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The Star Online: Entertainment: Music

Sound of the south

Posted: 08 Mar 2014 08:00 AM PST

While not as recognised for its music, the state of Alabama has a firm place in popular culture.

WHEN people think about great American music and the regions from which it spawned, they don't tend to consider Alabama. All of the other Southern US states that surround Alabama tend to hog the attention.

Mississippi is where the blues began. Louisiana has New Orleans, the birthplace of jazz. Tennessee boasts both Memphis (ground zero for rock and roll) and Nashville (the home of country music). Georgia can claim R&B legends such as Ray Charles and Otis Redding. Florida is responsible for more big-name rock bands that can be listed here ... including one that ended up shining the spotlight on Alabama.

My point is that, Alabama usually gets swept to the floorboards of music history, which is a shame given the amount of talented musicians who hail from the state and the number of amazing songs and albums that were recorded within its boundaries. A few years ago, I made the trek down to Alabama's "Shoals" region to experience, honour and learn about the musical greatness that came – seemingly – from the middle of nowhere.

I had to call in advance to make sure that the Alabama Music Hall of Fame, located in Tuscumbia, would be open when we visited. Although the hall has a great deal of local support, it has sometimes struggled drawing tourists and has had to close its doors. Lucky for us, the museum was open for our Saturday morning visit – although you wouldn't have known it as we rolled into a wide open parking lot from a road that lacked traffic.

So, we were the only people strolling through the Alabama Music Hall of Fame, with the exception of the two kindly ladies who charged us admission. And yet, the place was alive with the music and personalities of Alabama music, including jazz crooner Nat King Cole, R&B stars Lionel Richie and Martha Reeves, and country music luminaries Tammy Wynette and Alabama (which took its name from its home state).

Maybe this is the reason Alabama's musical heritage often gets overlooked. While other states can pick a niche and stick with it, Alabama's musical marvels span almost every genre of music - from "father of the blues" W.C. Handy to the most revered man in country music, Hank Williams, in addition to soul legends Percy Sledge and Wilson Pickett, Styx rocker Tommy Shaw and experimental jazz musician Sun Ra.

Arguably, the most important musicians to come out of Alabama are hardly household names, though plenty of exhibit space is devoted to them in the music hall. I'm talking about the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, who became immortalised as "the Swampers" in Florida-born Lynyrd Skynyrd's rock classic Sweet Home Alabama.

One verse of the song goes, "Now Muscle Shoals has got the Swampers / And they've been known to pick a song or two." That's an understatement. The Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section played on more than 75 gold and platinum hits, although they weren't assembled as some sort of all-star collective. No, these were Alabama boys put together to record local artists at FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals.

The Swampers gained a bigger profile in 1966, after some of them played on Percy Sledge's blockbuster ballad When A Man Loves A Woman. Atlantic Records executive Jerry Wexler then brought soon-to-be superstars like Wilson Pickett and Aretha Franklin to record at FAME studios, resulting in classics such as the revved-up Land Of 1,000 Dances and the deeply soulful I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You).

In 1969, the band left to found its own studio, Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, a rustic looking place at 3614 Jackson Highway in Sheffield. It was this ramshackle studio that would host some of the biggest names – black and white, and in multiple music genres – over the next decade.

Visiting the studio a few years ago, it's tough to imagine music legends like The Rolling Stones, The Staple Singers, Cher, Paul Simon and Bob Dylan coming to this little place in Northern Alabama to record. But such was the desire to capture a bit of "the Muscle Shoals sound". The studio became outdated in the 1980s, but The Black Keys tried to rediscover the old magic when they made the 2010 album Brothers at the studio.

As we stood outside, we could hear music blasting from inside the brick walls, although we couldn't quite make out what it was. We rang the doorbell, just in case someone would give us an impromptu tour, but no such luck. Maybe the magic of that music is better left to my imagination. But I'd still like to peek inside.

Kredit: www.thestar.com.my

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