What was it about ancient Athens that made it the cradle of democracy? How was it that Florence was home to the most glorious art of the Renaissance? Why did the world’s great religions emerge from the Middle East?
These are small potatoes compared to this one: How in heck did Muscle Shoals, Alabama — a wide spot in a dusty road with cotton fields on one side and the Tennessee River on the other — become the world capital of R&B, Southern rock and hit singles and the launch pad for Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Percy Sledge, Wilson Pickett and Gregg Allman and an inspiration for the Rolling Stones? How is that possible?
Well, as with Athens, Florence and the Mideast, sense of place has a lot to do with it. The Native Americans called the Tennessee River “Nunnuhsae” or “the river that sings.” Somehow the rush of the river, the songs of the field hands, the roar of the passing trains and the expanse of shadowy woods and open swamp became the fertile soil of soul. Among the wonderfully engaging interviews we hear Jimmy Cliff talking about the Muscle Shoals field of energy and Bono saying how “we felt the blood in that, we felt the pulse of that … it’s like the songs came out of the mud.”
Then there was the coincidence, the cross-pollination of white musicians who played gospel and black musicians influenced by country and both groups meeting and melding in the studio to create the Muscle Shoals sound.
Paul Simon heard the sound and arranged a recording session in Muscle Shoals. He wanted to work with the local talent who, he assumed, were African American. When he was introduced to the all-white backup band, The Swampers, Simon thought he was meeting the front office workers. Oops! He went on to record “Loves Me Like a Rock,” “Kodachrome” and “Still Crazy After All These Years” in Muscle Shoals.
But sense of place, whatever that means, isn’t the whole story. Athens needed Solon, Florence had the Medici family and the Middle East had Abraham. And Muscle Shoals had Rick Hall.
Dirt poor, his mother took off and became a prostitute after Rick’s brother died tragically at home. Much later, Rick’s wife of 18 months died when he lost control of their car and rolled it. He became a drunken bum, lost and bitter.
But he climbed out, sobered up and pursued his one interest — recording music.
Starting small, he set up shop above a drugstore. His first hit — a young black hotel employee in the early 1960s singing of his love for a woman — was so soulful and perfectly engineered that the Stones picked it up soon after.
Among the finer moments is the archival footage of Aretha, Keith Richards and Sledge and the tightly edited interviews with Wilson Pickett, Mick Jagger and Bono. Pickett described his first visit to Muscle Shoals and observed, out the recording studio window, black field hands picking cotton.
“Is that what I think it is?” he recalls asking, incredulous.
And all along, great soundtracks of Muscle Shoals originals: “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You),” “When a Man Loves a Woman,” “Land of 1,000 Dances” and “Mustang Sally.”
If you like a good documentary, you’re going to love this one. If you don’t really care for documentaries, “Muscle Shoals” will change that.