Florence, Alabama isn’t the first name that comes to mind when discussing the major hubs of American music. But the city, located on the banks of the Tennessee River, serves as one of the nerve centers for the Shoals region of the state that carries a long lineage of music history, as home to the legendary FAME Studios, the Muscle Shoals sound and, since 2013, scrappy indie label Single Lock Records.
Born out of necessity and founded by musicians in the local circuit, its four co-owners — producer, engineer and Alabama Shakes touring keyboardist Ben Tanner; singer-songwriter and former member of The Civil Wars John Paul White; Tanner’s childhood friend and music aficionado Will Trapp; and Cedric Burnside drummer and Single Lock’s general manager Reed Watson — have steadily built a label focused on spotlighting contemporary music from the region, which is often overlooked and under-served by the lack of traditional music business infrastructure. While its three-dozen plus releases span blues, country, soul, funk and indie rock, mixed with some that defy genre altogether, they fall under the umbrella of Southern music — redefined.
“[As we] started to document and chronicle music from the Shoals area of Alabama, which was certainly Southern music, it wasn’t necessarily what the world thinks when they heard the word ‘Southern’ — it wasn’t sh-t-kickin’ cowboy-hat stuff, it was a little more nuanced and different,” says Watson. “As time has gone by, we’ve expanded our approach, because that scene of nuanced, challenging Southern music is a lot broader than just here; there’s tons of artists in Tennessee, in Louisiana, in Mississippi. So we started trying to chronicle all of that in more of a broader, regional sense.”
What has emerged is a catalog of artists telling a story of American music that seldom makes it to the mainstream, but that sustains the working-class music economy of a region that rarely gets the looks, or resources, of that of New York, Los Angeles, Nashville or Atlanta. And Single Lock’s for musicians, by musicians ethos, with simplified, often one-off profit-split contracts and an easygoing vibe has seen the label not only survive, but grow and expand, with a Grammy nomination in 2019, new global distribution deal with Secretly signed last year and a second office in New Orleans that opened during the pandemic.
“It’s always been about being artist-focused, artist-friendly, musician-friendly first, sometimes to our own detriment,” says Tanner. “But from our various experiences with other labels and music companies, we’ve just been taking from the good and bad and [letting] the business follow the art.”
Adds Watson: “We understand what it’s like to be on day 30 of a tour and be improperly fed, under slept, under paid, and just burnt out, and the struggle that it really entails to bring music to the world. I think that informs every part of this company, and we’re proud of that.”
Tanner, White and Trapp all hail from the Shoals region, and after living in various places found themselves back there in 2013, when conversations about a label first started. Tanner, who had worked as an engineer at FAME and was producing local bands while playing with Alabama Shakes, began talking with Trapp about how to help support the local scene, while also talking with White about opening a studio that they could call their own — and before long the two conversations coalesced into one idea.
“It started almost as a cooperative of people who were already working together and making records and music and playing in bands together, as a way to formalize it a little bit, put a name on it, tighten that circle, try to put a little money into it,” Tanner says. “It felt like we were bumping our heads against the ceiling where we were, spending whatever you could scrape together to make a record, go on tour, if you get lucky maybe you get to press some vinyl. So it was really trying to raise everybody’s game a bit, and it’s evolved from there.”
Shortly after formalizing the label, the business side (which Tanner says they were “making it up as we went”) was stabilized by bringing on Watson, as well as signing a label-services deal with Thirty Tigers, which ran through 2015. “You do something long enough, you start to discover what your voice is and what resonates and what you’re passionate about,” says Watson. “You have to find not only what you do well, but also a team that can support what you do. It’s like any other company: you evolve and you figure it out and I think we’re starting to hit our stride a little bit.”
Initially, Single Lock was the home base for friends and local artists like Dylan LeBlanc and Belle Adair, both of whom Tanner played with in previous bands. Steadily, the label’s base grew through word of mouth and by early 2014, Single Lock released the first album by St. Paul and the Broken Bones, Half The City, which spent five weeks on the Billboard 200 and peaked at No. 56. The album’s success provided a springboard for the label, which early on was largely producing all its releases in-house, often with Tanner behind the boards. Over time, Single Lock began releasing albums that didn’t emerge from its studio, with artists like Nicole Atkins, Aaron Ray and the Grammy-nominated, Mardi Gras Indian brass-band Cha Wa, whose latest album My People came out in April.
“We haven’t done a lot of actively going out and searching for artists, doing the traditional A&R scouring, it’s all been pretty organic: somebody hears a record we made or a record we worked on, or it’s like a friend of a friend and we’re all touring and playing in bands so we have these networks of musician friends,” says Tanner. Or, as Watson puts it: “A healthy community expands in the right way.”
But two of the label’s releases stand out as illustrative of Single Lock’s ethos and history. Longtime Kris Kristofferson keyboardist (and local Florence legend) Donnie Fritts’ album Oh My Goodness, which Tanner and White produced and Watson played on, was a labor of love for all involved. “Donnie was not the kind of guy who was gonna get played on the radio, and certainly not the guy who was gonna get signed to a record deal any time soon,” says Watson, who describes that record as his favorite that the label has released. “But his songs were beautiful, and his music was challenging and had something to contribute to the world. We felt really strongly about it.” The second came from Cedric Burnside, grandson of R.L., who brought his record, Benton County Relic, to Single Lock in 2018. “When Cedric was talking to other labels, everybody wanted to change it,” says Tanner. “They were like, ‘We like it, but we think you should add this, or re-cut this, or mix this.’ I think we were the only people who were like, ‘This record’s awesome, what do you want to do?’”
That instinct worked out well for all parties: Benton County Relic landed Single Lock and Burnside their first Grammy looks when it was nominated for best traditional blues album at the 2019 awards. “One of the things I love about Single Lock is that they let me be me,” says Burnside. “They don’t change my music and they let me have my own ideas. Not many record companies would do that. They are just downright great people, period. They are part of the best team I’ve had in my career.”
For a label built on thin margins, in-person studio sessions and just a handful of releases a year, the pandemic was always going to be a tough storm to weather. But Single Lock was able to turn provider, launching The Advocacy Fund for Alabama Musicians to support working musicians, tour managers, lighting techs, sound engineers and others whose livelihoods were stripped from them by the events shutdowns of the past year.
“I think the state of Alabama as a whole doesn’t quite recognize how much music and music history — and living music history — happens in this state,” says Watson. “There’s a lot of struggling happening in the pandemic, and this isn’t exactly a state where there are tons of other options for a musician to make a quick buck. So we were like, ‘Let’s see how generous our people are and let’s see what we can raise.’”
Through an application program, the Advocacy Fund was able to raise and disburse $25,000 in grants to the music community in the state, part of a program that they now say will not end when the pandemic subsides and people are able to return to the touring circuit. “There’s always an uphill struggle of trying to educate the general public about the life of a musician,” Tanner says. “People appreciate their work but I don’t think they really understand the amount of work it is, how little money it actually is a lot of the time, and I think we can do a lot to help people understand.”
The Advocacy Fund wasn’t the only thing Single Lock focused on during the pandemic. The label also expanded, opening a new office in New Orleans and signing a global partnership with Secretly Distribution, an indie-focused collective that has supported Single Lock as its footprint broadens. “We needed to be a part of a community of other labels and a distributor that understood what we were trying to do,” says Watson.
The New Orleans office, which Watson has spearheaded, also led to Single Lock’s partnership with Cha Wa. The New Orleans-based collective’s 2021 release was one of many albums on Single Lock’s docket this year, which also includes a new project from local Florence-based bluegrass/country group Pine Hill Haints, The Song Companion of a Lonestar Cowboy, out May 14, and the next Burnside album, I Be Trying, out June 25th. And on Record Store Day this year, the label is putting out a single that unites the Blind Boys of Alabama with banjo maestro Béla Fleck, a partnership that is as enticing as it is eye-catching.
But as the label enters its next phase, its co-owners maintain the same philosophy: keep things simple. “Survival is the pinnacle of success, to me,” says Tanner. “Because this is like wildest dreams sort of stuff: I’ve got this studio I love, I’ve got this label, I get to work with a lot of great musicians and make records that I’m really proud of, and that is the dream. So it’s really just, let’s try to keep it going and try to get better at it.”