If nothing else, Rodney Hall knows the musical plowing ground of Muscle Shoals, Alabama. As the son of legendary FAME recording studio owner and producer Rick Hall, it’s all he’s ever known. And the recent release of Muscle Shoals… Small Town, Big Sound, a tribute record to the sounds that came from that tiny North Alabama city on the Tennessee River, is a way of preserving that legacy.
“I was looking for a way to promote that heritage — because we have never been Motown,” Hall tells Billboard. “We weren’t out front. We were a production house town, but we were doing productions for Atlantic Records or Capitol Records or whoever. The brand was never really built other than just people reading the back of albums. I was looking for a way to get it out there and I knew one way was a documentary, which we were lucky enough to have some great guys come through town after several years of looking at that. But, putting this album together has been about six years in the making.”
The art of pairing these iconic songs with artists such as Kid Rock (“Snatching It Back”), Steven Tyler and Nuno Bettencourt (“Brown Sugar”), and Chord Overstreet (“We’ve Got Tonight”) was one that Hall tried to make as artist specific as he could.
“Basically, I had built a playlist of about three hundred of the best of Muscle Shoals recordings. When we would get an artist that was interested we would narrow it down to about twenty songs that would fit that particular artist, and we’d send it to them. They’d pick from those twenty and go from there.” Were there any surprises along the way?
“I would have to say ‘Wild Horses’ by Alan Jackson, which is an amazing track and I think it could be an absolute country hit. That’s one that when I start thinking about Alan Jackson, that’s not going to be the first one that pops off, but he killed it. I didn’t know that he would do it as well as he did. That was probably the biggest surprise, but also Alison Krauss doing ‘Come And Go Blues,’ that would be another one.”
What is it about the music that comes from a town about two hours south of Nashville that has captivated so many music fans over the years? Hall says it’s an easy answer.
“It’s real. There’s no airs about it. It’s real music, real musicians, real songs with great singers. There’s no smoke and mirrors. It’s just got a soul to it. You can believe what the singers are saying. You can feel the musicians. All these studio musicians we have learned the band from the artist. Every record’s different.”
With a population of just over 14,000 – now – Hall laughs at the suggestion that artists may have paid more attention to creative detail because of the lack of diversions from the musical goal at hand. “It’s a lot harder to get in Muscle Shoals than other places – especially back in the ’70s there wasn’t — it’s grown a lot over the past 30 years but back then it was a dry county. It didn’t go wet until about 1985, I think, which meant there weren’t good restaurants other than just mom and pops. There weren’t chain restaurants, there wasn’t any hotels. At that time, you had to drive 40 minutes to state lines just to get a drink, so yes, the diversions were few.”
Now, with the album completed and released, Hall says there is plenty of room for a Volume 2.
“That’s the thing I was telling somebody the other day. The amazing thing about this record is what’s not on it. ‘When a Man Loves a Woman’ isn’t on it. There’s no Mac Davis on it. There’s no Paul Simon on it. There’s I think one Bob Seger song. There’s no Osmonds. I think it’ll be very cool to take ‘One Bad Apple’ and do a killer version of that with somebody.”
So the Muscle Shoals beat goes on. “There’s just been such a mountain of great music that’s been recorded there. Some of it is just so obscure. We’ve done 24 releases I think in the U.K. with Ace Records, which I think is the best-reissued label in the world. They came over here and found stuff that I’d never heard just like wow, that’s incredible. We’re still doing it. It’s continuing to grow and we’re rebuilding a whole school of great session musicians down there. I don’t see anything but good things for the future.”