FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, is the recording studio that produced ’60s-era smash hits by artists like Etta James, Little Richard, Arthur Alexander, Wilson Pickett, and Aretha Franklin. Then in the ‘70s along came the Osmonds, Mac Davis, Paul Anka , and Bobbie Gentry. More recently Americana artists like the Drive-By Truckers, Jason Isbell, Bettye LaVette have graced the halls of FAME Studios. Artists like Tim McGraw, The Beatles, Kenny Chesney, Janis Joplin, the Dixie Chicks, Martina McBride and many more have recorded song published by FAME. The impact of this studio on the characteristic sound of American music has a reach that’s hard to calculate.
Rick Hall, founder of FAME Studios, passed away last winter; he was nearly 86. He left in his wake a rich assortment of stories and innumerable people whose lives he touched. From superstars like the Rolling Stones, to contemporary rising stars like Jason Isbell, and unlikely stars like Percy Sledge from more than 50 years ago, FAME Studios touched them all. I talked with his son, Rodney, about the lifetime he has spent inside the mechanisms of this studio.
When Rodney Hall answers the phone, I ask permission to talk about his father’s impact, hoping, I say, that won’t be an intrusion upon his grief. I remind him that we had spoken last winter prior to his father’s passing away, and that we had chatted about Rick Hall’s characteristic humility in regard to the Civil Rights politics at the time he founded the studio. “I talk about him every day,” Rodney says. “You know, my Dad always kept his head down making great records and didn’t get caught up in the hoopla going around, he stayed out of political drama.” The political drama Hall is referring to was the fact that in the ’60s, during the Civil Rights movement, Rick Hall was a white man who would produce albums for many African American artists in a small corner of Alabama “Although later on, he did get involved in copyright legislation and the like,” Hall adds.
“What was it like growing up in and around the studio as a kid?” I ask. “Oh, it was just my Dad’s work, you know? As a kid, we didn’t realize what the significance was, of what he was doing. Once in awhile our teachers would show some interest, like if Mac Davis was coming to town, but other than that, we didn’t see the wider impact until we were much older.”
“We used to build forts in the studio with baffles though,” he laughs. FAME Studios gives tours of the studio. If you’re not booked to record there, you can see it for $10. Its primarily wooden interior is impressive. I wondered to what extent Hall believes the natural structural qualities of FAME Studios contribute to the warmth of the sounds recorded there. “The studio is beautiful, it’s made out of different wood, mostly a lot of local rough sawed cedar, with a wood parquet floor. “ When asked whether the parquet floor held some practical significance, Hall jokes: “That’s our dance floor!”
“One thing we’ve been discussing lately concerns some oddities with our floor, which is concrete, the part that’s under carpet. You can stomp around on different places and you can hear that it sounds hollow underneath the concrete. We had a geo-engineer in here who thinks there’s water running underneath the floor. This was a scientist, and he thinks there’s water intersecting here, which would make sense. It really would explain the vibe and the energy in this room that contributes to the sound quality and the music in here.”
“The city of Muscle Shoals was a swamp until the 1930s when the TVA built the Wilson Dam and dammed the river up. Muscle Shoals would flood back then, and the studio is built on the flood plain, below the flood level, and there are still sinkholes around. So there’s no telling what kids of caverns are below us. But I’m thinking about having a couple engineers come over and do a seismic study. Bringing it back to sonar and the sonic, using our ear to listen to find out, which is what we’re trained to do. (laughs)”
In his travels as a producer in the music business, Rick Hall had spent time with Chet Atkins and Owen Bradley around the time they were planning the construction of what later became Owen Bradley’s renowned “Quonset Hut” in Nashville. According to Rodney, his dad used the same dimensions to build FAME Studios in the early 1960’s at its current location. I asked how Hall would characterize FAME studios as having differentiated from those Nashville studios, despite their common physical design. “Well musically we’ve always been outside of the box, we’ve always been more soulful and more funky than the more country Nashville Sound. Our style has always been more akin to Memphis than to Nashville. Although, as opposed to Memphis, we have a little more country, so we’ve always been a combination of country, rock, soul, and gospel, so it’s an amalgamation of those sounds. A balance.”
It stands to reason that the “funkiness” and “soulfulness” Hall references that has set FAME Studios’ sound apart from the signature sounds of other country and Americana music counterparts was a result of the influence of the African American artists Rick Hall recorded early on: Wilson Pickett, Arthur Alexander, Aretha Franklin and dozens more. Regardless of whether or not the Halls have showboated about the business practices that influenced their sound, a glance through the rosters show the amalgamated foundation of people who made music there. And there’s a clearly mixed lineage; there are those who came from generations steeped in rhythms brought by African slaves centuries before; and of the studio itself beginning to combine those with the so-called “country” sounds that evolved from English folk backgrounds. Some of FAME Studio’s earliest hits were not those of trained career musicians, but were local African American discoveries. R & B singer Percy Sledge, for example, was a local African American hospital worker who was singing to patients during his day shifts and playing in clubs at night when Quin Ivy, Rick Hall’s studio writer, discovered him. Ivy had a smaller studio adjunct to FAME studios, and Percy Sledge’s 1966 megahit “When A Man Loves A Woman” was recorded there. “Arthur Alexander was a bellhop, before he had his first hit, which was also FAME Studios’ first hit titled “You Better Move On,” Rodney says. This song was heard across the ocean and Alenxander was covered by both the Beatles and the Rolling Stones on their debut albums.
According to Hall, there has only been one key quality required for all of the albums that the studio produces, and that’s high quality musicianship. Not everybody has that. There is a well-known story about how Duane Allman of the Allman Brothers once camped out in the parking lot of FAME Studios until he got the chance to play guitar for Rick Hall. I asked whether they still have people flocking to FAME studios like that today. “It’s funny, we have a little couch out front, and we had a guy not too long ago who started staying on the couch, but unfortunately he played guitar for us and he didn’t play guitar like Duane Allman so… (laughs) He had to go get a place to stay,” Hall says.
“A key characteristic of FAME Studios has always been the great songs and the great musicians. It doesn’t matter what your hair looks like or the color of your skin. The one thing we are discriminating about is the music. You have to be a great musician to make great songs.”
Rick Hall recorded his autobiographical memoirs in a book called The Man From Muscle Shoals: My Journey From Shame to Fame (Heritage 2015). Rodney Hall says: “There’s a television series being developed around my Dad’s book. They keep asking, as everybody does, about the whole civil rights aspect of Muscle Shoals and FAME Studios and the area at that time. And I tell everyone, this place is just like anywhere, there are always a few bad eggs, but for the most part, there was never any racial issue here in the studios. That’s the story. There wasn’t an issue. People lived in the community together. It wasn’t an industrialized area; it was a farming area.” Rick Hall was the son of white sharecroppers. Families of all races worked the fields at that time. “Everyone worked together towards the same goals. Back in the ‘40s and ‘50s my dad and a lot of white guys were working in the fields right alongside the African Americans, they were their friends. While in Birmingham a lot was going on during the Civil Rights movement, this area was always a lot more integrated than the rest of the state. We’re really closer to being racially integrated. North Alabama is very different from South Alabama in a lot of ways.”
“There was never any grandstanding about it, either. Everybody asks that question, the fact of the matter was that nothing was going on. We were all just human beings. Our motto, my Dad’s motto, was that everybody just needs to stop worrying about it and just listen. Listen to this record!”
“The television series is being produced by Johnny Depp’s production company and Virgin Media, and they signed a deal with ABC to run the series. Nancy Wilson from the band Heart is the music supervisor, and Betinna Gilois is the writer, she’s done several big movies. This series will be based on Muscle Shoals and my Dad’s life and his book. It will be showing in fall 2019, but the filming process is not underway yet. That was the last deal my Dad negotiated before he passed away, he signed that about a year ago. That’ll be exciting and interesting to see.”
Hall reflects: “You never know whether productions like this are going to be amazing or whether they going to make us look like hillbillies (laughs). We were fairly involved in the Muscle Shoals documentary (Magnolia Pictures) [2013, directed by Greg Camalier] and we had seen a few clips and they did a great job — but we hadn’t actually seen the finished version until it screened at Sundance. You never know for sure until you see it.”
In more legacy news, Hall reveals their is a Muscle Shoals compilation record of new material soon to be released. “On September 28th we will be releasing a compilation album, it’s been underway for years. We started working on it back in 2012 but the concept was already a couple decades old. I’ve been slowly and patiently working on the idea for awhile, but over the past 3 or 4 years we’ve been really working on it in earnest. Every idea has its time I guess,” he adds with a chuckle, “and the time for this one is finally now.“
“The title for the project is Muscle Shoals: Small Town Big Sound. It is, for lack of a better word, a tribute record to Muscle Shoals. We’ve recorded Steven Tyler and Aloe Blacc, Willie Nelson, Chris Stapleton, Jamey Johnson, Alan Jackson, Vince Gill, Keb Mo, Kid Rock, Lee Ann Womack, Alison Krauss, and Candi Staton (now 78), who first met my Dad in 1968, so this is 50 years later we’re still working with Candi. We’ve got 21 artists in all; we’ve recorded 17 songs.
“We have a half a dozen different producers on this project, I am primarily partnering with Keith Stegal (Alan Jackson, Randy Travis, Zach Brown Band). He and I are partnering with BMG as executive producers and then brought in some guys to work on some individual tracks, so it’s actually been a collaborative effort, there’s probably 100 different Muscle Shoals guys who have worked on it in some form. We tried to bring in everyone we could if they were available according to everyone’s schedules. The biggest challenge was working with people’s schedules to fit everyone in; and anyone who wasn’t on the project was left off purely because of scheduling conflicts.”
“But there’s already so much interest, we may do a Volume 2. We have had over 300 hit songs so there is so much material to choose from that we narrowed it down to about 20 per artist and let them pick from there. The whole team has been working on finishing the tribute album all summer,” Hall says.
At this time, the Muscle Shoals Music Group is putting together several shows showcasing their artists. Primary among them is at 3rd and Lindsley, in Nashville on September 11th, the opening night of this year’s Americana Music Awards Festival. As Hall says: “That’ll be a fun night.” For more information, see here: https://www.fame2.com/
And watch for the album release on September 28.