Muscle Shoals and Memories
I finally watched it, the Boulder Film Festival’s winning documentary in 2013 – Muscle Shoals. And as I watched I got to know my hometown in a way that before had only been peripheral. However, while that not-quite-knowledge was becoming more sharply focused, I became reacquainted with something and someone else. I got to know again the old memories of my adolescence and early adult years, who I was, and how many part of that girl I still am, along with the woman who is nothing like her now. My roots are in Muscle Shoals, and though many people close to me will say a place is just a place and a house is just walls, as I saw the image of the brown brick and metal building I passed thousands of times in my orange Datsun 200sx, I knew they hadn’t told the whole truth. In many ways, I am still Muscle Shoals.
I was born about 5 miles from the two recording studios featured in the film to a woman from Ohio who had spent a summer loving a French-speaking minister. His fluency was the reason he was in northwest Alabama; he worked as a French translator for the Tennessee Valley Authority near Wilson Dam, which was the largest lock system in the world for decades. Before I was 3 months old, I had been adopted by a couple in a town about as far as one could get from the Shoals and still be in Alabama. As a baby I weathered colic, Alabama humid heat, and hurricane Camille. By the time I was two years old, however, I was back in the Shoals, living in a typical 1960’s neighborhood in the nearby town of Florence.
I spent 8 years playing, walking, and riding my bicycle in the yards and along the streets of Forest Hills. Many of my friends went to the neighborhood school, but I attended the laboratory preschool and elementary school located on the campus of a local university first known as Wesleyan Teachers College, then as Florence State College, and Finally as the University of North Alabama. It was a rare place, where I spent years reading books, dressing up in costumes, writing poetry and plays, and using the pottery wheel in the art room – the haven to which I fled when being the last draft pick for kickball became too much to bear. At the age of 5, I sat on the floor of a garage at the president’s mansion and helped an animal trainer to hold a lion cub in my arms. That same lion, Leo, died not long after I graduated from college there. I knew of Muscle Shoals; it was the town just across Shoals Creek where my mother worked and where the second location of Rogers department store sat at one end of a small mall.
I first noticed FAME recording studio when our bus pulled up in front of it in the 5th grade; we took a field trip associated with our science and social studies classes. We toured, heard about the famous people who had recorded there, and got to see where the music was made. A man with white hair who looked vaguely familiar was singing, and we watched him through a window. I found out later that his name was Charlie Rich. Our guide told us about Marie Osmond, and we got to hear a song called “Paper Roses” before it was even part of an album. A little over a year later I received the full Osmonds album as a Christmas gift from my parents, which would have been wonderful had I not actually asked for the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. At any rate, except for being awed by the gold records and having fleeting dreams of making one someday, I all but forgot about that brown building and all of the famous people who made music within its walls. I went back to my home by the lake and my friends.
Muscle Shoals didn’t become a real part of my life until I became part of a church there. It was located inside a warehouse on one of the main streets going through town, and I met my first lifelong friend sitting in choir practice. I met the second at a junior high basketball game my freshman year of high school. She was a cheerleader. These two women became influential and joyful parts of my life for the next thirty-one years, when the first passed away. The second is still dear to me and one of the few people on earth who knows all my stories. I had my first actual car date with a sweet boy named Bryan when I was 14, and I mourned in that church seven months later at his funeral – he had been killed by a drunk driver. I heard about Rick Hall again, along with his children and step children, one of whom attended my high school. That was also when I heard about another studio across town, Muscle Shoals Sound. All I knew then was that the girl I twirled with was the daughter of the owner. She was a sweet but tough girl with strawberry blond hair and an almost constant smile.
Music had always been a part of my life, from the singing I loved to do as a small child, to the piano I began learning to play at 7 years of age, to the flute and piccolo I marched with during junior high school and high school. And in 8th grade I wrote a song. It was simple and repetitive and was called “Jesus is Only a Prayer Away.” It had three chords and sounded like 1978 pop, even though it was 1982. Our music director heard me singing it during summer camp and asked me to sing it during that night’s service. I held the white microphone with a death grip and stared at a very non-Protestant looking painting of Jesus in the back of the room the entire time I sang.
After that, there were Amy Grant songs and Sandi Patty songs and solos in church musicals. I sang in my first pageant in 1983 wearing a wine-colored chiffon gown over a hoop skirt. Singing was part of me; I loved it more than almost every pastime, including writing stories. I put down the pen and picked up the microphone and decided I would become the next great Christian singing sensation. It makes me chuckle a bit as I sit typing, but I was absolutely certain it would be so. I spent two summers touring with a group called The Continental Singers, turned down an offer to sing with a more prolific group at age 19, and spent several years singing at Airstream conventions, churches, conventions, and the local water park’s Christian music festival. And between pageants and scholarships, inging helped pay for my undergraduate degree
But my singing dreams really had little to do with recording studios or the Muscle Shoals sound, except that while I was remembering life, I remembered going into FAME studio two more times during my adolescence and early adulthood to record music. My friend was impressed when I mentioned that during the movie, though it was anything but impressive. Our music director had the church choir, the youth ensemble, and some soloists record there. I still have one of the cassettes somewhere. They were never intended to be hits, just something that church members could buy or that could be sold on youth choir tours. Still, I did get to stand in the same building, singing into a microphone, that Percy Sledge, Wilson Pickett, Mac Davis, and Aretha Franklin had stood in, so maybe that counts for something. Of course the difference between me and them is that they were famous and spent days or weeks recording, while I was unknown, and we had 3 hours each time I was there. Still, if someone wanted to hear a version of “I’ve Just Seen Jesus” with a couple of flat notes, I could probably put my hands on it eventually.
It was poignant to hear about the early life of the man who helped create the Muscle Shoals sound and whose work put up the still-displayed sign below. And learning that a few white men from Alabama, one of whom watched us twirl batons at the football games, created a sound that was sought after by dozens of music icons like Etta James, the Rolling Stones, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and Alabama, was fascinating and awe-inspiring. These people whose music can be bought on antique records, CD’s, and iTunes feature a drummer, guitarists, keyboardists, and horn players who lived all around me and whose children were my contemporaries. How did I not understand the scope of this when I was growing up there? Probably because I was pining for dates and secretly hoping to become a part of the “in” crowd.
I left Muscle Shoals on my wedding night and never lived there again, except for 6 very difficult months right after I turned 30. The town changed like most do, and while both recording studios look pretty much like they did when I was growing up, Rogers is gone, that main street is now four lanes, and my high school is now the middle school. The warehouse church was replaced by a huge brick building, and the drug store where was I was known to put candy on my parents’ tab is owned by someone else now.
But still there is music. The Civil Wars sing in those rooms, and one of my fellow ensemble members spends lots of weekends playing at the Flo-Bama. The boy I had a crush on, who loved Spider Man, plays his fiddle when not working at his father’s jewelry store. And I believe Jimmy lets Jay do a lot of the work at the sound studio now. Two of my friends – sweet sisters – recently buried their father, who wrote more songs than I can name while he lived. I did not become the next big Christian sensation, but I sing in my choir, in the shower, and occasionally alone in front of people. I taught children to sing and read notes and tap (not bang, tap) on drums and metallophones instead.
I felt like I was part of a very special history when the film was over. It wasn’t became I had any kind of hand in creating any of the history. It is the way one feels when seeing an acquaintance or friend on television and saying, “Hey, I know them! That’s my old friend.”
Muscle Shoals and memories…both mine.