by Matt Wake | AL.COM | Apr. 12, 2022, 7:03 p.m.
Music stars that recorded in Muscle Shoals in recent years include Chris Stapleton, Alicia Keys, Jack White, Hanson, Steven Tyler and Heart singer Ann Wilson. That’s just for starters.
But here’s the thing, says Rodney Hall, co-owner and president of FAME Studios, the storied Shoals recording facility. “Yeah, we’re doing all those records. But we’re doing for other labels and other interests. They come in and we’re like a hotel room. They pay us to be there for those days, but that’s the end of that story. We need an outlet to release our music.” Which is why FAME is bringing back its own record label, FAME Records. The imprint that back in the day issued recordings by soul-music talents like Clarence Carter, Candi Staton, Jimmy Hughes and Willie Hightower. The general perception is FAME makes their money on studio time. “But that’s not the case at all,” Hall says. “It’s just a drawing card really, for our publishing companies and production companies and now our record label,” which are the studio’s most important revenue streams. Hall is the son of Rick Hall, FAME’s founder, producer and the father of the country-funk sound Muscle Shoals is known for, whether on essentials like Wilson Pickett’s “Mustang Sally” cut at FAME or Rolling Stones tracks like “Brown Sugar” cut at Muscle Shoals Sound, founded by Rick Hall’s former studio band The Swampers. “Most people don’t know this,” Rodney Hall says, “but my dad when he left Atlantic (Records, which FAME worked closely with), he was hired by Capitol (Records) to start their soul-music division. And FAME Records was the label, the outlet for doing that.”
In 2013, interest in Muscle Shoals music was reignited by the documentary “Muscle Shoals.” That film featured legends like Mick Jagger and Aretha Franklin singing praises of local studios like FAME Studios and Muscle Shoals Sound, telling stories behind classic records made there and local musicians who helped make them.
Now, FAME is partnering with Nashville-founded venture 8 Track Entertainment for a “60th Anniversary Of FAME And The Muscle Shoals Sound” album. Currently in production and planned for a release later this year, the album will feature Shoals classics covered by artists including Demi Lovato, Chris Stapleton, Candi Staton, Willie Nelson, Alison Krauss, Alan Jackson, Anderson East, Michael McDonald and others, including standout local singer Billy D. Allen. “Not many businesses are around for 60 years,” Hall says. “We’re still here and still doing it and as relevant as ever, if not more. It’s just an exciting time in Muscle Shoals, to be honest. Everything’s been growing since the documentary in 2013, and it really seems like it’s coming to a head now.”
8 Track’s founders include Noah Gordon, a Grammy-winning recording engineer, producer and songwriter who’s worked with heavyweights such as Keith Urban, Wynonna Judd, Brad Paisley and Darius Rucker. Since 8 Track Entertainment launched last year – initially focusing on publishing and production, those same money-makers Hall mentioned - they’ve scored a number-one country song, “Am I The Only One” by erstwhile Staind singer Aaron Lewis.
Last fall, the Muscle Shoals Music Association brought a group of Nashville music industry pros to town, including Gordon. Visiting the Shoals, a low-key North Alabama area far away from big-city distractions and hangers-on, Gordon says, “There’s a feeling that I got that was different from any other music center I’ve ever been to. My level of anxiety went down, my love for the music (made there) increased, my creative juices got flowing.” After 30 years in Nashville – “a city that’s been good to me,” Gordon says – Gordon and 8 Track are setting up a country label in Muscle Shoals, called 8 Track Records. They’ve signed Shenandoah, the Shoals-founded group that scored chart-topping hits in the ‘80s and ‘90s, including “Two Dozen Roses” and “Next to You, Next to Me.” Shenandoah, fronted by singer Marty Raybon, is also slated to be among the artists on the “60th Anniversary Of FAME And The Muscle Shoals Sound” album.
“We’re not going to alienate Nashville,” Gordon says. “I hope we can rebuild a bridge that increases the number of artists and producers and talent that makes the trek down here to Muscle Shoals.” It’s worth noting this year’s Grammy for Best Country Song went to “Cold” by Chris Stapleton, which was cut at Muscle Shoals Sound in Sheffield. With Florence-founded Single Lock Records notching three Grammy nominations this year - including a Best Traditional Blues Album win for Cedric Burnside’s “I Be Trying” - Muscle Shoals-based labels seem viable again. In addition to legacy-oriented projects, FAME and 8 Track will be signing new artists. The labels will collaborate on some projects, with distribution via Warner Music Group, and works separately on others. “There’s a lot of things that we’ll announce within the next six months,” Gordon says. Hall is particularly jazzed about plans for Muscle Shoals-based film and TV productions: “We’ve got some great ideas. And everything would be based in music and more than likely Southern music, whether it be something pertaining to the Allman Brothers or to Muscle Shoals itself or Wilson Pickett. There’s a lot of stories out there that have never been told.”
Even after the 2013 “Muscle Shoals” documentary? Yes, says Hall. “There’s more to that story. You can only tell so much in 90 minutes, and a lot of people were left out, other studios. I can definitely see a volume two of that.” Muscle Shoals-based stories work visually. For example, the recent Aretha Franklin biopic “Respect,” which was partially set in the Shoal.
According to Hall, certain aspects of 2020s life have made Muscle Shoals more attractive to music industry pros. The overpopulation in Nashville, for one. Then there’s the pandemic-inspired exodus from large cities and back to more rural ways of life. “We fit that bill for people that want to work in music,” Hall says. “There’s been probably a dozen or so really relevant music industry folks move here in the last year or two. And there’s more looking and there’s more coming.”
Hall says he’s excited about the entire Muscle Shoals music scene – and the growing music presence in nearby Huntsville – benefiting from energy generated by FAME and 8 Track. That means other studios, as well as recording engineers, producers, songwriters and musicians. “We’ll be looking for songs. We’ll be looking for artists,” Hall says. “We’ll be looking for all of it.”