Friday, July 6, 2012

Fables of the Reconstruction: Muscle Shoals, Alabama

I’d never been to a recording studio before last week when I visited FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. I chose a good one for my first. Etta James, Clarence Carter, Arthur Conley, Little Richard, Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin and Otis Redding all recorded there when they were young and among the best musicians on earth. They’ve even got a sign in the lobby that says it: “Through these doors walk the finest musicians, songwriters, artists and producers in the world.” It sits between a CVS Pharmacy and a Pizza Hut a half block off the main road into Muscle Shoals, a long and hideous stretch crowded with chain stores and new car lots. The Pizza Hut crew watched us as we parked and got out of the car, checking to see if we were famous. Over the last decade they’ve seen the likes of the Dixie Chicks, George Strait, Travis Tritt, Billy Ray Cyrus and Chris Ledoux go through their neighbor’s door. It seems so unlikely that a mundane place like this, an hour from the nearest interstate, two hours from the nearest city big city, would be the birthplace of so much culture and character.
Gold records hang in the lobby, and in the waiting room outside the studios there are rows and rows of framed photographs. I stared for a while at one of Little Richard caught with his head cocked back, mid-wail, and when I went into the studio I stood on the same spot where he’d stood in the photo. Sounds corny, but it felt cool. The place has high ceilings with a lattice of dark wood to trap the bass. The guy who gave us our tour sat down and played a few notes of the grand piano and the sound just hung in the air like energy and light. The control room sits half a floor up from the studio, so the producers look down on the musicians. Up there I found a reel of two-inch tape that read, “Duane Allman Outtakes.”
The next morning I visited the Alabama Music Hall of Fame — for a whirlwind tour, unfortunately, because I was in a hurry to get down to Birmingham. When I walked in I heard the Dead playing. I asked our tour guide why, and he pointed to a display case with an embroidered dress Donna Jean Godchaux used to wear onstage, along with a silky Europe ’72 tour jacket, and a copy of Europe ‘72. She grew up in the area and she lives there now. I’ve always thought Donna was a cool character in Grateful Dead lore, but this realization of where she’s from made her seem all the more cool, like she’s got it in her blood or something. The museum’s not particularly big, but it’s full of stuff of interest to music freaks. My favorite artifact was the rotating steel guitar, with four sets of strings mounted on a kind of rotisserie, each tuned differently. Actually, the highlight for me was the Hall of Fame itself, with each of the inductees painted in oil on glorious black velvet. The paintings are big, mounted two high across all four walls, so they sort of overpower you, magnificent and reverent and cheesy all at the same time.
I know Sun Ra said, “Space is the Place.” But there’s something to be said for his sweet home state.

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