Angelic Voices & Strum Filled Nights: Alabama Music Defined – Feature

The travails of musical intonation reside in the arenas they are fought in. From the bayou swamps to the high grasslands, every musician has a story. Whether touring on the open road or chilling out at home strummin’ tunes, life is about making a perception of what you believe in and how the culture around you affects you as an artist and as a whole.

Music provides an intonation of sorts to the way a place feels. Alabama is no exception. Beginning with history is necessary to the motivations of who people are. Beginning in the establishment of “Swampers” inside the Muscle Shoals Marriott, music talent purveys through its DNA while interweaving with local culture.

Jerry Phillips, son of rock n’ roll legend Sam Phillips (who discovered Elvis and Johnny Cash among others through Sun Records), sauntered through the bar and got up onstage with an infamous guitar power playing out with the locals tunes like as “Blue Suede Shoes” and “Ring Of Fire”. Right before he saddled up though, the son of one of the guitar players however silenced the crowd with a rendition of Roy Orbison’s “Crying” with a heartfelt aura that shows that talent is still burgeoning in this part of Alabama.

Right inside town, FAME Studios stands in the same building that made it famous. Rick Hall, who purveyed through the Golden Age of the Muscle Shoals Sound, still operates the record studio consistently finding new voices. A younger photo of him sitting at the mixing board with Otis Redding in the 60s speaks volumes. The language of music, especially in racially divided Alabama at the time, crossed structures. If the music was good and the energy was there, no discussion need be made.

Inside the main recording room where Etta James, Wilson Pickett and Aretha Franklin laid down some of their momentous R&B style hits, there is a feeling of history. The grand piano and an early synth which Aretha found her voice on sit assuming just as the day they were used. Even later at a private performance from some legendary Muscle Shoals musicians, a picture on the wall shows a sexually vibrant Dusty Springfield leaning lustfully over said synth. Elton John still says that her posters were all over his walls.

Rick speaks of the fact that in music there is no middle ground for American music now, especially for the aging population. Back in the heyday within the 60s and 70s, there was a mix of rock and blues which has now given way to rap and fusion. “The music business is on its knees”, he admits. When asked about the balance between analog and digital recording in terms of how it affects the sound, he speaks to the fact that in recording analog he can get 15000 cycles more on both the low and high end which gives more dynamic range to the performer. With old school audiofiles like Foo Fighters and The Black Keys recording more analog, the aspect of the lost art is being kept alive…but barely.

Speaking of hanging out in the city, the great thing is that, unlike many of the jetsetters, Muscle Shoals legendary studio musicians stayed put. Top of the list with a grand calmness about him even when discussing John Mayer, bassist David Hood, who has played on albums with Paul Simon, Bob Seger, Traffic and Cher, plucked the strings with undeniable smoothness.

Spooner Oldham, a legendary organist who played on “Mustang Sally” with Pickett and “I Never Loved A Man” by Aretha, bathed with a slow intention as the sun shown behind him quietly reconstructing his song “I’m Your Puppet” made famous by James & Bobby Purify.

An unexpected joy reflected in the by-chance appearance of Donnie Fritts who has worked very closely with Kris Kristofferson for over 20 years as his keyboardist. A songwriter in his own right, he came up to play a couple songs growling with an intensive structure for his song “You’re Going To Love Yourself In The Morning”. A slow methodical band of musical prowess paraded behind him consistently with a timeless feel. Along with writing the previous, Fritts also wrote “We Had It All” which has been recorded by Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson, Fritts also has the distinction of being in three Sam Peckinpah films including “Convoy” as well as his friend’s movie “A Star Is Born”.

The quest of music like the young man singing “Crying” at Swampers distinctly reflects in the ensuing generation. Case in point revolves in the fact that David Hood’s son Patterson is the front man for the popular and growing group, Drive By Truckers.

Exploring the homegrown loyalty that continues to filter through this area of Alabama very much makes its structure known in the new story of The Secret Sisters, a barely-20s female group who draws similarities to the Everly Brothers in their use of melody and harmony. Already undeniably popular in the UK and Ireland with a growing fan base in the US born out of Nashville where they just finished their first record with the legendary T-Bone Burnett.

Returning to their roots at a benefit for the Alabama Music Hall Of Fame, which has seen restricted funding, the intimate setting revealed an eye-opening structure. While not aware of their musical intonations within the small crowd, the country basis of the sisters stripped away to reveal a very cross-culture, multi-generational tinge that has infinite reach. With the timeless perception of a song like the darker meanderings of “The One I Love Is Gone” to the lifting of “To The Sweet By & By”, the beauty of this combination of female voices rings true but never so much in the Lydia Rogers-led cover of a Peggy Lee ballad which simply silenced the crowd.

Wrestling to the complete other end of the spectrum resolute in raw blues, Gip’s Place, a juke joint located outside Birmingham, swirls in the notion of purity of expression. The jam-based vision is led by Henry Gipson, Gip to all, who brings the emotion of the old school into his concert shack on the edge of his property on Paul Hill.

Sipping on the lightning while the mascara-crazed drummer battles in the beats, a cigar box guitar player changes time as the elder statesman of Gip, revels in his 80+ years, living the life, embracing the joy, roughing the anger and combatting the fear.

Revolving back to a mode of educational interaction, the Alabama Blues Project, dedicated to discovering and nuturing talent in the area, jams upstairs at the Alley Bar in Montgomery mixing the viracity of young and seasoned, experienced and instinctual. Little Lee, old school with a rasping guitar, echoes the blues through a texture playing-style remembering the vision of those past.

Continuing with a sense of old school soul, 21-year old Rachel Edwards stuns with her vocal range bringing to mind an Ella Fitzgerald intonation of the past with a reverent structure to the soul and vision of the late 60s.

Speaking with Assistant Director Rick Asherson, who performed with wife Debbie Bond (who runs the school-based structure of the project), finding the voices and coaxing them through experience remains the most difficult part of the process but the most gratifying since talent needs not only vision, timing and poise but also exceptional luck.

Talent regains a necessity not only of life but of sustenance. When seeing any of these acts, evenings beget a sense of celebration and social interaction. Each of the cities visited (Muscle Shoals, Birmingham & Montgomery) revels in its ability to tantalize with a relaxation of the senses and the enticing of the taste buds.

Beginning in Muscle Shoals, just barely off the railroad tracks, Frank’s Italian levitates with its notion of hearty plates and a Southern vitality. Beginning with the tantalizing Caesar balanced with mozzarella bites over marinara, the tottellini del carne swirled with a mushroom sauce and ground beef reveling in its dexterious notions of taste and family-based ambience.

Next, entering the mecca of Birmingham with storm clouds pointing towards the structure of Gip, Bottega, a fine casual perception serving a dexterious mix of young professional and older connoisseurs, enticed with a menu of lovely spryness. Beginning with stuffed grapes leaves filled with lamb and pinenuts, the beauty continued to a brisk and elevated mushroom soup, both thick and smooth in its countenance.

Progressing through the main course of pork loin, emblazoned with sauce and surrounded by a vivacious polenta, the tender potatoes and tangy spinach gave structure to the balance of calm while highlighting the soft notes of spice.

Arriving at The Olive Room, a cool predilection in the heart of Montgomery, the scintillating hues of the venue lit in candlelight, give way to a volley of martinis, each more progressive in their sense of mixology.

The Creme Brulee resurrected obvious and welcome wisps of flavor while the Jilted Peach attacked the gamut with a notion of smoothness and levity with savoring intensity. Challenging the motivation of new tastes, the Desconstructed Margarita welcomes its tequila infusion while understanding its necessity of prowess.

Before embarking on the evolution of the main course mixing both traditional effort and progressive visual stimulation, the interwoven beauty and texture of the chef’s Italian chimichanga embraced two worlds with petals of cheese over a tantalizing cross blend of pork and sausage.

Seeking to beat this enjoyable morsel with considerable gumption, the fettucini con porlanos entices with its thick bouts of mushrooms with a rich corn sauce that enchants with a sense of knowing while grilled shrimp dancing on top flitter with spicy libation.

Alabama Music, like its food comparably, is effective and diverse. Surprise is always a consideration since hidden gems reveal themselves in a variety of different visions. From the always intensive Muscle Shoals musical scene highlighted by a golden voiced light at Swampers to the angel-entwined harmonies of The Secret Sisters, the core heart of talent continues to flourish and breathe in the nexus of Alabama with an innate sense of knowing what is right around the corner.


Posted on May 9, 2011, in Arts Travel & Culture Features and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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