As a child, Rick Hall lived in dirt poor poverty in rural Alabama. One day he saw his brother fall into a tub of boiling water. His brother died from the burns a few days later, an impact on the family which eventually led to his parents separating. As an adult, Hall managed to transcend his difficult background and become a founder of one of the most successful recording studios ever, FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, AL.
The “Muscle Shoals Sound” – heard on recordings by Aretha Franklin, Percy Sledge, and Wilson Pickett, to name a few – was largely the result of FAME’s in-house band The Swampers. After a feud with Atlantic Records’ Jerry Wexler in 1969, Hall watched as The Swampers (up until that time his close friends) abandoned him to set up a competing Wexler-funded studio of their own in the same town.
At roughly the same time and only a couple of country back road hours away at Ardent Studios in Memphis, TN Chris Bell and Alex Chilton were putting together a band named Big Star. In one of the most brilliant publicity moves ever, their publicist arranged the “First Annual Rock Writer’s Convention” in Memphis. They would have 100 of the most influential critical voices all gathered in one place, and the previously unknown Big Star would be the house band. The writers reportedly loved the band, but even critical acclaim and a distribution deal with soul label Stax wasn’t enough to bring Big Star to the attention of the music buying public.
Bell was devastated at the dismal sales and left the band, spending his next few years wrestling with mental illness before dying in a car wreck. The Chilton-led band fizzled out after a dark and disturbed third album, with Chilton spending a good chunk of the rest of his life (he died of a heart attack in 2010) with an almost perverse desire to repudiate the work he did with Big Star and spurn popular acceptance and acknowledgment.
These stories are played out in two recent documentaries, Muscle Shoals and Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me. As noted, tragedy seemed to stalk the major players in both films. A key ingredient of tragedy stories, though, is the “phoenix rising from the ashes” component – the triumphant comeback.
Rick Hall continued on with FAME, moving into country music production and becoming an elder statesman, respected by the musicians and the industry. He’s still going strong and can now even greet The Swampers on friendly terms, as he does at the end of the movie – a scene that’s obviously staged, but seemingly genuine nonetheless.
Big Star, too, managed to outshine misfortune and become one of the most name-checked and influential bands in rock history, with everyone from R.E.M. to Wilco to Nirvana acknowledging them as an influence. Against the odds, they reformed in 1993 with Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer of power pop band The Posies. Performing occasionally until Chilton’s death, Big Star even released a new studio album (In Space) in 2005.
The two films tell their stories in similar formats: interviews with key figures, footage of some of the primary locations now and then, and slews of archival photos. Big Star has some especially charming home movie clips of the band recording and hanging out – footage which came to light a few years ago – and is used well in the movie. Nowadays everything is captured on smart phones, but back then it wasn’t, which makes this footage (even though it’s silent) very moving. For a brief time, we get to feel like we’re there.
Interviews with Chris Bell’s brother and sister (who bashfully admits she didn’t particularly like his music) are a highlight as well. One thing missing from Big Star, however, are any real interviews with The Posies. After close to 20 years as half of the resurrected band, their absence from the film is noticeable.
In Muscle Shoals, the lovingly filmed northern Alabama landscape is almost another character in the movie. It reminds us that the music, and the people who created the music, existed in a unique and fertile time and place in music history. It seems more than a coincidence that the river that flows by Muscle Shoals is named the Tennessee River. A Deep South river of music connects these two regions, which gave rise to the rock and soul of Big Star, and the soul and rock of “the Muscle Shoals Sound” – on the surface different, but at a deeper level not too dissimilar at all.
So, turn up Big Star’s “My Life is Right” or “September Gurls”; Clarence Carter’s “Slip Away” or Wilson Pickett’s version of “Hey Jude” (with Muscle Shoals regular Duane Allman on guitar)…or any of a number of other classic Big Star and Muscle Shoals songs. They’re invested with enough heart and soul as to be timeless.