“Music and Mystique in Muscle Shoals” Chronicles a Legendary Music Scene

Author Christopher Reali began his career as a music teacher, but he said he was always a student of music history, beginning when he used to be an avid reader of liner notes as a young musician. When he returned to school to study musicology, he noticed little scholarship on Muscle Shoals, Alabama, the region of the South from which he argues some of the most influential music in America springs. As a lifelong fan, he began a ten-year investigation into the business of making music in Muscle Shoals. The result is his new book, Music and Mystique in Muscle Shoals.

Reali is a cultural musicologist who studies popular music by examining the relationships between local music scenes and the national music industry. His published work appears in Southern Cultures, the New Grove Dictionary of American Music, and The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture. He has also toured the United States, Canada, and Western Europe as a guitar technician and tour manager for Chris Whitley, and as a guitar, bass, and drum tech for David Gray.

Below, he talks about the music of Muscle Shoals and its influence on this American sound.

How does the music of Muscle Shoals relate to and influence your own sound?

“Sweet Home Alabama” became the signature song of my high school cover band in the mid-1980s. Various bands I played in covered songs by Aretha [Franklin] or The Staples [Singers], or whomever. As far as my own sound, it’s music I’ve listened to my entire life. Everything I write and play, it all comes out of me in some way. Every artist is a vessel for everything they’ve experienced, and some of it shows up in different ways.

How did that lead to the writing of this book?

I taught band in New York, which is where I live again now, and I was enjoying it, but I couldn’t envision myself forty years later as being a band director. I enjoyed teaching music history to students. We had general music education for students who are not in band, orchestra, or chorus. I taught the elements of music — rhythm, harmony, technique — through pop music. I started teaching music history, and I got interested in that. I went back to school and got a master’s in musicology at Hunter College. Later, in one of the first doctoral seminars I took [at Chapel Hill], the professors asked us to do an archival project. UNC has The Southern Folklife Collection, which is the biggest archive of all things Southern — music, foodways, everything. There was a very small collection about Jerry Wexler. There was a typed manuscript of an article he wrote for the 75th anniversary of Billboard, called “What It Is — Is Swamp Music — Is What It Is” — he’s very clever that way. So, I started an investigation into Muscle Shoals because this article is about all these white musicians who are developing this music that Wexler called “swamp music.” This music has touched everyone’s lives. You can’t go to a wedding or turn the radio on without hearing a lot of this music.

You write, “Muscle Shoals represents both real locations and a tangible illusion.” What is a tangible illusion, and what does that phrase say about the public’s perception of the South?

As I started getting deeper into the research, I realized that the Muscle Shoals is in Alabama, but not of Alabama. The region itself stands out because it did not rely on chattel slavery. The tangible illusion is that people begin to hear the aural sound and think, Oh, that’s Muscle Shoals, but you can’t see sound. You can touch the representation of sound, like my collection of 45s, but that’s not actually the sound. “The Muscle Shoals mystique” is that metaphor of what the Muscle Shoals sound is that begins to widely circulate across the press and the public, starting in the late 1960s, and still to this day.

You write about criticism at the time, of Motown being sanitized for white audiences. To what degree is that criticism justified, or not?

It wasn’t justified at all. The view that Motown was only making music for white teenagers is not accurate. The public view [of Motown] was, “We want to make a lot of money, and to do that, we have to cross over into the pop market.” The Motown tracks are slickly produced and highly polished. There are some kinks and hiccups in the tracks recorded at Muscle Shoals, and I think that’s when people began to perceive, “This is what Southern soul is. It’s grittier.” There are very few mistakes in any of those Motown records. The real or perceived differences between the styles of music produced in those locations, they all helped sell records. The vast majority of the public doesn’t realize that once you buy the record, the artist and label don’t really care what you think about it, because they’ve got your money.

You write that the Muscle Shoals sound is never clearly defined. Can you define any sound?

I spent a lot of time doing musical analysis. As I started doing more research into sound, and researching Muscle Shoals and Nashville and Memphis, it all became part of this sonic color line. “The Muscle Shoals sound” just meant Black music. In regard to Nashville, Muscle Shoals, Memphis, and Motown, I think the word “sound” is very nebulous. There are certainly musical characteristics. A song from Muscle Shoals will have 15 musicians, and there are background singers, and there are horns. Motown has that very distinctive Motown beat with auxiliary percussion. If you move forward and you want to talk about “the Seattle sound,” you can talk about Nirvana and grunge. It’s the sound of the Big Muff distortion pedal. You can physically say, “It is that one piece of gear that makes all those bands from Seattle in the nineties.”

Going back to the sixties, it became a way for these regional labels to market themselves as distinct from things happening at Columbia Records or Atlantic Records or the other major labels. It clearly worked. When I asked the musicians, “Is there a Muscle Shoals sound?” they said, “Yes. There is more bass in the mix.” With mono recordings, you literally amplify the bass drum and the bass, and that became the sonic blueprint for soul and R&B music in general. But if you’re only a fan of the R&B of Muscle Shoals, there are some similarities, but Muscle Shoals was not just an R&B industry. They were a recording industry, so they moved with the times. Otherwise, they would have died.

What are the pros and cons of musicians having as much negotiating power as they did in Muscle Shoals in its prime?

The pros were that when they got to their own studio, they had a lot more leverage, because they owned the building. They owned the publishing company. When they owned their own building, they could say, “All right; you’re coming here because we have a track record of producing hit recordings. With that, we would like you to consider one of these songs to be on the album. And if you take the song, maybe we will give you a break on the session fees.” They were able to get more income.

The con was that a lot of artists and labels would say, “Sure,” but no one ever paid them. They made deals because they could, but they didn’t have the leverage to follow through on some of the deals. They didn’t get screwed by everybody, but they got screwed by a lot of people. I can’t think of any other situation in the U.S. at that time, or even to this day, where the musicians own the studio and the publishing company. That just didn’t happen.

Part of that is the freedom that comes with the lack of union oversight. It would have never happened in Nashville. It would have never happened in LA, because they would have made them follow all those strict union protocols, and they would have made a lot more money. They wouldn’t have needed to open a publishing company on their own. One of the other cons was that their talents were strapped. They’re musicians, and all of a sudden, they own this multimillion-dollar business. The time constraints became way more intense. They weren’t able to solely focus on the business of making music.

How do the racial assumptions of audiences outside Muscle Shoals shape audience perception today? You write that initially, many audiences assumed that some of the white musicians were Black. Can that still happen today?

I think they still do. I often talk about K-Pop with my students, and a lot of them are shocked to find out that Ed Sheeran writes songs for K-Pop artists. The face of the group might be someone from South Korea, but the behind-the-scenes people are very international at every level, whether it’s K-Pop or hip-hop. Part of that is because so few people understand how the business of music works. They still assume the star singer is the person who wrote the song and recorded the song. They don’t have any conception of how a song gets constructed, written, produced, and marketed, despite the fact that the information is readily available. That perception is still very much a part of the way the Grammys categorize artists. The word “urban” is another code word for “Black.” It still very much exists to this day.

You write about the concept of “media-made Dixie” and its role in biases about the South. What does that look like today?

The term “media-made Dixie” is still very relevant today. Look at what happened with Lil Nas X and “Old Town Road.” There’s always been a very close connection between music made by Black Americans and “hillbillies.” It showed up in a very big way with “Old Town Road,” and people went, “Oh, my God; that’s not country music.” Well, why not? Because he’s a Black guy? Because he’s gay? Or both? The music has changed, but these ideas are still lingering. There’s this dichotomy between hard-core country and soft-shell country. People in my classes say that bluegrass is more authentic. But bluegrass musicians were sponsored by the Martha White flour company. “Old-Town Road” did not incorporate traditional country instruments, but neither did Patsy Cline.

When you’re in a recording studio, you’re surrounded with millions of dollars’ worth of gear to make it sound like someone’s playing in your living room. Listeners conveniently forget that, in order for the song to get to their phone, CD player, whatever it is, there was a significant amount of technology involved to get that track to them. Country music has always been pop music. But country music is still very much about making your way through the corporate machine. One of the reasons the Shoals is overlooked [in terms of country music history] is that it falls into that soft shell. But they made millions of dollars off of “I Swear.” So if you don’t think John Michael Montgomery is country, they’ve got the twenty million records to back it up.

You write that one outside rock critic argued that the talent record producers brought from other places to Muscle Shoals was part of the “mystique.” How do the roles of outside talent and studio musicians and producers balance each other out?

If they needed a horn player or someone more funky, there just weren’t that many horn players in the Shoals, from roughly ’60-’67. So, they had to bring them in from Memphis. Memphis had a much bigger music culture than the Shoals did. Although the Shoals had a very vibrant artistic culture, it wasn’t really pop music-based. So they brought these musicians in, and even though these names were on the credits, all the fans and critics saw was “Made in Muscle Shoals.” It goes back to this idea that the place is a state of mind.

What perceptions of Muscle Shoals and its musicians endure today?

The enduring legacy is that it was this region that shouldn’t have, but did. The legacy is this uncanny ability to record on thousands of recordings, hundreds of top-ten and number-one hits, and it speaks to this era that is bygone. This nostalgia trip that the region of Muscle Shoals now sells is just because these guys did it, and they didn’t know they shouldn’t be able to.

Music and Mystique in Muscle Shoals
By Christopher Reali
University of Illinois Press
Published July 19, 2022