and I Never Loved A Man the Way That I Loved You, the Rolling Stones' Brown Sugar, The Staples Singers' I'll Take You There. Countless stars have taken the trip there over the years including Jimmy Cliff, Bob Dylan, Etta James, Alicia Keys, Wilson Pickett, Bob Seger, Paul Simon, Percy Sledge and, of course, Lynyrd Skynyrd.

The inside story of Muscle Shoals is now the subject of a feature-length documentary of the same name, which was a standout success at this year's Sundance Film Festival in the US. It's had a limited sporadic cinema release in the UK, and next week comes to Exeter's Picturehouse for a one-off evening showing.

Directed by first-time director Greg Camalier, it's about a place filled with magic and music, legend and folklore. In Muscle Shoals, music runs through the spirit of the people.

Located alongside the Tennessee River – called the "Singing River" by the Native Americans – it is a place where, even before the civil rights movement really took shape, the colour of your skin didn't matter inside the studio. Rick Hall is at the heart of the tale as the founder of FAME studios, where he created a haven for black and white musicians to come together.

Doing so at the peak of racial hostilities, he shepherded the creation of songs, and even genres, that have become seminal, while also giving birth to the unique Muscle Shoals sound and the backing band The Swampers. They later broke away to start their own studio.

The records created in this outpost have sold in their millions and provide a rich and soulful soundtrack that weaves throughout the film. There are candid interviews with Aretha, Keith Richards, Mick Jagger, Gregg Allman, Bono, Clarence Carter, Jimmy Cliff, Percy Sledge, and Steve Winwood, among many others. Live performances include a new recording by Alicia Keys at FAME studios of a Bob Dylan track.

"Muscle Shoals comes from the heart – not only the film but the entirety of the tale itself," says Greg Camalier. "Long before I ever had the good fortune to stumble upon it, this heart was touching the world through the incredible music that emanated from there."

Muscle Shoals will be shown at Exeter Picturehouse at 6.30pm on December 10. Contact the cinema to book.

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