Interview: Muscle Shoals Tribute Album Connects Today’s Stars to Iconic Tracks
On the first night of AmericanaFest 2018 (Sept. 11), a collection of musicians from a wide span of genres and stylistic backgrounds assembled at 3rd & Lindsley in Nashville for a tribute performance dedicated to the music of Muscle Shoals, Ala., and the father of the sound, Rick Hall. The night's performers were among those who contributed to Muscle Shoals: Small Town, Big Sound, a tribute to some of the most beloved music that came out of FAME Studios under the direction of Hall, who died earlier this year.
Eli "Paperboy" Reed, Mike Farris and the Blind Boys of Alabama and Amanda Shires -- whose husband, fellow Americana heavyweight Jason Isbell, came out alongside her to support her performance on guitar -- offered up live tastes of their contributions to the album as a part of the week-long festival. One of the tribute's participants, Brent Smith of rock group Shinedown, was playing AmericanaFest for the very first time.
"I'm a virgin to all this," Smith told The Boot with a laugh during a break from rehearsals before the show. However, he said he felt an instant connection with the Americana format because of its focus on authenticity: "These aren't made-up songs. They come from a real place," Smith continued.
"With a lot of the artists that are considered Americana, they're not like, 'Hey, I'm gonna wake up today and write a song because it's gonna make me famous,'" he noted. "This is all about storytelling and great performances."
Smith, who performs his take on Wilson Pickett's "Mustang Sally" on Small Town, Big Sound, recorded the track at FAME Studios, right where Pickett cut the original, with some of the same session musicians who had played on the original take. "I didn't realize [that there would be musicians from the original session] until I got down there!" he admits. "But it was really when I was leaving that I had a little bit of a 'hallowed ground' moment, when me and Rodney [Hall, son of Rick Hall and co-producer of the tribute album] were talking about the history of the studio, and the players that were there."
All day, Hall and Smith had been recording take after take, over and over again, waiting for magic to strike; Smith says he'd been so focused on his work that he hadn't looked closely around the studio. Then, Hall brought the microphone out of the recording booth, put it in the middle of the studio and pointed at a spot on the wall. "He was like, 'We're gonna run it a bunch of times, and I want you to look right up there.' I hadn't really been paying attention to the top of the studio, but there was a giant picture of Wilson Pickett," Smith recalls. "[Hall] said, 'He's with you. Don't think he's not.'"
While the music of Muscle Shoals may seem to be an unexpected stylistic direction for Smith, its cultural impact speaks to the recent unexpected success of Shinedown's song "Get Up," which addresses the importance of de-stigmatizing mental health issues. The explosion of music out of FAME Studios in the '60s, '70s and beyond was, in some senses, a cultural snapshot of the day, with many of the hits produced -- perhaps most famously, Aretha Franklin's "Respect" -- doubling as anthems for the women's rights movement, the civil rights movement and other causes. By creating a song that rapidly became a much-needed contribution to the conversation about mental health, Smith has recently had a taste of what it's like to hit a cultural nerve -- with a distinctly modern twist.
"The word that I'm seeing people use a lot is 'necessary.' It's a necessary song right now," Smith reflects. "Because a lot of times, when people talk about depression and anxiety, they're afraid to talk about it because they're ashamed or embarrassed. We're trying to let the public talk, because they have something to say, and because they've probably been quiet for far too long."
Muscle Shoals: Small Town, Big Sound, which also features performances from Kid Rock, Alison Krauss and more, dropped Friday (Sept. 28) and is available for purchase and to stream. A portion of the proceeds from the project will benefit the Grammy Foundation and the Muscle Shoals Music Foundation.
Muscle Shoals: Small Town, Big Sound Track Listing:
1. "The Road of Love" - Keb’ Mo’
2. "I’d Rather Go Blind" - Grace Potter
3. "Brown Sugar" - Steven Tyler and Nuno Bettencourt
4. "Gotta Serve Somebody" - Jamey Johnson, Willie Nelson, Chris Stapleton and Lee Ann Womack
5. "Steal Away" - Eli “Paperboy” Reed
6. "Snatching It Back" - Kid Rock
7. "I’ll Take You There" - Aloe Blacc
8. "Cry Like a Rainy Day" - Michael McDonald
9. "True Love" - Vince Gill and Wendy Moten
10. "Come and Go Blues" - Alison Krauss
11. "Respect Yourself" - Mike Farris with the Blind Boys of Alabama
12. "Wild Horses" - Alan Jackson
13. "Mustang Sally" - Brently Stephen Smith of Shinedown
14. "We’ve Got Tonight" - Chord Overstreet
15. "Giving It Up for Your Love" - Tom Johnston and Delbert McClinton
16. "I Ain’t Easy to Love" - Candi Staton with Jason Isbell and John Paul White
8 Important Country and Americana Albums Made at FAME Studios