The recent passings of Donnie Fritts and Jimmy Johnson—two iconic figures who helped shape what we call the Muscle Shoals Sound and left us within ten days of each other—casts a sadness that will be particularly heartfelt when Jason Isbell comes home to his native Alabama and sets foot onstage in Florence for the inaugural ShoalsFest.
It’s inconceivable that something like ShoalsFest—which pairs Isbell with wife Amanda Shires, Sheryl Crow and Mavis Staples who cut “I’ll Take You There” here nearly fifty years ago with the Staples Singers–could exist were it not for the contributions of songwriter/keyboardist Fritts and guitarist Johnson. The latter was part of the famed FAME Studio’s house band and later the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section that featured keyboardist Barry Beckett, drummer Roger Hawkins and bassist David Hood. Johnson’s guitar licks are all ingrained in our DNA and can be dialed up by memory in songs like Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” and Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman.”
“In Muscle Shoals they’ve got the Swampers,” sang Ronnie Van Zandt, in “Sweet Home Alabama,” calling out and further cementing Johnson and his compatriots’ place in history. Fritts, a member of the Alabama Music Hall of Fame, was known as “Funky Donnie Fritts” and his song “We Had It All” has been widely covered by every country artist of major stature.
Last year, American Highways’ editor Melissa Clarke spoke to Rodney Hall, the son of the late Rick Hall whose FAME studios recorded some of the most iconic songs in American history. As Hall recounted, the city of Muscle Shoals was a swamp until the 1930s when the TVA built the Wilson Dam and dammed the Tennessee river up.
Muscle Shoals, said Hall, was in the middle of nowhere. “There was never a large media market close to us back in the day. There were no interstates or chain restaurants. It was a dry county until the 1980’s.”
Isbell grew up around the Alabama/Tennessee state line in Green Hill, one of the four neighboring communities that make up “The Shoals” and is about twenty minutes from Muscle Shoals. By the time he was 15, Isbell turned years of playing music with his extended family into a weekly gig of sorts. He convinced his mother to drop him off at restaurants which featured live music on Friday nights.
In those days, restaurants had laws that allowed them to serve 51 per cent food and 49 per cent alcohol thereby competing as clubs. The young Isbell would go in, order chips and salsa and nurse it all night hoping he’d get called up to play.
Some of the musicians included members of the band the Shooters, songwriter Spooner Oldham and Muscle Shoals studio musician David Hood, the father of Patterson Hood with whom Isbell would later join in the Drive By Truckers. Oldham was part of the original FAME band and his piano progression helped jumpstart the session where Aretha Franklin recorded her breakthrough song “I Never Loved a Man The Way I Love You.”
As Isbell recounted in an interview with Sirius XM Outlaw Country host Elizabeth Cook, he found them to be hospitable if not practical as they were good people who needed a break–and didn’t mind having the teenager come up to play during a break over a four-hour show.
In an earlier era, Donnie Fritts was just a little older than Isbell when he met a black bell hop by the name of Arthur Alexander. The tall six-foot three-inch Alexander was strikingly handsome with a great voice and had written a few songs. With Hall behind the tape machine, Alexander cut “You Better Move On” which was later covered by the Rolling Stones and in an interesting historical coincidence, came out just weeks after the Beatles released another Alexander-penned song “Anna.”
“It was not really a common thing for black and white men to be hanging around together,” Fritts related about his friend and the man he called “June” in an interview with Buddy Miller on the Buddy & Jim Show. “1962 was a turbulent year with bright sheets and bomb threats. There was a lot of trouble and things that we didn’t understand. It made us real close friends. He was my brother.”
Over the coming years, artists like Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett would come to record in Muscle Shoals often surprised that the session men who had created the underlying southern soul sounds of so many hits were all white.
In the documentary Muscle Shoals, there is a funny moment when Wilson Pickett describes coming to the city and being picked up by Hall. On his way to Fame studios, Pickett wondered what he’d gotten himself in when he drove by a cotton field being picked by black field hands.
But as Rodney Hall recounted to Clarke, “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 were closer to being racially integrated. North Alabama is very different from South Alabama in a lot of ways.”
Over time the studio session men would leave Fame and establish themselves as the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section. They would establish their own studio, Muscle Shoals Sound, in nearby Sheffield. Jimmie Johnson was the engineer for the three nights when the Rolling Stones came to visit in 1969 and record “You Gotta Move,” “Wild Horses” and “Brown Sugar,” footage of which can be still viewed in the documentary about the band’s infamous appearance at the Altamont Speedway Music Festival.
Isbell wasn’t the first musician to leave Muscle Shoals for Nashville. Fritts left town for Music City where he became a renown songwriter and met Kris Kristofferson. He ended up playing keyboards in Kristofferson’s band for forty years. No doubt Isbell will one day join Fritts in the Alabama Music Hall of Fame.
Isbell has dealt with the issue of race in his words and reflections. In the heart of the Shoals, the festival is a time to reflect on where we’ve been, where we are now and where we’re headed. Like all of us, he can look to the friendship of Fritts and Alexander whose lifelong bond symbolized the values ingrained in the culture created in Muscle Shoals. When Arthur Alexander spent his final days in a Nashville hospital, Fritts saw him one last time and came back to Florence and wrote a beautiful tribute song called “June.” In the aftermath of Fritts’ passing, it’s an enduring gift we can all draw strength from.
If you find yourself at ShoalsFest, you might want to take a group tour of Jason Isbell’s old haunts. You also have your choice of taking tours of the old FAME and Muscle Shoals studios. And maybe you’d like to cut your own side at Fame.
The area still retains its mystery of what made for the Muscle Shoals sound. In the documentary Muscle Shoals, the Tennessee River and water emerges as its own character. It’s something that Rodney Hall still thinks about today.
“The studio is built on the flood plain, below the flood level, and there are still sinkholes around,” he told Americana Highways. “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.”
The legacy of social change that began in the Fritts and Johnson era follows the performers to ShoalsFest and continues to endure. Sheryl Crow like the Isbells, has long been a gun control advocate. And for Mavis Staples, she has a date the following week in Washington, D.C.
On October 11th she joins Norah Jones and Katy Perry for the #SilencetheViolence Benefit Concert in D.C. presented by the David Lynch Foundation to raise money for Building Bridges Across the River.
As Jimmy Cliff once sang, we’ve still got many rivers to cross.