Music and Mystique in Muscle Shoals

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Pub Date 19 Jul 2022 | Archive Date 01 Jul 2022

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A No Depression Most Memorable Music Book of 2022

The forceful music that rolled out of Muscle Shoals in the 1960s and 1970s shaped hits by everyone from Wilson Pickett and Aretha Franklin to the Rolling Stones and Paul Simon. Christopher M. Reali's in-depth look at the fabled musical hotbed examines the events and factors that gave the Muscle Shoals sound such a potent cultural power. Many artists trekked to FAME Studios and Muscle Shoals Sound in search of the sound of authentic southern Black music—and at times expressed shock at the mostly white studio musicians waiting to play it for them. Others hoped to draw on the hitmaking production process that defined the scene. Reali also chronicles the overlooked history of Muscle Shoals's impact on country music and describes the region's recent transformation into a tourism destination.

Multifaceted and informed, Music and Mystique in Muscle Shoals reveals the people, place, and events behind one of the most legendary recording scenes in American history.

A No Depression Most Memorable Music Book of 2022

The forceful music that rolled out of Muscle Shoals in the 1960s and 1970s shaped hits by everyone from Wilson Pickett and Aretha Franklin to the...

Advance Praise

"Grounded in oral histories and meticulous archival research, Reali's work takes us deep into the story of the Muscle Shoals sound, providing additional complexity and context that helps to answer the question scholars and music enthusiasts have been asking for over half a century: 'Why Muscle Shoals?'" --Carolyn M. Crawford, Director, Muscle Shoals National Heritage Area

"Reali’s meticulous research--including his use of original oral histories and new archival finds--situates Muscle Shoals’s rich musical history within a broader understanding of its impact on pop music and culture in the United States."--Charles L. Hughes, author of Country Soul: Making Music and Making Race in the American South

"Grounded in oral histories and meticulous archival research, Reali's work takes us deep into the story of the Muscle Shoals sound, providing additional complexity and context that helps to answer...

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Featured Reviews

I am grateful to NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

Ostensibly this is a book about music made in the Muscle Shoals area of north Alabama. While music and the associated business is central to this book, the author explores many other related topics. History, geography, race relations, local and national culture, politics and economics. How these issues interact and change over time are investigated as is the influence on the music produced by local recording studios. Local history is covered early in the book which then moves on to the music industry of the 1960s and 1970s, probably the most successful and influential years for Muscle Shoals musicians. Changes in local and national musical tastes in recent decades are explained as is the current situation in the Muscle Shoals area and future potential.

The central story is how a small town in northern Alabama became a distinct and influential source of widely loved music in the 1960s and beyond. Other US cities such as Nashville and Detroit are probably better know as areas with a distinct ‘sound’. The Muscle Shoals area of north Alabama and the music produced can also be considered distinct, due to the music writers, publishers, producers, studio musicians and others individual appearing in this book. Of course the singers and bands who’s names are attached the records made in Muscle Shoals also feature prominently in this book. Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, the Rolling Stones, Rod Stewart and Paul Simon, to name a few. Oh, and the Osmond Brothers !

The book begins with a lengthy introduction to the north Alabama region where the town of Muscle Shoals is location. The history of the area is covered including the indigenous peoples, colonisation, the Civil War and the turbulent times of change in the 1960s of the United States. Introduced are concepts of Southern identity, authenticity and myths. And how “…music is woven into the cultural fabric of the area”. The beginnings of the music scene are described, including the studios, publishers, studio musicians and recording artists. Relationships with external centres of music such as New York, Detroit and Nashville are part of this story. An attempt is made in the introduction, and in later chapters to define and understand the so-called Muscle-Shoals sound.

For some readers, the Introduction may be sufficient to provide a feel for and basic understanding of the Muscle Shoals area and the music produced. For those wanting depth and detail to this story, subsequent chapters provide a wealth of information, discussion and explanations. The individuals involved, the business processes, the changes over the years, the influences of public tastes and of course the making of the music, largely by local studio musicians & producers. These are the people who attracted outside artists looking for a distinct sound and hoping for hit records. It is truly remarkable the number of successful hit records that were produced in the Muscle Shoals area from a relatively small group of people.

The six chapters, in somewhat chronological order, are arranged on central topics or themes. The history of music in the area initially, followed by the early success of black artists making hit records, with a distinct sound, due to the racially integrated session musicians of the initial two (later many more) Muscle Shoals recording studios. Other topics covered are the local musical evolution, the creation of a writing and publishing business in addition to the recording studios.

The Muscle Shoals music industry thrived throughout the 60s and into the 70s, creating a distinctive sound and of course hit record for black, white, American and foreign artists. An amazingly diverse range of R&B, Soul, Country and Pop artists. From the Rolling Stones (who looked quite a sight in late 60s rural Alabama, Mick & Keef in full-on ‘Stones’ regalia, to the Osmond Brothers ! (who had numerous hits with the help of Muscle Shoals producers and musicians).

The final chapters discuss changes in local and national musical tastes in the 80s and beyond. The Muscle Shoal scene is probably way past its heyday in terms of output and success, nevertheless, the history and ‘Cultural Tourism’ seems to be sustaining the music industry to some extent today. The release of a Muscle Shoals documentary at the Sundance Festival in 2013 is providing impetus to a revitalised music industry in recent years.

Anyone with an interest in the American music scene since the 1960s will enjoy this detailed book. I agree with the author who describes the book as “…a multi-faceted interpretation of the Muscle Shoals sound…as a product of time, place and specific people, imbued with cultural meaning…”

The success of the Sundance documentary on the Muscle Shoals music scene may have generated a desire in some for more information, details and background. This book will satisfy those needs. I wish the author and publishers all the very best with this important book.

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Having listened to loads of music recorded at Muscle Shoals, it was always going to be an enjoyable read. Books about the labels and studios, rather than the individual artist are always a must for the bookshelf.

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My thanks to both NetGalley and the University of Illinois Press for an advance copy of this musical and cultural study.

If music had a physical form of some kind than the music coming from the Muscle Shoals are would be large, full of swagger, full of love, and just full of. The music had power, grace, funk, soul and again love, so much love that musicians from around the country, and from around the world came just to record a few tracks, amazed by the power of the studio players, and the studios itself. So many bands, so many classic songs came from Fame Recording Studio or Muscle Shoals Sound Studios, made by people who could play and wanted to play anytime, anywhere. Christopher M. Reali in his book/ dissertation Music and Mystique in Muscle Shoals writes of both the history and cultural significance of this area, along with the beautiful music that was created and the influence they had on music history.

The author begins with a history of the area, touching on the settling, the Civil War and race relations. One thing that is repeated alot is that in the area of Muscle Shoals was not as bad as the rest of the state. The rest of the state being Alabama it must have been horrible even if it wasn't that bad. So that's an odd note. From there we get an overview of the music, the creation of Fame Studios and the chapters pretty much follow along historically what happened. The breaking off of certain musicians, and the establishing of the Muscle Shoals Sound Studios, the growth of the Muscle Shoals sound, that everyone wanted to capture and have on their album. There is information on recording and recording sessions, life in that area and about the studio musicians who played on what sessions. The end chapters are more on the influence and continuing legacy and some of the recent acts who have recorded their, and what music is like in that area of the United States.

The book is well researched and sourced, as it did start as a dissertation. The style is a little padded, but still full of information about the music and the recordings. The writing is not dull academic, instead written by a music fan who wants to do right by getting things right. Information is provided on big names and little names, from the Rolling Stones, Wilson Pickett even the Osmonds. I enjoyed the writing about the changes in music and the industry, which helped boost the Muscle Shoals sound, than made it just another studio tool. A very entertaining and educational book.

Recommended for music fans both amateur and long time fans. There is plenty of information to keep both sorts reading. I learned quite a bit while reading, and enjoyed the book immensely. For fans of Stanley Booth's Rhythm Oil, Deep Blues by Robert Palmer, or for musical and being sidemen in music The Wrecking Crew by Kent Hartman, and for life as a black sideman in the south Booker T. Jones biography Time is Tight.

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This was a very interesting book. I liked learning about some of the early days of rock, blues, and R&B recording. I was amazed by the artists that these musicians worked with. This book is great for anyone looking to understand some of the backing groups that supported various early music stars.

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