Now Muscle Shoals has got the Swampers,
And they’ve been known to pick a song or two
Sweet Home Alabama
Performed by Lynyrd Skynyrd
Written by Ed King, Gary Rossington, Ronnie Van Zant
Because this blog celebrates regionalism, it’s natural that I would eventually touch on a town in Alabama that would bring white and black music together in a way that would not only create many hit records—but would be known around the world for a unique sound. A sound that would attract some of the biggest names/bands of an era: Bob Dylan, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, Paul Simon, the Rolling Stones, Rod Stewart, Wilson Pickett, Bob Seger, Eric Clapton and Lynyrd Skynyrd.
There are many iconic rock-n-roll songs where people simply get some of the lyrics wrong. There are others where we can be confused by the imagery. And still others where the poetry or metaphors of the lyrics is up for interpretation. And there are others that we just miss the simple meaning.
I think the Lynyrd Skynyrd song Sweet Home Alabama fits the “all the above” category.
But the one part of the song I’d like to clear up is “Now Muscle Shoals has got the Swampers, And they’ve been known to pick a song or two.”
1) Muscle Shoals is a city in Alabama.
2) “The Swampers” is the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section
Several Native American tribes called the area now known as northwest Alabama home, but the Cherokee called the land south of what is now known as the Tennessee River Dagunahi—meaning mussel place. After the abundance of shellfish found in the river. It’s been said that the word mussel was not fully adopted when first used explaining the spelling of Muscle. (So Muscle Shoals has nothing to do with Muscle Beach.)
I’m not sure when Muscle Shoals became known more for its music than its mussels, but back in 1873—the “Father of the Blues”— W.C. Handy was born in the sister city of Florence, Alabama. The composer, songwriter, musician is celebrated every year in Florence during the The W.C. Handy Music Festival that takes place there every year during the last week in July.
In the 1940s, a DJ and radio engineer born in Florance spent four years at the Muscle Shoals radio station WLAY (AM) which played a “open format”—meaning broadcasting both black and white musicians, as well as county, bluegrass, Southern Gospel, and Delta blues. That music would influence that DJ, Sam Phillips, when he moved to Memphis and opened his own studio—Sun Studios. A small studio known for recording Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, and B.B. King among others. WLAY also became a meeting grounds of sorts as musicians came there to record.
Then in the late ’50s Rick Hall, Billy Sherrill and Tom Stafford opened the recording studio FAME Music in Florence. Hall would eventually set out on his own and move his studio to its current location in Muscle Shoals in 1963. The session musicians eventually became known as the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section. In 1969 some of the musicians of the Rythym Section (Barry Beckett, Roger Hawkins, Jimmy Johnson and David Hood) set out on there own and opened the studio Muscle Shoals Sound. (If I’m correct those are technically the Swampers as they helped Lynyrd Skynyrd lead singer Ronnie Van Zant early in his career.)
Some classic songs you may recognize that were produced at Muscle Shoals Sound Studio include the Rolling Stone’s Brown Sugar, Paul Simon’s Kodachrome, and Bob Seger’s Old Time Rock and Roll (of course, later featured in the movie Risky Business).
A few years ago driving from Florida to Iowa I went out of my way to go through Muscle Shoals and I wondered why a documentary hadn’t been produced on all of this music history. Apparently producer/director Greg ‘Freddy’ Camalier wondered the same thing when he drove through Muscle Shoals a few years ago, but he did something about it—he made a documentary called Muscle Shoals. The film showed at Sundance 2013 in January and features interviews with Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Percy Sledge, Clarence Carter, Etta James, Bono and others. I hope that documentary gets released this year and a larger audience gets exposed to a great chapter in American music— and sees another example of how a small place with talented people can accomplish great things. (Learn more about the movie at MuscleShoalsMovie.com.)
P.S. On my video shoot in Alabama last week one of the fellows we interviewed said that when he was in a somewhat remote area of Russia he was wearing a University of Alabama sweatshirt when somebody yelled “Roll Tide!” He told the six-year-old boy he was adopting from Russia, “Son, if you can learn to say ‘Roll Tide!’ you’ll have friends all over the world.”
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