Friday, August 13, 2021


How to even begin to cover the enormity and importance of this influential studio, musically, culturally and even politically, apropos race relations, seems impossible, and I am not even going to go very much into much of that. That the music that has come out of it, and the individuals that have shaped and formed that music, have enriched and enhanced my life is inescapable, and the older I get, so the more I am intrigued in the looking back to the origins of the pioneering styles emanating therefrom. Again, this is not the place. Today I am going to illustrate how I, then a teenage boy in England, came to first discover the music, and musicians, of Muscle Shoals.

Traffic are/were about as english a group as you could ever find. From their early psychedelic whimsy to the whole getting together in the country folk/jazz vibe, Steve Winwood seemed an ambassador for tweed and corduroy. The combination of his soulful vocals and swirling hammond, with an equal adeptness for melodic guitar solos, and Chris Wood's mournful sax and flutes was visionary, the backbeat of Jim Capaldi's drumming a constant and reassuring presence. I confess I preferred them as a three-piece to the earlier Dave Mason iteration, his songs always seeming to come from a different place than the direction of flow offered by the other three. To say I was fond of the John Barleycorn album would be an understatement. I loved it and still do. 

Following that epochal LP, the band foundered a bit, with Mason back again, then out again, and the engagement of various other musicians from various sources, expanding the percussion opportunities with Reebop, a Ghanaian percussionist, and Jim Gordon, fresh from Derek and the Dominos. They also added a bassist, Ric Grech, who had been, with Winwood, in Blind Faith, that brief dalliance of a "supergroup" that had put Traffic on pause for a moment in the years before. Prior to Grech, and something Winwood has returned to of late, bass parts were played on the hammond organ, by foot pedal. 'Welcome to the Canteen', a live album, was a bit of a transition, even being credited to the individual musicians, rather than to Traffic per se. But it opened their minds to the ideas and opportunities of additional influences, reprising and revising earlier material.

I remember the first time high heard 'The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys', the song, and being completely blown away by it. I suspect it was on TV, the Old Grey Whistle Test, a programme I have often referred to. Astonishingly, the album didn't chart in the UK, even if sold well across the pond. But where was the three piece? Suddenly this was a massive, mighty and meaty sound, with chunky bass and a backwall of additional musical accompaniment that gelled as a whole unit, rather than seeming an optional extra. This, should you wonder if I were ever getting there, was courtesy the majesty of the Muscle Shoals rhythm section, aka Roger Hawkins and David Hood, drums and bass respectively

The next album, 'Shoot Out at the Fantasy Factory', went a step further, now enrolling fellow Swampers, as the Muscle Shoals alumni were called, Jimmy Johnson on additional guitar and Barry Beckett on keyboards. The sound was getting bigger and bigger. For the ensuing world tour, Hawkins, Hood and Beckett stayed on board, the ensuing double live recording, 'On the Road', still seen as a classic live record. With taxman Chris Woods faltering health and substance abuse issues, internal relations soured, and the Swampers, along with Reebop, jumped ship. Traffic were never quite the same, with one somewhat uneven release, ahead of Wood's death and then a twenty year hiatus before their final release in the collective name, in 1994.

Although essentially duplicating instrumentation, apart from the horns, already within the core of Traffic, the Swampers gave so much more than just that wider wall of sound to the band. Opportunity was given for Capaldi to step away from the drum kit and to be creative in other ways. Similarly, with musical jack of all trades Winwood, unable to play keyboards and guitar at the same time, for the first time all these instruments could play alongside each other, rather than purely by studio chicanery. It is a regret I was too young to ever see them live.

So what happened to the fabled four after Traffic? Their day job back at Muscle Shoals had never gone, and they continued to add their trademark sound to innumerable recordings. To give an idea of their work ethic, I am going myself to be lazy, and direct you to their wiki pages, as space cannot allow the sheer size of their collective and respective cv.s. Roger Hawkins died in May, earlier this year. David Hood still lives and plays. Most recently he has been a member of the Waterboys, his senior statesman gravitas adding considerably to the band, who have a semblance of the vibe of Traffic, if with a more celtic hue. He is also the father of Patterson Hood, of the Drive-By Truckers. Barry Beckett died in 2009 and Jimmy Johnson in 2019. Just count all those credits.

So, raise a glass and raise a glass high to these giants, back room boys without whom so much of modern popular music could not exist.

On the Road.

Wednesday, August 11, 2021

Muscle Shoals: Various


purchase [ Slow Train Coming ]

Muscle Shoals has a special place in the pantheon of music from the 1960s on. It's the name of multiple recording studios located in the city of the same name in Alabama. The studio we first think of grew out of another studio operation known as FAME Studios, and was unique in that it was the first such operation owned by a group of session musicians. Yes, they partnered with Jerry Wexler to make it work. And yes, the location was previously a coffin viewing showroom.

But the name Muscle Shoals has come to mean a specific sound - first in a soul and R&B style (Percy Sledge & Aretha) and then in rock (the Rolling Stones, Traffic). FAME owner Rodney Hall described the sound as funkier and more laid back than others. The curator of the Alabama Music Hall of Fame notes the existence of a triangle, with Memphis being the home of blues, Nashville, of course, the home of country and the third leg, Muscle Shoals, being a blend.

One of the first musicians to record at Hall's studio was Wilson Picket. The story goes that when he arrived and saw the folks picking cotton, he wasn't at all convinced that this would work out. Later, when Pickett returned to the studio, he found that there was a long-haired slide guitar player by the name of Duane Allman as one of the studio's guitarists. They recorded this cover of the Beatles' Hey Jude

The word began to get around about the Muscle Shoals sound: Clapton heard it and so did the Stones. A large part of Sticky Fingers was recorded there in 1969. Keith Richards has been quoted as saying "I thought it was one of the easiest and rockin'-est sessions that we had ever done."

Bob Dylan's Slow Train Coming was also recorded at Muscle Shoals. Lead guitar is Mark Knopfler and the horns are the studio band. Dylan was looking for a richer, funkier sound and it appears he got what he was looking for despite the concern of some of the musicians about the religious content.