We just don’t get up to Muscle Shoals often enough. Florence, Sheffield or Tuscumbia either; in fact, you and I have been remiss in visiting our Quad Cities lately.
Visitors are sometimes surprised to learn that Alabama has Quad Cities, since much of the nation seems to regard the Midwest’s Quad Cities as sole proprietors of that name. (Go ahead, try to name them; I’ll wait.)
As one who has visited both sets of Quads, I can assure you that Alabama’s are vastly superior. For one thing, we have topography. The Midwest truly is flatter than Greece’s GDP. The last time I drove through there, I contemplated how much fun it would be to stand on the bank of the Mississippi and roll a bowling ball at a set of pins set up on the Nebraska border. I have a pretty awful hook, but I bet I could nick two.
I mean, the highest point in Iowa is Austin Pehl. (That joke would kill in their Quad Cities; he’s the six-ten center for the Northern Iowa Panthers. And, yes, I do know that the real highest elevation in the Land of the Rolling Prairie is Hawkeye Point, so, sensitive Iowans, spare me your flames.)
For another thing, our Quad Cities have entertainment. (Okay, I lied; I’m tired of waiting: the answer is Bettendorf, Davenport, Rock Island and East Moline.) When David Lankford worked at KSTT Radio in Davenport, Alan Burns and I went up to visit. Dave took us to the only nightlife in all four of their Quads, which was a bar in East Moline where a gentleman named Johnny Thunder entertained, singing popular songs of the day as he and his keyboard whirled about the room inside a smaller version of old Kiddieland’s Scrambler ride. It was weird then and retelling it now makes it seem even more so.
Of course I exaggerate when I say that the Midwestern Quad Cities lack fun. I recall vividly the delight of standing on a Davenport street corner listening to the sound of crackling joints emanating from the nearby Palmer College of the Chiropractic.
If you head up to Alabama’s Quad Cities this weekend, there will be different revelry. It is the finale of the W.C. Handy Music Festival, an annual shindig mounted for the last 30 years that has become a week-long celebration not just of music but of Southern culture, encompassing car shows, regattas, barbecues, movies, riverboat rides, picnics and all manner of parades.
There will be as well blues. That’s the music Mr. Handy got famous for, though in truth he was the least bluesy of the many musicians who played that style of music in the early 20th Century. He got to be called “The Father of the Blues” because he was the first person inspired to write those lovely bent notes down where everybody could play them. His “St. Louis Blues,” composed in 1914, is still one of the most-recorded songs of all time.
Though Handy’s home is in Florence, I’m not aware if the great bandleader ever recorded one of his songs in the Quad Cities. Most everybody else has, in studios thereabouts that gave birth to what is called the Muscle Shoals Sound. Though the mystical source of that ineffable sound is thought to be the Tennessee River—almost every documentary about the Sound uses the phrase, “There must be something in the water there…”—I believe it to be Jim Crow.
In municipalities across the land after the Civil War, blues music and country music arranged themselves on either side of segregation’s color line. The lucky towns paid it no heed, and Muscle Shoals was luckier than most. With visionaries such as Arthur Alexander and James Carr willing to explore the country side, or Spooner Oldham and Dan Penn rolling up their jeans to wade deep into the blues, races arbitrarily separated began to speak a common language to each other, one of shared feelings, sorrows and joys, which is now called soul music.
Like most recording centers, Muscle Shoals had a heyday. The great cycle of popular song dictated that inevitably the little town making magical music with local folks would be “discovered” by the record industry, then become a destination for singers anxious to find a new context for their gifts—Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Willie Nelson; everybody came to Muscle Shoals—then be left behind as the next new style popped up on the cultural horizon.
Perhaps because they were so far out of the mainstream in the first place, the musicians of the Quad Cities never lost their unique sensibilities to cynical commercialism. People believed in a Muscle Shoals Sound, and though the recording industry lost its mojo, Muscle Shoals did not. You can still go to a Muscle Shoals studio to record your music with some of the most versatile players on earth, and it still won’t sound quite like anybody else’s record.
That’s the spirit behind Saturday’s day-long seminar at the University of North Alabama, entitled, “Rocking the Blues: The Story of Rock in the Shoals.” This isn’t some dry-as-dust lecture, this is folks like historian Peter Guralnick and guitarist Patterson Hood and author Robert Palmer serving up a sumptuous buffet of stories and songs in Norton Auditorium to illustrate what project director Russell Gulley (once of the band Jackson Highway) calls “the living tradition of this music.”
Not only will there be a showing of a documentary about a new generation of Shoals music, embodied in the group Drive-By Truckers, but the band itself will play at the end of the day, along with old-school masters Donnie Fritts, Spooner Oldham and the Decoys, so you can hear for yourself what that living tradition sounds like. The talking stuff is free, the musical stuff costs money, and you can hit www.alabamafolklife.org to determine which is which.
Courtney Haden is a Birmingham Weekly columnist. Write to email@example.com.