SXSW: Muscle Shoals Musicians Featured on Film, Panel and Stage

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At South By Southwest, the focus on small town scenes includes a corner of northwest Alabama that produced an amazing amount of memorable recordings.

In terms of breeding grounds for music legends, everyone respects and recalls culture-rich Southern cities like New Orleans and Memphis, but the new documentary Muscle Shoals, directed by Greg Camalier (and recently picked up by Magnolia Pictures for U.S. rights), focuses on a small town in northwest Alabama that produced an amazing amount of memorable recordings.

In conjunction with the film premiering at South By Southwest, author and critic Holly George-Warren moderated an informative music panel called The Muscle Shoals Sound on March 14. It included guitarist Jimmy Johnson, bassist David Hood, keyboardist Spooner Oldham and guitarist Will McFarlane and ran through the history of the influential scene.

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In the humble beginnings of FAME Studios guided by visionary producer Rick Hall, Jimmy Johnson and David Hood (along with the late Barry Beckett and drummer Roger Hawkins) became The Swampers, an inventive core group of studio musicians who played numerous sessions behind vaunted artists like Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett.

Breaking racial barriers, this auspicious mix of talented white musicians and distinctive soul singers resulted in classic recordings like Arthur Alexander’s “You Better Move On” and Percy Sledge’s “When A Man Loves A Woman,” as well as Aretha’s “I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You)” and “Do Right Woman.” Even Duane Allman worked at FAME Studios for a time, playing the killer guitar solo on Wilson Pickett’s version of “Hey Jude.”

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After recording countless hits as the house band with Rick Hall at FAME, The Swampers were eventually co-opted by Atlantic Records executive Jerry Wexler and opened up their own studio across town -- the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio -- where they recorded with the likes of Boz Scaggs and Paul Simon and hosted sessions by The Rolling Stones, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Bob Seger. As The Swampers gained status, they would travel to places like New York City to deliver the Muscle Shoals sound. They even toured America as an essential part of Steve Winwood’s band Traffic, but always returned home to Muscle Shoals.

The influence Muscle Shoals had on popular music culture is not just historical, but continues today as David Hood’s son Patterson Hood leads the Drive-By Truckers and bands like the Alabama Shakes synthesize southern rock and soul in similar fashion. And Wednesday night, just to drive the point home, SXSW hosted a Muscle Shoals showcase at The Stage On Sixth Patio with The Swampers (featuring Hood and Johnson) and The Decoys with Spooner Oldham, Will McFarlane and veteran singer Donna Jean Thatcher Godchaux.

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