The 11th edition of the Ponderosa Stomp kicks off 7 p.m. Thursday with a screening of the documentary Muscle Shoals at the Contemporary Arts Center (900 Camp St., 504-528-3800). The film takes an unconventional look at the titular Alabama town — curiously named after the mussels that settled in pockets of the Tennessee River — and its two hit factories. FAME and Muscle Shoals Sound studios delivered massive success stories, from Percy Sledge, Arthur Alexander, Clarence Carter and Wilson Pickett to Aretha Franklin, Etta James, Paul Simon, The Rolling Stones and dozens others. It's also the epicenter for contemporary artists Drive-By Truckers and Jason Isbell, The Civil Wars and just-east neighbors Alabama Shakes.
The film opens with gorgeous landscape shots that frame Colbert County as a sort of magical foundation for the music it produced — from an unlikely group of sharecroppers' sons, like FAME founder and architect of the Muscle Shoals sound Rick Hall, whose story of tragedy and triumph opens and closes each act. FAME house band and Muscle Shoals Sound founders The Swampers, a group of good ol' Alabama white boys who backed black artists during the tumultuous mid-'60s under Gov. George Wallace, are the film's humble heroes. Keith Richards, Bono, Jimmy Cliff and other famous talking heads throw heaps of praise at the group.
Director Greg "Freddy" Camalier anchors the film in the "mystic" elements of north Alabama rather than the realities of it, but it moves gracefully through decades of hits with rare footage, oral histories and an engrossing look into an under-appreciated landmark of American music.
Watch the trailer after the jump and read Gambit's interview with director Camalier.
How were you introduced to the Muscle Shoals area?
I was on a road trip with a friend of mine, and he was moving from the East Coast to New Mexico and needed help driving his car across the country. I said yes. We took back roads through the South and ended up in Muscle Shoals late one night. The next day we were impacted by our experience there and learning about the story. We knew a little about the story but not nearly the magnitude. That day while we were there we said, "Wow, we should make a film for this story that hasn’t been told."
What has it been like capturing this place for the first time in a comprehensive way?
It’s been a blessing. We’ve been so privileged to get to tell the story, we’ve made some incredible friendships along the way, and it was just an amazing ride.
It’s an unconventional documentary as far as music documentaries go. It has a sort of poetic feel to it. What was the response like from people in Muscle Shoals when you premiered it?
They loved it. They’ve been very happy, and that was one of my biggest fears to let them down. If they weren’t happy with it, it would’ve been a bummer. Fortunately it went over well.
You got an incredible perspective of what Muscle Shoals was like then. What’s your impression of it now?
There are some amazing musicians and bands coming out of the area. Billy Reid, the designer, he’s from there, and he just had a big weekend shindig he holds every year. And so many great bands come out. There’s so many bands there. John Paul White (of The Civil Wars) was there, Secret Sisters, Jason Isbell, Alabama Shakes from down the road — there’s some great musicians, young and upcoming. It’s exciting what’s in store for the area.
The documentary kind of hints at this, that the talent from the players, The Swampers, though they’re experienced players heading into the studio, there’s this magical element to their performance. You don’t spend too much time getting an idea what their instruction was like. Did you explore any of that off camera?
That’s a great question. They didn’t have access to a lot of stuff. They weren’t in an urban area where there’s a music school. They were around great session players, but they shared what they knew with each other and worked really hard at that, like “I’ve got to eat, I’ve got to put food on the table.” It’s odd. You can be dedicated like that but it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s gonna happen.
The area didn’t have much radio or record stores, yet they have this natural chemistry together to produce what become classics.
Each of them didn’t have a lot of access to music at all, but whatever access they had they took full advantage of. The fact they were able to take that minimal access they had and get the chops they got is pretty odd.
Is there a particular place you shot or didn’t shoot in Muscle Shoals that captures the heart of what you wanted to film? Obviously there are the studios.
Yeah, and the area. I don’t think there’s one spot that encapsulates one theme — the movie has different themes and levels. I don’t think I can pick one.
I’m curious what the response was from the artists you interviewed when you told them you were working on a film about Muscle Shoals. They’re incredibly reverential.
Nobody said no right away. Even if it was difficult they didn’t say no. They paused and said they’ll get back to us. Nobody said no and hung up the phone. They knew this was an iconic story that hadn’t been told. They just knew paying respect to these guys and this story, they couldn’t say no. Over time, after bugging them and nagging them, they all found time to talk to us.
Rick Hall’s story is overall a sad one, but in seeing the work he did and the foundation he laid for 20th century music, do you see his as a redemption story?
I do. He survived. He fell in love again, he had kids, his life is being celebrated now and he made iconic music. He overcame.
Has he had a chance to see the documentary?
Oh yeah, many times. He loves it.
Tickets are $10, $8 CAC members and Stomp Music Conference attendees.