Mavis Staples -- perhaps more than any other soul singer, save Aretha Franklin -- brought the full power of the African-American church to her pop recordings.
For a period of 20 years, the recording scene in Muscle Shoals, Ala. produced a near-bottomless trove of classic hit records that not only spanned genres, but often helped create them. In the coming weeks, Madison audiences will be treated to several shows by Shoals-based artists, each of whom bridges the eras of its musical history.
Beginning in 1962, with Arthur Alexander's seminal soul recording "You Better Move On," the Shoals' talented cadre of musicians, songwriters and producers worked with artists ranging from Aretha Franklin to Hank Williams, Jr. to Jimmy Cliff. Shoals musicians helped make careers and define genres, and -- more broadly -- the music made at studios like Fame and Muscle Shoals Sound crossed stylistic, cultural and even racial lines with such frequency as to render those categories almost meaningless, at least in musical terms.
Though Muscle Shoals' heyday as the self-proclaimed "Hit Recording Capital Of The World" passed two decades ago, the area remains a grooving musical greenhouse. For example, many of each year's biggest country hits originate from Shoals songwriters.
On Oct. 20, the acclaimed Drive-By Truckers return to Madison with a show at the Barrymore Theatre that will surely spotlight the stylistic blending Truckers founder Patterson Hood credits to his youth in Muscle Shoals. "That melding of all those different things, the R&B, country, gospel and all the different influences -- is the single biggest factor in everything I do artistically," he says. (The Truckers were to have been accompanied by celebrated Shoals organist/songwriter Spooner Oldham, but he has unfortunately bowed out.)
The lineage is more than just musical: Patterson Hood's father, David Hood, has been the bass player on hundreds of Shoals-based sessions, including a 2007 collaboration between the Truckers and soul singer Bettye Lavette, who returned to Fame Studios to record the incendiary The Scene Of The Crime. "Dad's job was to be the proper backing musician for whoever walked through the door, and he had to be true to that sound, and that was a huge influence," Patterson Hood remembers.
One of David Hood's most famous clients, gospel/soul pioneers The Staple Singers, came to Muscle Shoals in 1971, and the legendary family ensemble recorded nearly all of their hits in the small studio the elder Hood co-owned. Singles like "I'll Take You There," the Staples' chart-topping blend of gospel and reggae that Patterson Hood calls the "definitive Muscle Shoals recording," helped not only cement the Staples' stardom, but also to define the deep, funky music that became known as the "Muscle Shoals Sound."
Backed by an all-white band, the Staple Singers built these recordings around the growling guitar of patriarch Roebuck "Pops" Staples, and the compelling vocals of his youngest daughter Mavis, who -- perhaps more than any other soul singer, save Aretha Franklin -- brought the full power of the African-American church to her pop recordings.
On Oct. 31, Mavis Staples headlines the "Solid Blues" show at the Overture Center, an evening of music that also features, among others, the North Mississippi All-Stars. The All-Stars -- led by brothers Cody and Luther Dickinson -- have their own connection to Muscle Shoals; their father Jim played on several Shoals sessions (including with the Rolling Stones) as part of his extraordinary career as genre-hopping Southern session musician.
Staples will likely perform many of the hits she recorded in Muscle Shoals, along with selections from We'll Never Turn Back, her recent collection of songs associated with the civil rights movement, yet another step in her career-long project of linking musical and political generations.
A member of the latest generation of Shoals-based talent is Jason Isbell, the acclaimed singer-songwriter who performs at the High Noon Saloon on Nov. 8. Isbell literally grew up around the area's famed studios and musicians, where -- like his former bandmate Patterson Hood -- he absorbed the many facets of their respective talents.
Isbell later joined the Drive-By Truckers, and his striking compositions added new dimensions to the Truckers' complex portraits of Southern music and experiences. Despite the success, Isbell recently left the Truckers, and -- this year -- released his debut solo album, Sirens Of The Ditch, which Isbell recorded in Muscle Shoals, with three eras of the city's talent. Most of the Truckers make appearances, as do David Hood and Spooner Oldham, as well as Isbell's high-school friend Angela Hacker, the most recent winner of Nashville Star, the country-music equivalent to American Idol.
Beyond the personnel, however, Isbell's music itself is highly indebted to the varieties of sound that characterized Muscle Shoals from the very beginning. The funky blues of "Down In A Hole," the Southern rock of "Try," and the Otis Redding-style soul of "Hurricanes and Hand Grenades" all speak to the traditions which Isbell -- like many Shoals-based musicians -- were surrounded by from the very beginning.
Isbell speaks with love and reverence for Shoals musicians and songwriters, and is particularly fond of the late Eddie Hinton, a singer, songwriter and guitar player whose promising career was undercut by battles with drug abuse and mental illness. (Hinton plays the guitar solo on the Staples "I'll Take You There," and Patterson Hood calls Hinton the Shoals' "great unknown artist.") As on Hinton's work, Isbell weaves together country, soul, rock, pop and gospel with an ease and coherence that makes Sirens Of The Ditch a love letter to the music of Isbell's hometown.
Despite the vastness of their repertoires and interests, neither the Drive-By Truckers, Mavis Staples nor Jason Isbell fully capture the true breadth of Muscle Shoals' musical legacy. (One would need a multi-day music festival to even approach such a feat.) Nonetheless, when taken together, these visits by Shoals artists of past and present provide Madison audiences with a rare opportunity to experience the area's storied history.
As eclectic as it is, Jason Isbell finds a unifying characteristic among this wealth of Shoals-based music. "Everything recorded in Muscle Shoals -- from straight-up country to the Stones -- was soul music," Isbell argues. The upcoming visits by Mavis Staples, the Drive-By Truckers and Isbell himself are likely to prove him correct.