If you like the R&B that dates back to the mid-1960s, you may appreciate the documentary “Muscle Shoals,” which opens today at the Magic Lantern Theater. Following is the review that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:
It’s hard to say where music comes from. Does it derive from the meld of humanity and nature? Is it a result of human experience, the inherent hum of the clash we tend to call progress? Or does it rise from the Earth itself, an essential message that comprises the very nature – and perhaps reveals the secret – of existence? No one can say for sure.
Some Native American tribes believe in the confluence of music and nature – especially those tribes that live along the banks of the Tennessee River as it wends its way through northern Alabama. As one explains to filmmaker Greg Camalier, director of the documentary “Muscle Shoals,” his grandmother heard music emanate from that stretch of water, music she could hear nowhere else. Certainly not in Oklahoma, where her tribe – in the mid-1840s – was transported. Though it took her five years to do so, the woman had to return home – to what is now called Muscle Shoals, Ala. – because that, she said, was where the music was.
Whatever its truth, that anecdote provides as good an answer as any to the question concerning the source of music. Certainly its point about music being tied to geography seems valid, given that the little town of Muscle Shoals gave the world some of the most notable music to come out of the 20th century.
Just listen to Percy Sledge hit the plaintive high notes on “When a Man Loves a Woman.” Listen to Clarence Carter moan his equally mournful message of love in “Slip Away.” Wilson Pickett shake things up with his “Land of 1,000 Dances.” Or Aretha Franklin wail on “I Never Loved a Man (the Way I Love You).” Those songs – and, in fact, the very R&B sound they represent – were born in Muscle Shoals.
A large part of that sound came, of course, from the artists, some of whom were local – Sledge, for example – and many of whom were black. But arguably as big a part were the recording producers such as Rick Hall, the white country-boy founder and owner of Fame Studios, who overcame his hard-scrabble childhood intent on becoming a success however he could. And then there was the collection of white musicians, particularly the quartet that would become known as The Swampers, whose inherent feel for R&B fooled many music fans – and a number of artists – into thinking they were black, too.
Camalier, a first-time filmmaker, makes his documentary a love poem to Muscle Shoals and to the music it produced. He blends talking-head interviews with several name stars – from Pickett, Franklin and Etta James to British artists Keith Richards and Mick Jagger – with the sounds that many of them produced. He gives us producer Hall’s checkered back-story, with its roller-coaster dips into disaster and recovery, while providing glimpses of Southern Rock pioneers such as Duane Allman and the group Lynyrd Skynyrd. And he touches – albeit lightly – on how, even during the era of segregation, blacks worked successfully with whites to produce great music.
While he never manages to answer the question about the origin of music, Camalier does quote reggae hit-maker Jimmy Cliff, whose words may best describe the magic called Muscle Shoals. “There are certain places,” Cliff says, “where there is a feel of energy.”