On Monday, PBS aired the documentary “Muscle Shoals,” presented as “the incredible true story of a small town with a big sound.”
For those who had the misfortune to miss it, the film tells the story of a desperately poor young musician named Rick Hall who overcame crushing poverty and staggering tragedies to bring black and white musicians together to create music for the generations.
Hall was the catalyst in the creation of the “Muscle Shoals Sound,” aided by The Swampers, the house band at Hall’s FAME Studios. Contributors to the documentary are a who’s who of popular music over the past 50 years — from Mick Jagger to Aretha Franklin, Gregg Allman to Percy Sledge, Bono to Alicia Keys. In truth, there are too many to mention.
You can link to the film’s website by going to: http://www.magpictures.com/muscleshoals
The documentary is remarkable for many reasons, but two stand apart.
First, it seems incredible that a tiny nondescript studio in the backwaters of northwest Alabama would become a mecca of popular music.
Yet Hall’s little studio was the birthplace of some of the iconic standards of soul, pop, R&B, rock and even reggae. It is no exaggeration to say that artists such as Aretha Franklin, Percy Sledge, Clarence Carter and Gregg Allman may have passed unnoticed through the world’s musical landscape were it not for their happenstance arrival at Hall’s little studio tucked away near a bend in the Tennessee River.
The film is remarkable in another sense, too, one that remains sadly relevant today.
At a time when race relations were at a boiling point, the studio made an eloquent statement on race. Even as George Wallace was “standing in the schoolhouse door” down the road in Tuscaloosa, Rick Hall and his young, white house band were collaborating with black artists, who would soon be recognized as some of the giants of soul, pop, R&B and rock.
While the streets of the South were often the scene of bloody white-on-black violence, the black artists and white musicians in Muscle Shoals worked in, well, harmony. The music was what mattered.
It is a lesson we in the South still struggle to absorb.
Too many whites remember and embrace — sometimes overtly, more often subconsciously — the traditions, emblems and attitudes of that regrettable period in our history, retaining a sort of sanitized view of the Old South, indifferent to the painful images it conjures among the black population.
Too many blacks remember the injustice and oppression and seem determined not to seek justice and equality, but to flip the script and create a power structure dominated by blacks. “Turn-about is fair play” is one of the worst lies we can ever tell ourselves.
Muscle Shoals is a reminder that when race doesn’t matter, much can be accomplished. Unfortunately, the film is remarkable because rare things are always remarkable. We remain a divided people.
We cannot rely on our elected officials, whose insatiable appetite for power and influence is benefitted by a divided society, to make this necessary change.
To achieve that, regular folks will have to do something that has never been done in our part of the world, an impossible task some might say.
Yet some of the world’s biggest movements have been started by a few simple, determined people. Nothing prompts an epiphany among politicians than persistent pressure from the people.
We can yet banish racial disharmony to the dustbin of history, a relic of a failed, flawed era.
Muscle Shoals is proof of that.
The Dispatch Editorial Board is made up of publisher Peter Imes, columnist Slim Smith, managing editor Zack Plair and senior newsroom staff.