“Now Muscle Shoals has got the Swampers/And they’ve been known to pick a song or two/Lord they get me off so much/They pick me up when I’m feeling blue, now how ‘bout you?”
The Swampers, the legendary rhythm section from FAME studios, were celebrated by rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd in their 1974 song “Sweet Home Alabama.”
They not only played on 500 albums—75 of them gold and platinum—but they typified a sound that would draw the world to the tiny North Alabama crossroads called Muscle Shoals.
The “Muscle Shoals sound” was hard to pin down because it kept transforming itself. Starting in 1961, artists from country, soul, R&B and rock-and-roll all made very different hit records there, from Aretha Franklin’s “Chain of Fools” to Paul Simon’s “Kodachrome.”
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There was no strict definition, and even the personnel changed. The Swampers themselves left FAME studios in 1969 to open their own Muscle Shoals Sound Studios, while Rick Hall at FAME continued to record. And both studios turned out hits, including the Rolling Stones’ “Brown Sugar” and “Wild Horses” recorded at Muscle Shoals in 1969, and the Tim McGraw hit “I Like It, I Love It,” recorded at FAME in 1995.
Rick Hall, who started it all, died early this year at age 85.
But Muscle Shoals lives on. A group of Atlanta musicians, called ATL Collective, will pay tribute to that Alabama phenomenon with a concert at the Atlanta History Center called “The Sounds of Muscle Shoals.”
Among the performers will be Alabama native Lee Bains III and his band The Glory Fires playing “Chain of Fools, “This Old Town” by the Staple Singers and Leon Russell’s “Home Sweet Oklahoma.”
The child and grandchild of Alabama musicians, Bains knows that the spirit of that northwest corner animates Alabama still, even though it’s hard to put a finger on what that spirit is.
“To me, it’s just that pocket they have,” said Bains, speaking on the telephone while driving with his band to a gig in Durham, N.C.
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“It’s like, I know that they were drawing a lot from Memphis, the sounds coming out of Memphis,” said Bains, whose own music has a swampy, sloppy goodness. “And it’s definitely in the same conversation, for sure. But there’s a languid quality to it, a laid-back pocket… Our buddy Lynn Bridges, who we’ve recorded with from time to time, says ‘You get off the handlebars and onto the fender.’ No matter the tempo, they might be stomping and raging, but they’re still leaning back a little. To me, that’s the sound of the Muscle Shoals rhythm section.”
The ATL Collective has made a name for itself performing entire albums by a single artist, but Saturday’s show will require a different approach. The group, plus Bains and company, will try to capture the breadth of the Muscle Shoals impact by covering tunes from the worlds of gospel, pop, country, soul, rock and the blues.
Brenda Nicole Moorer, who has performed regularly with the collective, and is their resident Sade expert, will handle songs by the Stones and Percy Sledge and will perform The Civil Wars’ tune “Poison and Wine” with a male singer to be named later.
“We usually only have one rehearsal the day before, or the day of, so you really have to have your stuff together to be able to pull this off,” she said. “They always end up being super great.”
The ATL Collective always puts a new spin on the music that they’re honoring, and in this case, they’re doing some transposing: Bains is singing the Aretha, while Moorer sings the Percy Sledge.
How is he going pull off “Chain of Fools”?
“With some key changes,” laughs Bains. “It is going to be really fun, but we’re doing ‘em our way.”
Listening to his father’s records while he was growing up, he always thought the Aretha Franklin tune was “a sonata or something. It’s only two-and-a-half minutes long, but there’s so much movement, you can get lost in it. Then, when we were learning it, we figured out it was just one chord. But they do with one chord what I can’t do with 20. It’s pretty amazing, so much can be done with such minimalism. I needed to learn that.”
The Sounds of Muscle Shoals: A warm Georgia tribute to an Alabama Legacy; with the ATL Collective and Lee Bains III and the Glory Fires.
Saturday, July 21, at 6:30 p.m.; $40; VIP tables for four, $500; cash bars, food for purchase, and full access to Atlanta History Center exhibitions before fans gather in the Grand Overlook Ballroom; Atlanta History Center, 130 West Paces Ferry Road, 404-814-4000, atlantahistorycenter.com