How to Get Old: Muscle Shoals After Its 50 Years of FAME

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When Rick Hall, Spooner Oldham and the remaining Swampers inevitably die, the words “Muscle Shoals” will be in the first line of each of their obituaries, not just as an indication of where they lived and recorded a disproportionately large chunk of some of the greatest music of all time, but as a sort of shorthand for a place that inhabited them, a place that can be heard in a breezy electric piano riff or a close-mic’d drum kit, a place where lightning was captured in a bottle. “Magic” is the first word uttered in the documentary about this tiny, unlikely Alabama town, and it crops up again dozens of times in the film, as if these musical titans were molded from the clay spit out by the Tennessee River like something out of a Greek myth.

So maybe it was that magic that caused me to involuntarily blurt out “Take me with you” when our editor-in-chief told me he and our film editor were headed to Muscle Shoals and immediately start wondering whether I’d get struck by lightning—that figurative electricity that seemed to permeate the place or perhaps a literal bolt to smite me for being so audacious—if I dared to sport an Etta James-inspired cat eye in a room where the legendary singer once stood and recorded.

A few days later, we were on our way, equipped with a playlist of hits recorded at Hall’s FAME Studios and the Swampers’ nearby Muscle Shoals Sound Studio to last us the entirety of the four-hour drive from Atlanta. Soon enough, I was looking at Etta’s face peering back at me from a large print of the Tell Mama cover hanging on the wall inside FAME’s main studio. To the right was Aretha Franklin on the cover of I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You, head tilted and eyes gazing downward, the Queen of Soul surveying her court.

Like the monarchy, however, FAME is a relic of a bygone era. The studios, still actively used for recording to this day, feel a bit like a museum (rightly so), with old tape machines kept on display under glass. These days it shares a parking lot with a CVS pharmacy. And there are ghosts. Maybe not literally, but the spirits of those who were here when the magic was happening and have since passed away (James, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, original Swamper Barry Beckett, Duane Allman) as well as those who live on but have moved on to record elsewhere (Franklin, the rest of the Swampers) linger at FAME. Call it whatever you want—juju, a vibe, my own fandom kicking into overdrive—but when Jimmy Johnson gestures to a stool in Studio B and says “Duane used to sit right there,” I turn around and half-expect the Allman Brother to be perched there waving.

This is all a long way of saying that Muscle Shoals is old. Rick Hall is old. FAME Studios is old. The music that was made there and the people who made it—old, old. So what do you do when time is no longer on your side, when your greatest successes are decades behind you?

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OPTION 1: AGE GRACEFULLY, BUT KEEP CHASING (THE DAVID HOOD AND JIMMY JOHNSON TECHNIQUE)

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Jimmy Johnson and David Hood are the first people we see when we arrive at Muscle Shoals. They’re seated in reception waiting for us, together—a package deal, like they have been for over 50 years. Hood, 70, apologizes for sitting down and explains that his back has been acting up lately, while Johnson, 71, disappears to fetch a cup of coffee (which he will nurse for the entirety of our interview). “You know,” he says in that distinct Alabama drawl as he returns, grinning, “I was Rick’s very first employee.” He raises his eyebrows and lets his eyes get a little wide for effect before taking his seat next to Hood.

They’re both immediately taken with the microphone Michael, our film editor, has brought to record the interview. Hood asks what outlet we’re with, and when he smiles and says, “Oh, I know Paste because of my son,” it takes me a second to remember that he’s talking about Patterson Hood of the Drive-By Truckers (who has recently graced our cover) because he says it with the same inflection of any of my dad’s friends who have ever asked me what I do for a living.

And then the mic is set up and they get to telling stories. Like any two people who have known each other longer than they haven’t known each other—in this case, since junior high, when the guitarist (Johnson) and the bassist/trombonist (Hood) first started playing in bands around town together—they finish each other’s sentences on occasion, or interrupt to add a forgotten detail here and there.

But the stories themselves are incredible. There are some that made their way into the movie, like the time a session with Aretha Franklin concluded with Franklin’s husband and Hall trying to throw each other off a fourth-floor balcony and a vow by Atlantic Records’ Jerry Wexler that no artist of his would ever return to Muscle Shoals to record. (Although the Swampers would fly out to New York to finish the album, and it wasn’t long after that they opened the doors to their Muscle Shoals Sound Studio and, as Johnson says, smiling, “Rick got mad at us.”) There are some that are new but unsurprising, like when Hood’s memories of Allman reveal that the latter was never really content just to play other people’s songs. All of them are fascinating, and as more and more names get dropped—Paul Simon, Bob Seger, The Staples Singers, The Rolling Stones (who recorded “Wild Horses” and “Brown Sugar” at Muscle Shoals Sound and whose Sticky Fingers Johnson engineered), the easier it is to marvel at the fact that through it all, these guys never left the area. Instead of moving where all the action is, New York or LA or Nashville, they put down roots in their hometown, marrying and having children and letting the stars come to them, just down the street from FAME and their old boss.

But they’re not done. The Black Keys recorded their 2009 breakthrough, Brothers, at Muscle Shoals Sound, and Hood and Johnson—who both still play and record—are quick to rattle off names of younger artists they’d love to work with. “After all these years, I still get a thrill hearing myself on the radio,” Hood says. Johnson nods.

“I tell you what,” he says. “I’ll be doing this until I’m dead.”

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OPTION 2: STAY FROZEN IN TIME (THE RICK HALL APPROACH)

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Rick Hall is disappointed to learn that our interview will not be on camera.

“Aww, I dressed up,” he says, fingering his pocket square. He’s smiling, but he’s not joking. He’s wearing a navy sportcoat and white slacks, as if he walked straight out of the ‘60s. Each hand sports several rings, and his mustache has been carefully waxed into the kind of upward-curling shape you see on a lot of cartoon villains. He’s early, and the “Oh…hi” with which he greets Johnson and Hood makes it clear that he was not planning on seeing them this afternoon (and that, some 40 years after they left him to form their own studio, there’s still a certain tension between them). He disappears into his office to wait for us.

The office reminds me a little bit of my grandparents’ house, except with a mind-blowing amount of gold and platinum records adorning the walls. He catches me admiring the green carpeting and says, “This office is an exact replica of Leonard Chess’ office in Chicago. I went out there to work with him and I was so impressed with his office that I called up the decorator who did his and said ‘I want the same thing.’”

“Well, Rick, the last time we spoke, we talked about your personal life a bit, and I think this time, since it’s so powerfully revealed in the movie, I’d like to focus on your professional life, how you got started recording, if that’s okay with you,” Michael says.

“Sure,” Hall says, and after a lengthy pause he says “When I was six years old…” and proceeds to tell us his entire life story anyway.

He covers a lot of ground—how he was trained as a kid to hide if there was a knock on the door in case it was his estranged mother coming to kidnap him, how he and Wilson Pickett were nearly inseparable (“two peas in a pod,” as Hall describes it), how he felt a deep connection to Bobbie Gentry after hearing her “Ode to Billy Joe.”

Then, when it’s time for us to go, he plays us his mandolin record. He leans back in his chair and watches us, searching our faces, as we listen to the entire album. Then it’s his turn to interview us.

“What’s her story?” he asks, gesturing to me. I give him an answer, rattling off a quick introduction to myself, and apparently satisfied, he moves on to a bigger, more pressing issue: “What do you think of the music industry these days?”

It’s kind of a weird question from a guy who has so many gold records on his walls (including plenty for the pop hits he produced for Paul Anka and The Osmonds, the post-Swampers era he considers his “best years”), but then again, it’s not: Rick Hall’s a bottom-line kinda guy, and to him a hit is the greatest measure of success. These days, it’s a lot harder to get a hit—for everyone. He wants to know why.

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OPTION 3: ROLL WITH IT (THE SPOONER OLDHAM SPECIAL)

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Everything you need to know about Spooner Oldham can be heard in his opening riff to Aretha Franklin’s “I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You).” The Wurlitzer groove sounds downright easy, as if it just oozed directly out of Oldham’s fingertips, into the keys and onto the pages of the history books in one fluid motion. It’s laid-back but funky, and as it’s told in the documentary, it’s credited with sparking Franklin’s career—with saving a session that was going nowhere and helping the singer, who had been recording mostly pop with Columbia up until that point, get a little more soulful and find her true artistic voice.

“I’m just glad somebody heard it and said something,” Oldham shrugs. “I’ve never been one of those guys to say ‘Hey, check this out’ when I have something, so I’m just glad one of them heard it and said, ‘Hey, Spooner’s got something,’ because I might not have.”

He’s wearing a red checkered shirt and jeans and fiddling with a pack of American Spirits like he’s maybe too polite to ask if he can duck out and take a quick smoke break. He just turned 71 a few weeks ago, but he looks essentially the same as he does in some of the old pictures that hang on the walls of FAME—grayer, with a few extra wrinkles, no longer flanked by Otis Redding or Wilson Pickett, but basically the same. Unlike the Swampers, he ventured outside of Muscle Shoals, living and recording in Memphis and enjoying a career as a touring musician for a while, but the road has been good to him.

Whether he’s laughing and telling us about the first time he ever got drunk or revealing what Neil Young and Bob Dylan are like in person (the latter, unsurprisingly, “didn’t say a whole lot. We had heard he might be some sort of a recluse.”), Oldham remains humble and seemingly unfazed by just about everything. Mention that he’s in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and he’ll add “as a sideman, yeah” as if that somehow makes it less of a big deal. When you’re sitting in front of him, it’s easy to forget that this is the man whose organ took a nation of romantics to church on Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman,” or who—along with his songwriting partner Dan Penn—wrote hits like “I’m Your Puppet” and The Box Tops’ “Cry Like a Baby” (the latter of which came easily after Oldham put his head down on the table at a diner following a particularly fruitless writing session and said, “Dan, I could just cry like a baby”). It’s not because he doesn’t have that magical Muscle Shoals aura around him; he does. But Oldham’s not one of those guys who says “Hey, check this out” when he has something.

“I’ll walk you out,” he says when we’re done for the day, popping into reception to hand out hugs and handshakes to familiar faces before joining us outside and immediately lighting up that cigarette he was patient enough to hold off on earlier. Somehow, he launches into a story about the first time he experimented with LSD.

“I was interested in it as a writer, you know, expanding your mind,” he begins. “But I told them, ‘don’t bring me any of that bathtub stuff.’ I wanted to make sure I was getting the good stuff.” What follows is a lengthy, fantastic story that I can’t begin to do justice. But here are the bullet points:

Spooner, while tripping, decides to strip naked and go for a swim in the river. He accidentally swims too far, and emerges from the water nude and lost. He knocks on a stranger’s door and asks if he can borrow some clothes and use the phone. The stranger lends him a pair of overalls, and he calls his friends to reassure them that he has not, as they suspected, drowned in the river. Then, on the way home, “we pulled up to a stop sign,” he says, laughing, “and I sat there for a while before I realized I couldn’t read the letters on the sign.”

This is, in Spooner Oldham’s mind, the punchline of this story. Walking up to a stranger naked and high as a kite in the middle of the night, miraculously not dying during the ill-advised swim—he tells these parts as if they’re just the set-up for this hilarious stop sign anecdote.

As we finally part ways, he hands us his business card, and I have to laugh: It’s plain white, and all it says—in all-caps, sans-serif—is SPOONER OLDHAM, with his contact information printed unassumingly at the bottom. No title, no logos or flashy color. Just SPOONER OLDHAM. He doesn’t need to say any more. He’s got something, and we all know it.

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I should clarify that none of these guys are at death’s door, by any stretch of the imagination. They’re all vivacious, with no intentions to slow down or stop recording. And there’s a new print hanging on the other side of the studio these days, across from Aretha and Etta: a poster for Muscle Shoals, facing down the past with a reminder of the present attention the documentary has brought FAME. But, numerically speaking, they are closer to the end than they are to their greatest successes, and that might be alarming to some. It shouldn’t be.

It shouldn’t be because of course, the Swampers, Rick Hall and Spooner Oldham will all live forever.The music they made will be played and revered long after they’re all gone, whether it’s by the local high-school students waiting in the lobby to record or by a young music journalist who runs a finger along the edge of the soundboard when no one’s watching, hoping to touch a little piece of that magic.

And that’s not just because of Muscle Shoals. It’s because of these men and what they made—extremely different in personality, but forever linked by their accomplishments. The river didn’t spit them out; they dove in and swam in it.

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