But there was something about the picture that ended up generating certain feelings that seemed to come from my gut. There was a certain sense of mystery. There was the train appearing out of the dark, headed down the track back into the dark unknown, not knowing exactly what lies beyond, lighting up the tracks and the night ahead of it, trying to find its way through the darkness of the night.
Now Muscle Shoals has got the Swampers
And they’ve been known to pick a song or two (yes they do)
Lord they get me off so much
They pick me up when I’m feeling blue, now how bout you?
Muscle Shoals is not a major tourist destination. It lies on the southern shore of the Tennessee river in the northwestern part of Alabama, on the other side of the river from the town of Florence, AL. These days, the name seems to refer to the area covering the towns of Sheffield, Tuscumbia, and Muscle Shoals itself.
While many people who consider themselves rock-and-roll aficionados may know nothing about this place, other than it being a reference in a Lynyrd Skynyrd song, people who are really in the know understand that this was the place where a lot of rock-and-roll music of the 1960s and 70s got created. Musicians from all over the country, and the world, came to the studios of Muscle Shoals to record their albums. Musicians like Rod Stewart, Paul Simon, Jimmy Buffet, Willie Nelson, Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Percy Sledge, Etta James, The Commodores, The Rolling Stones, The Allman Brothers, and many others, worked here.
Wandering around the area of Muscle Shoals you will not have a clue as to the role this place had in the creation of the contemporary music of that time. Some of the place, especially around Sheffield and Tuscumbia, looks run down and dilapidated. The town of Muscle Shoals is lightly populated, with low rise and spread out shopping centers and commercial buildings dominating the skyline, and it is clear that the history of the place has not had a very significant impact on its prosperity.
The original recording studio that started it all is called Fame Studios. It is still in use, and is owned by a family that has been in the business for over fifty years. The building that hosts the facility is small and nondescript, and you may even miss it if you were not paying attention, in spite of the fact that is is right beside the main road. The inside of the building shows its age. It is simple, and the decor is from a time that has long passed. The walls are covered with pictures and mementos of the musicians who have worked in that space since the 1960s.The Muscle Shoals Sound Studio was a spinoff from the Fame studio and it was started by the Swampers. It operated in the location indicated in the picture below from 1969 to 1979. The building is now a museum, and it sits all by itself in an open space beside Jackson Highway. There is nothing else of note there beside this unremarkable building. One would even miss the small building had the name of the place had not been painted on it. The parking lot is small and unpaved, and an unmarked entrance from a side street (rather than the main road) leads you to the facility.We came by another place of note called the Cypress Moon studio unexpectedly, next to a park beside the river. Apparently this facility used to house the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio after 1979, but this lasted only a few years. Cypress Moon Studios are a film and music production company today. Concerts are held periodically in the historic studios.Driving along Jackson Avenue, you pass buildings that are falling apart that have names on them indicating that they were recording studios some time in the past. It is hard to say if the place ever thrived due to the presence of the music business, but today most of it looks rundown.
Unfortunately, we had no time to spend wandering within any of these facilities. The museum would have been interesting.
There is something interesting about how life goes on in Muscle Shoals even though its best days have probably passed it by. While the place is open to tourism, it is also very low key at this time, and there seems to have been no attempt yet to try to exploit the situation with a lot of advertising and promotion on a large scale. Expectations seem to be moderate. Life goes on, and the pilgrimage goes on!
I am headed home. What can I say? All good things must come to an end, and I got the St. Louis Blues. But what better way to end the trip than with music and dinner at BB’s Jazz, Blues, and Soup, where we rocked yesterday evening away to a blues set by Big Rich McDonough & Rhythm Renegades. But I am getting ahead of myself.
When I woke up on Tuesday morning, it was raining heavily outside the 7th floor apartment. Sheets of water were pouring down from the dark sky in bursts. Luckily, there is not much planned for the day. The National Blues Museum is located downstairs in the apartment building and I was going to spend the day there (with an interruption in the middle for a trip to the dentist to look at an ulcer that had formed in the mouth (now healing!) after the surgery).
The lady at the counter told me that I could spend 45 minutes to an hour there, but I ended up spending a few hours trying to soak in all the details, very little of which I can remember a few days later. It is interesting to recognize and understand how this music of the downtrodden black people not that far back in time became the foundation of the present music form over the years. And the music is still relevant today.
Angela was going back to work on Wednesday and so I accompanied her to the free Boeing museum (which is called Prologue) located at her work place.I am addicted to technology related to flying, and, once again, I spent more time in a museum than predicted by other people, immersed in the information. When I was young I used to look for and read anything I could find about flying. (I even found a way to get to the local airport to see the Boeing 747 when it came into town for the first time. I would also have studied aeronautics had it not been considered a less desirable engineering pursuit at that time.) The details of what I read and learnt as a youth get lost in the backrooms of my memory over time, and today was the time to try to remember stuff – about commercial and military aircraft history and development over the years, about space travel, about other “stuff” related to moving through the air through unnatural means. They had great information for the curious. They even had full size capsules from the Mercury and Gemini programs (that helped launch man into space). These were set up in the then McDonnell (now Boeing) facilities for training and testing purposes. These were fully functional even though they did not go into space.
I found it easier to follow the developments in commercial flight than those in the military realm. People will spend more money and effort to experiment in the military realm so that there ends up being much more variety in the end-products that result. Nothing much has changed in this regard over the years.
Since I had more time to kill that day (since Angela had a few more hours to work), I drove to St. Charles, a little town on the other side of the Missouri river. Lewis and Clark spent some time here in the past on their way west.These days, the main street has been developed for the tourists. It seemed lively at lunch on a week day.There is an Art Center at the end of town which supports local artists.The art center is set in a location where there is also a big factory that runs along the river called the American Car and Foundry Company . The company is still operational, but the sections that one can see from the trail that runs along its side look run down and abandoned.
And then there is the Katy trail that runs past St. Charles closer to the river.I found out that the Katy trail considers itself the longest rail-trail in the country.The name comes from MKT, the initials of the Missouri Kansas Texas Railroad, whose right-of-way has been transformed into a comfortable biking trail of crushed limestone.Biking this trail may be something to consider in the future, but days like the one I spent in St. Charles would be too hot for an endeavor like this. A plus for the trail is that it seems to include support services and B&B’s for overnight stays along the way.
And then it was time for the entertainment. We ended up going to an establishment that all of us in the family (except for Angela) had gone to on a previous trip through the city. It was the only place having live entertainment that day at a reasonable time. It was within walking distance, and we convinced ourselves that it would be a safe walk from our apartment later in the evening even though it was located a short distance from downtown in an open area that was full of empty parking lots.We had a great time. Both the food and the music were great.The band mostly seemed to be a bunch of local artists who had come together to play that evening. The drummer was a college kid – could not figure out if he was a graduate or undergraduate student. What a thrill for a young man to be able to play music for the public in this environment with people who are so skilled in the art! Much of live jazz and blues is improvisation, with the band following its leader as he plays what he is feeling at that moment. It looked and sounded like the band was having fun. It was Angela’s first visit to a blues bar, and I hope it will not be here last.
And then it is time to head home today. All good things must come to an end. I got the St. Louis blues…
This event was conducted by the Mid-Atlantic district of the Barbershop Harmony Society. There were classes on various topics that were conducted by experts in the field; there was individual coaching if one desired; the entertainment in the evening was provided by the choruses and quartets that were being coached, and from award winning groups, and finally from an awesome youth ensemble; and finally there were various opportunities to sing. It turned out to be an awesome experience.
I was definitely putting myself outside my usual comfort zone with this experience, and for many reasons.
The event took place is a college campus in northern Maryland. I stayed in a dorm room and ate my meals in a cafeteria, sharing a suite and a common bathroom with folks that I did not know. (Also pay attention to the paragraph below in this context.) It has been several years since I did something like that.
The barbershop scene is not very diverse. A significant number of the people attending the event were white and old. Even the people who were not old were mostly white. Being an introvert, I had to make an extra effort to engage with folks. Fortunately, they all turned out to be nice people, even if many of them were unlikely to share my interests and viewpoints. Having said all of that, the young kids who were there for the youth camp seemed to be a more diverse lot. Perhaps there is hope!
With no background in music, I did not know what I was getting myself into. I ended up learning a lot about performing for an audience in general, and barbershop in particular. I learnt that the unique craft of barbershop music is based on a singing technique that encompasses four parts that come together to emphasize different harmonics of a fundamental frequency in order to create “barbershop chords” that have a unique and pleasing sound. (And it is not always the melody that constitutes the fundamental frequency.) I also learnt that pianos are tuned in a way that is called “equal temperament”, which allows music to be played in various keys, but which essentially makes them out of tune – in that they do not play the harmonics of a note properly. In order to play harmonics properly the piano has to be of “just intonation”, but then you lose the flexibility of the musical instrument, be it a piano or a guitar. You cannot create barbershop harmonics with today’s piano because the notes are off. Wow!
I stumbled into barbershop music several years ago by chance. It is only now that I am gaining a proper appreciation for the technical aspects of the craft that I have taken up. I understand why it is most important in barbershop for the vowel sounds created by the four different parts to match perfectly to create the perfect sounds. I understand why it is important for the four different parts in barbershop to be sung at different volume levels corresponding to their place in the chord being created (something that can even change from note to note) to create a good sound. This is more difficult than I originally thought. But it is also awesome to be always learning!
I will end with a video that was shown at one of the classes illustrating what a good performance may look like. This was a song sung in competition. (For anybody interested, the order in which the quartet is on stage is – tenor, lead, bass, baritone.)
Incidentally, the group had points taken off for the break in the performance.