Billy Ray Cyrus recently got his first in-person introduction to the Muscle Shoals sound, having just recorded there for the first time. The singer says it was an experience he will never forget. “I’m obviously a big fan of the music that has come from there, but also currently, there is so much great music coming out of Muscle Shoals.”
Cyrus says the aura of the town’s recording history will capture your attention as soon as you cross the O’Neal Bridge.
“You can just feel the history and nostalgia as you’re coming in. It was so refreshing to go into a studio that felt like a real studio and not a hospital. The group of musicians were some of the elite, like the Swampers,” he says of the legendary group of musicians that have played on many of the historic records that have come out of the North Alabama city. “Everything about it was incredible. I’m telling everybody about Muscle Shoals. I think everybody needs to go there. It’s really special.”
During the recent W.C. Handy Days that were held in neighboring Florence, the University of North Alabama unveiled their latest production, I’ll Take You There: The Music of Muscle Shoals. The musical, conceived by Randal Myler, paid tribute and homage to the rich and varied musical history that has oozed out of the various recording studios there, such as Fame and Muscle Shoals Sound, which the Swampers began in 1969, after years of being the session players at Rick Hall’s Fame.
Taking its title from the 1972 hit by The Staple Singers, the production takes the audiences on a time machine-like trip all the way back to the 1950s and 1960s, describing the tapestry of musical styles that were brimming in the area – as evidenced by Handy’s iconic “St. Louis Blues,” and Dave Dudley’s Country classic “Six Days On The Road,” which was co-written by Shoals resident Carl Montgomery. The story is told through the eyes of many of the players and musicians, one of which is portrayed by George Wendt – internationally known for his role as Norm on Cheers.
Muscle Shoals began to establish itself as a recording center in the early 1960s, thanks to Rick Hall’s production of Arthur Alexander’s “You Better Move On.” The song hit the Top-30 on the Billboard Hot 100 in March of 1962, and also was covered by the Rolling Stones – and in duet form by George Jones and Johnny Paycheck in 1980.
There’s not enough space – even on the Internet – to tell you about all the songs that came out of those mystical studios. “Steal Away,” “When A Man Loves A Woman,” “Patches,” and “I’d Rather Go Blind” are just a few of the classic that have the Shoals stamp on them. I’ll Take You There pays tribute to many of them in song – Aretha Franklin, Etta Britt, Wilson Pickett, and Otis Redding, among them. As the 1960s began to fade, the magic of those recording vibes only began to intensify, as the Rolling Stones themselves came to town – and walked out of Muscle Shoals just having recorded their classic “Brown Sugar,” as well as Cher, who recorded her 3614 Jackson Highway album there in 1969. (Incidentally, the title is a reference to the address of Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, where she recorded the disc. The actual town where the studio was located is Sheffield.)
In addition to the music, there are plenty of stories the musical shares with fans – such as how Mac Davis’s attempt at humor resulted in one of his biggest hits, Paul Simon booking the studio for four days to cut a song – and nailing it in just a few takes, and the emotional story behind “Sitting In Limbo,” one of the biggest hits of Jimmy Cliff.
The cast nails their respective roles – which change as the musical continues on. Jason Petty – known for his role as Hank Williams in the Ryman production of Lost Highway – dazzles in the more Country elements of I’ll Take You There, while Mississippi Charles Bevel adds a bit of authenticity to the production with his soulful touch. Felicia Fields brought Etta Britt to life with her colorful performance, and Kenita R. Miller was exquisite, sensual, and soulful – all at once, particularly in her tribute to Candi Staton. Sonny Charles also did a masterful job at making many of the male characters in the Muscle Shoals story come alive, as well.
Muscle Shoals is well worth a trip to discover the history and the sounds that have come from there over the years. Of course, it’s not just limited to Pop/Rock or R&B. The Oak Ridge Boys recorded many of their landmark hits there, as have T. Graham Brown, Shenandoah, and so many others. Hopefully, someone will have the sense to bring I’ll Take You There back for a touring run. Music fans would be the better for it!