Muscle Shoals, Ala., staying true to its music

By Robert Palmer/Times Daily

FLORENCE, Ala. (AP) — Muscle Shoals is back in the music headlines with young artists such as The Civil Wars, the Secret Sisters, Dylan Le- Blanc and Jason Isbell scoring international successes.

But with the exception of LeBlanc and Isbell, those acts are recording and working out of Nashville, one of country’s three music business capitals (the others being New York and Los Angeles). Even the red-hot Alabama Shakes, from nearby Athens, are working through Nashville.

Is Muscle Shoals being cut out of the picture, or is something else at play? The answer depends, in part, on who you ask.

“In my opinion, Muscle Shoals is always going to be a creative recording center, not a business center,” said Terry Woodford, former co-owner of Wishbone Recording Studios in Muscle Shoals.

Woodford and his business partner, Clayton Ivey, had a nearly decade-long run of successes in the 1970s and 1980s with artists ranging from Mac McAnally, Hank Williams Jr., Hot and the Temptations. For a time, they were under contract with Motown Records as producers and artist development agents.

From its beginnings as a music center 50 years ago, Muscle Shoals’ speciality has been recording, production, crack session players and songwriters. The business end of the music industry has never had a strong presence here, although Motown had an office in Muscle Shoals for a few years.

The sea of changes in the business during the past two decades — recessions, affordable and high-quality home recording equipment, the advent of the download revolution — has created a new and challenging landscape for artists and producers. It also has created new opportunities for independent artists, and Muscle Shoals helped define the independent artist and record label.

“The nature of the business has changed, and that’s in Muscle Shoals’ favor,” said Rodney Hall, president of FAME Music. “We’ve been independent for 50 years, and that’s where it’s at now.

“There are always going to be major labels, but independents are where the growth is going to be over the next five to 10 years, where the opportunities are going to be,” he said. “We’ve just got to figure out how to monetize it. It’s doable.”

There are no lawyers who specialize in publishing, no artist managers or booking agents in Muscle Shoals, which sends many homegrown talents to Nashville and elsewhere. But that, Woodford said, is not necessarily a bad thing.

Woodford recounted a recording session with the Temptations he produced in Los Angeles. Present in the control room were several Motown corporate executives, and all of them had unsolicited advice about how to record the session. He said he became so distracted that he accidently erased a just-captured lead vocal by Dennis Edwards.

“The problem is that the executives want to be present when a hit is being recorded. They want to say they were there,” Woodford said. “I think it’s better to have the creative center away from the business center. When I worked for Motown, I did most of the recording in Muscle Shoals, and I would fly to Los Angeles to do business.”

Woodford said music executives and lawyers are not interested in living in Muscle Shoals. He said they are accustomed to a cosmopolitan lifestyle that only major cities can offer.

So, Muscle Shoals is still relatively well positioned to continue nurturing and producing music talent capable of international success. But almost everyone agrees there is one thing missing from the mix: Live music venues.

“If we really want to honor what we have here, we need a place to showcase our talent and get a decent paycheck,” said Jimmy Nutt, owner of NuttHouse Recording Studio in Sheffield, and president of the Muscle Shoals Music Association.

Hall agrees.

“There is more young talent here now than since I’ve been in the business,” he said. “I run into good bands all the time, and that was not the case 20 years ago.

“One big reason why people leave here is because there is nowhere for them to play live and earn a little extra money. People love it here, but for family reasons, they need to make more money, and there is not that venue to play here and earn an extra paycheck,” Hall said.

Despite that major drawback, Muscle Shoals remains an appealing place for music makers to live and work. The peaceful environment, low cost of living and still-active studio scene are all attractive, especially to young musicians and songwriters looking to break into the business.

Woodford said that has always been a major draw for Muscle Shoals.

“Where an open-door policy exists for musicians and songwriters, you can be creative,” he said. “You are able to get in the door.”