Why Steven Tyler, Grace Potter & Others Headed Down South to Record a Muscle Shoals Tribute Album

FAME Studio
House Of Fame LLC/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

FAME Studio’s session musicians, the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section (also known as The Swampers), in Muscle Shoals, Ala., in 1968. In back, from left: Junior Lowe, David Hood and Barry Beckett; in front: Jimmy Johnson (left) and Roger Hawkins. 

No two studios better captured the Muscle Shoals sound -- the now iconic, soulful energy of music recorded in Muscle Shoals, Ala. -- than FAME and Muscle Shoals Sound. Opened in 1959 and 1969, respectively, both studios hosted greats like Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan and Etta James. Come Sept. 28, songs by such legends will be covered on the 16-track tribute Muscle Shoals... Small Town, Big Sound. Curated by Rodney Hall (son of FAME owner-producer Rick Hall, who died in January) and producer Keith Stegall, the album features Chris Stapleton, Aloe Blacc, Jason Isbell and 22 others who visited the 16.5-square-mile town to rerecord classics originally tracked at the studios. Four contributors share how Muscle Shoals inspired their artistry.

Michael McDonald

“The first time I heard Aretha’s record ‘Respect,’ without knowing where it was recorded, I knew it was special. It was one of the most well-written R&B songs I had heard in a long time. There’s that B-section that lifts the whole song up in that great gospel way, which, to me, is the hallmark of Etta James.”

House Of Fame LLC/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
James rehearsed as Hall (right) and bandmembers looked on in 1967. 

Grace Potter

“At 15, I started collecting albums from Wilson Pickett, Etta James, Phoebe Snow, Clarence Carter, Aretha. And it was only later, reading the fine print in the liner notes, that I realized almost all my favorite records had been recorded at Muscle Shoals. That’s clearly not a coincidence. That place is a vortex of soul.”

Steven Tyler

“We spent a few days recording [The Rolling Stones’] ‘Brown Sugar’ with three female singers, a bass player from The Swampers and a piano player from Fame Gang. It was sick that we gathered all these guys to play on this track that they played from way back when. I had no idea how good the song would turn out -- I was overwhelmed.”

House Of Fame LLC/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
From left: Little Richard, manager-songwriter-producer Robert “Bumps” Blackwell and Hall at FAME Studio in 1970.

Vince Gill

“My mom traced my family roots back, and my family is from Muscle Shoals, right across the Tennessee line. I chose to record ‘True Love’ because Glenn Frey [who recorded some of his third solo album at FAME] and I were great friends for 35 years. His passing [in 2016] was devastating. I was told it was one of his favorites.”

This article originally appeared in the Sept. 15 issue of Billboard.