It had been nearly 50 years since I’d spent any time in northern Alabama before a brief trip there last week. I was interested to see not only what had changed but also what remained the same in the half-century since we’d visited.
Primarily, though, we planned the foray into that corner of the Yellowhammer State to see where the musical magic happened and perhaps learn a little bit about how it happened in a seemingly unlikely locale. More about the magic later.
There are a number of changes. For example, Alabama Highway 157 is no longer a still-under construction new route cutting diagonally from the quad cities of Florence, Sheffield, Tuscumbia and Muscle Shoals to Interstate 65 at Cullman but a wide four-lane road. Heavily traveled U.S. 72 from Memphis, Tenn., through part of Mississippi and to the quad cities is four-laned too, making travel markedly safer and easier through those rolling red-clay hills. Those hills were there before roads existed and will be there long after we are gone from this planet.
When our family lived there nearly 60 years ago, the state vehicle license plates proclaimed Alabama the “Heart of Dixie.” Today, the signs welcoming motorists entering the state carry the slogan, “Sweet Home Alabama,” adopted by the Alabama Legislature in 2014 to market the state.
Maybe at first blush, the title of a rock ’n’ roll tune seems an unlikely selection for a state marketing slogan. But this wasn’t just any old rock song — this after all was the Lynyrd Skynyrd hit with the catchy lead guitar riff that just about anyone quickly recognizes and sings along with. One international fast-food chain apparently thought so much of it that the company, though based in Kentucky, used portions of it in its TV commercials.
The song was extremely popular, despite or perhaps because of controversies over some of the lyrics. Sweet Home Alabama was said to be a response to Neil Young’s songs “Alabama” and “Southern Man” which criticized the South’s history of racism. Lead singer Ronnie Van Zant said at the time the song was written to say not all southerners are the same. Elsewhere in their song, the band takes a poke at national political leaders by declaring “Now Watergate does not bother me, does your conscience bother you?”
Controversies aside, Sweet Home Alabama can be considered an example of the musical magic produced in the quad cities and chronicled in the documentary Muscle Shoals that showcases the work of FAME records founder Rick Hall. He is responsible for creating the “Muscle Shoals sound” and The Swampers, the house band at FAME Studios that eventually left to start its own successful studio known as Muscle Shoals Sound.
Hall died in 2018, but FAME, with family members in charge, continues to produce hit records.
The Muscle Shoals Sound studio — located in nearby Sheffield — has been taken over by a foundation and serves as a museum. Hall is credited for bringing black and white artists together in a small place in rural Alabama at a time of racial hostility. In fact, many performers were said to have come to Muscle Shoals expecting to record with Black session artists only to find that the Swampers were white.
Over the years, the two studios recorded artists ranging from Paul Simon to the Rolling Stones to Etta James, Bob Seger to the Staple Singers to Jason Isbell, Cher to Bob Dylan encompassing a number of genres of popular music including, blues, R&B, country and gospel. And of course, there was a fledgling Florida-based rock band named Lynyrd Skynyrd who recorded a pretty big hit at Muscle Shoals Sound.
Rolling Stone guitarist Keith Richards is said to have favored the tiny bathroom in Muscle Schools Sound for recording his guitar parts of the Stones’ records, claiming it produced the best sound in the entire building. At FAME, the parquet section in the middle of the floor inside Studio B is credited with producing the most crisp sound, while the carpet surrounding the wood was favored by Duane Allman for sleeping.
One might say all that is very interesting but at the same time wonder what it has in common with Arkansas. Plenty, it would seem.
Both were members of the Confederacy, have had segregationist political leaders and have experienced racial strife. Both are Southern states with large amounts of rural land but with a number of its citizens concentrated in larger cities. Both tout their workforces and work environments when seeking to attract new jobs.
Alabama had Rick Hall, a giant in the music business from an unlikely little part of Alabama. Arkansas, however, has its own list of industry leaders. Sam Walton and his family and heirs, built and operate a retail titan whose presence and impact is felt the world over. It’s a safe bet that one can find a song recorded in Muscle Shoals being sold in a Walmart store.
The point is, whether it is Rick Hall or Sam Walton, an industry leader who is willing to work hard and take a chance can come from anywhere and rise to the top.
In Arkansas, we must recognize, find and develop the next generation of entrepreneurs and business leaders, whatever their field of expertise is singing or selling.
Editor’s note: Paul Holmes is editor-at-large for Northeast Arkansas Talk Business & Politics. He can be reached at [email protected] The opinions expressed are those of the author.