You Watch That?!?

Muscle Shoals

“Give credit where credit is due.”

It’s the kind of idiomatic expression that any non-sociopath can cosign without thinking too hard about it. Like “Treat others the way you’d like to be treated,” or “Let’s order a pizza when we get back from the bar.” But GCWCID’s promise often goes unfulfilled, and there doesn’t even have to be a good reason why. No villain, no deliberate deception or cover-up. Sometimes credit is hiding in plain sight. Or in a Lynyrd Skynyrd song everyone in the country has heard between five and 500 times:

Now Muscle Shoals has got the Swampers
And they’ve been known to pick a song or two
Lord they get me off so much
They pick me up when I’m feeling blue
Now how about you?

“The Swampers” is another name for the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, a handful of session musicians who provided the backbone for a string of huge hits in the 60’s and 70’s. Whether you’ve heard of the Swampers or not, Muscle Shoals, the new documentary about their work, the town they hail from and the producer/studio owner who gave them an opportunity to record with some of music’s most legendary artists, is an absolute must-see.

Mrs. YHT and I had the good fortune of seeing the film after an introduction by Deep Groove Records owner Jay Leavitt, who grew up in the Muscle Shoals area and owns what he estimates is the world’s largest collection of Muscle Shoals-related vinyl. He even brought it to the theater so people could flip through it, which is just plain awesome. (He’s also friends with Swampers bassist David Hood’s son Patterson, of Drive-By Truckers fame.) It was impossible to mistake Jay’s enthusiasm, and before a single frame had flickered across the room, it became clear that the documentary has managed to capture something that he’s been waiting a long time to see.

It’s not that the Swampers are unknown. They’ve been inducted into more than one musical hall of fame, and throughout the film, I never got the impression that they were screwed out of royalties or were mistreated. In fact, they banded together to start their own studio and publishing company in 1969 and seem to be pretty content with the path they’ve taken. But I imagine it’s tough for everyone involved to see films like Standing in the Shadows of Motown come and go without a similarly bright spotlight being pointed at the musicians who helped birth “When A Man Loves A Woman,” “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You),”  “Kodachrome” and “I’ll Take You There” and many, many other hit songs. And if the goal of Muscle Shoals was to shine that long-overdue light, it should be considered a success. Several of the musicians I follow on Twitter have been raving about it, and I firmly believe it’ll gain momentum as more people have the opportunity to see it. But I think the film goes even further by deftly exploring the nuanced relationship between creativity and business.

Even in their heyday, the members of Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section flew under the radar. A running joke throughout the documentary held that many of the famous musicians who came to Alabama thought the Swampers were black, not these unassuming white dudes who just happened to have soul music in their blood. And they still seem unassuming. Their interviews were calm. They smiled a lot. In many ways, this makes total sense. There’s that old saying about makeup — how, when done well, you barely notice it’s there, and you could say the same of a rhythm section, as crucial as it is to a song’s success. After all, you’d be crazy to think that you deserve the spotlight over an Aretha Franklin or a Wilson Pickett, and the Swampers we see in the film are the perfect session players — people who make other artists sound their best without practicing the kind of egotism that demands attention.

And then, on the other end of the spectrum, you have Rick Hall, whose flair for the dramatic is all over the film. He rides around on farm equipment, his stories are rife with hyperbole, he’s quick to note accomplishments, and the things he and Jerry Wexler say about each other remind me of two embattled movie producers who might spout things like “You tell that sonofabitch he’s finished! He’ll be working at a popsicle stand in Poughkeepsie when I’m done with him!” without batting an eyelash. They never went that far, but it’s clear that Hall is a different animal. He named his studio FAME, for crying out loud. But here’s the thing — none of this would have happened without him. “When A Man Loves A Woman” wouldn’t be what it is today had Hall not picked up the phone and told Wexler they had something special on their hands. Creativity needs attention if anyone wants to make money.

It’s an ugly truth that’s only getting uglier as everyone scrambles to figure out what the financial future of the recording industry is going to look like, and as music’s leading creative force, Kanye West, becomes a bigger and bigger star while displaying a kind of egotism that borders on the surreal. West already managed to bridge the consumerism-substance divide (remember when he appeared on Def Poetry Jam with a bunch of Louis Vuitton bags lol?) but more recently, he’s taken his mentor’s knack for fusing musical talent and entrepreneurial savvy — “I’m not a business man, I’m a business, man” — to a cartoonish extreme, refusing to perform without his lavish stage setup and confessing that music isn’t really his main focus. I can’t think of a better time for Muscle Shoals to have been released. It’s a brilliantly constructed reminder of how to serve a cause that’s bigger than yourself. Of what happens when you put the music first, even when you’re trying to run a business.

All that said, just because you’re deferential doesn’t mean you deserve to go unrecognized. Give credit where credit is due. The Swampers, Rick Hall and Muscle Shoals, Alabama deserve to celebrate what they’ve accomplished, and this film nails it, with fascinating archival footage, heaps of new interviews and the kind of nature footage normally reserved for the best episodes of Planet Earth. I can’t recommend seeing it highly enough.

Click here to find out where you can catch the film and listen below to two of my favorite Shoals-backed tracks.

Paul Simon — “Kodachrome” [Spotify/iTunes]

Aretha Franklin — “I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You)” [Spotify/iTunes]

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