What is it about Alabama? On the one hand it’s a state too well known for hatred and violence between the races. On the other hand, its black and white musicians have found a bond that has resulted in incredible records from the turbulent fifties and sixties all the way to the vexing twenty teens. I know, the same two statements could be said of most southern states. But only Alabama has Muscle Shoals, where a core group of rural, dirt poor white musicians, songwriters and producers wrote for and played behind soul greats from Aretha Franklin to Percy Sledge to Wilson Pickett and many more. Such was their success and resulting fame that artists as big as the Rolling Stones came there to pick up on the vibe for their own recordings.
Fifty years later singers are still going to the studios there searching for the magic – the feeling and the groove that transcended differences and powered those great records. Lucky for us, some of them are good enough to find it, as you will hear in two albums in particular that have been released in the last few weeks. One is a fine farewell from a hall of famer, while the other is a bright “hello” from a newcomer so new he still has a part time day job.
Gregg Allman – Southern Blood
Normally I don’t write about stars as big as Allman because I figure even casual music fans are familiar with their work. This album caught my attention, however, despite the fact I’m not what one would call a “fan” of either Gregg solo nor the Allman Brothers Band. I respect him and believe he as a solo artist or bandleader deserves all the accolades that he and his mates received over the years. I enjoy hearing the occasional Allman song. For some reason, however, I just never liked them enough to own any of their records, although I did buy the Duane Allman Anthology album years ago. My attitude changed dramatically with Southern Blood.
Maybe it was something about an old veteran coming to grips with his own mortality and expressing that process through a collection of songs carefully chosen for the purpose. I found the same appeal in Glen Campbell’s farewell release Adios, which I wrote about a few months ago.
From various articles, I understand that Allman originally planned to write all new songs for the album, but his declining health and dwindling time led him to settle for just one original to kick it off. With help from his producer Don Was, he chose covers to fill out the album that fit the flow and mood perfectly. With a couple of exceptions that provide a bit of punch, this album doesn’t rock. Yet the controlled passion of the performances belies the notion that it’s mellow. A bit melancholy in some places, reflective in others – no doubt. It’s a man looking back on a life lived on his own terms while savoring songs that have meant something to him along the way.
There’s a story behind each selection that I won’t go into here. If you’re interested, go to his interview in Garden and Gun magazine here: http://gardenandgun.com/feature/gregg-allman-says-goodbye/.
There’s also an excellent article from NPR which you can find if you “google” Gregg Allman Southern Blood. The NPR article makes the point that returning to Muscle Shoals to record Southern Blood brought Allman full circle because it was there that he and Duane started their career, as sidemen and as an unknown new band, Hourglass. It’s fitting, therefore, that he did include a tune from one of Muscle Shoals’ top songwriting teams, Spooner Oldham and Dan Penn’s “Out Of Left Field,” originally a hit for Percy Sledge.
The opening song, “My Only True Friend,” is quite good but clearly personal. Perhaps too much of that wouldn’t have been such a good thing. I think the covers he chose to follow his opening statement make the appeal more universal – it’s not just about himself. You and I might have chosen the same songs for our own farewell. Enjoy it with a smooth whiskey.
Cale Tyson – Careless Soul
Young Mr. Tyson is a Texan who in his twenties moved to Nashville. From what I’ve learned from the articles I’ve found, he’s not a record industry guy. Rather he began performing in the somewhat “alternative” club scene in East Nashville. He seems to have started as a neo-traditionalist honky tonker. A few years ago, he did an EP that sounded like Hank Williams and early Ray Price, but was that really Cale Tyson? While he respected the artists he mimicked, he hadn’t really grown up on their music. Then he hooked up with a producer who, after listening to Tyson describe the music floating around in his head, suggested they go to FAME studios in Muscle Shoals. They took a bunch of musicians from Nashville; the only original FAME swamper in the studio was bassist David Hood. But then again, who’s more responsible for a record’s groove than the bass player? And maybe there is something to the legends about the studio there. As Tyson told NPR, “The room was incredible.”
The result is, dare I say it -cowjazz, an otherwise indescribable mix of folk, country, R&B and whatever. There are horns and strings along with guitars and pedal steel. There are tunes you can dance to, tunes that make you yell “yahoo” and tunes to cry to. There are tunes with a soul groove and tunes that sound like they could have been written by denizens of the Brill Building like Carole King and Gerry Goffin. Regardless, they all possess catchy melodies and intelligent, sometimes clever lyrics.
One of my favorite lines is from “Somebody Save Me,” in which the singer, whose lover is out of town, is begging that “somebody save me from doing her wrong.” As he confronts the temptation to stray, he intones “somebody please help me, I’m losing my mind, I’m crossing my fingers that I won’t cross the line, if somebody sees her, tell her come home, I want to be faithful, but I won’t be for long.” Well, you can guess how it ends.
What we can’t guess is where Tyson will go next. Careless Soul was released in the UK a couple of years ago, but was unheard here in the states until it was released this past summer. He didn’t grow up on country music, although he appreciates it, and he didn’t grow up on R&B either. He can sound authentic with either genre but he worries they’re not authentically him. He told Rolling Stone that while waiting for Careless Love to be released in the US, he’s been writing songs in more of an indie-folk vein inspired by Conor Oberst and Emmylou Harris on Oberst’s album Bright Eyes. To tell you the truth, I have no idea what that might sound like. I do know he’s a fine singer and a very good songwriter. I also know that he found something good inside the walls of that old studio in Muscle Shoals, perhaps the spirit of Rick Hall and Clarence Carter. Stated simply, Careless Soul is one of the most enjoyable albums I’ve heard this year.
And in the category of “what the heck…”
Marc Broussard – SOS-2: Save Our Soul: Soul On A Mission
Marc Broussard is not from Alabama, and this 2016 album was not recorded at Muscle Shoals. Nevertheless several of the tunes were originally written and recorded in integrated studios in Muscle Shoals and at Stax in Memphis. All are from the canon of greatest soul hits by Aretha Franklin, Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, the Isley Brothers, Stevie Wonder, Wilson Pickett, Sam & Dave and Solomon Burke. In fact Burke’s song “Cry To Me” inspired Broussard to depart from his usual repertoire and record this set. He openly says that he tried to emulate the arrangements of the original recordings. He wanted to expose their pleasures to a new generation of audiences, albeit with a higher recording fidelity given technology today. Having said that, this is not a case of a white guy ripping off black artists’ music. Born into the melting pot of Louisianna music – his dad is in the Louisianna Music Hall of Fame, Broussard has built his chops from the ground up.
Clearly he internalized classic soul music while growing up. Even more clear is the joy he brings to the project. I don’t think he’s quite wicked enough to pull off Wilson Picket’s “In The Midnight Hour,” but otherwise there’s more than a record full of great fun here. As I listened I couldn’t help remembering all the white bands I heard in the sixties – the Embers, Catalinas, Fabulous Five, Sardams and so many more – playing R&B and Soul music in college frat houses and beach dance clubs throughout the south. White bands covering records of black singers written and produced by both black and white artists. What’s in those grooves bound them all. You know, I think we can bridge some divides, if we just turn off the news and turn up the stereo.