Phil Gif­ford pays trib­ute to the won­der­fully weird well of Amer­ica’s south­ern sound.

Magic sounds from old, weird Amer­ica.

North & South - - Columns - By phil gif­ford

Nowhere are race and mu­sic more en­tan­gled, and more con­fus­ing, than in south­ern Amer­ica.

In 1966, New York record ex­ec­u­tive Jerry Wexler flew Wil­son Pick­ett down to Mus­cle Shoals in Alabama to record. Pick­ett, a streets­mart soul star who grew up in Detroit, would later re­call his shock at what he saw when he looked out­side the FAME (Florence Alabama Mu­sic En­ter­prises) Stu­dios. “I said: ‘Is that what I think it is? Peo­ple are still pickin’ cot­ton down here?’ You could see the stu­dio from the cot­ton patch.”

FAME’S owner, Rick Hall, re­mem­bers: “I could see by the look in his eyes he was think­ing, ‘What am I do­ing with this cracker, down here in Alabama?’”

When the funky, gritty, soul­ful songs they recorded emerged – “Mus­tang Sally” and “Land of 1000 Dances” – al­most no­body re­alised at the time that ex­cept for Pick­ett, ev­ery mu­si­cian (and Hall, the pro­ducer) were white south­ern­ers.

How do you ex­plain it? At a time when Ge­orge Wal­lace had taken over as Alabama’s gov­er­nor in 1963, promis­ing “seg­re­ga­tion now, seg­re­ga­tion to­morra, seg­re­ga­tion for­ever”, how did mu­sic leap over ra­cial bar­ri­ers in Mus­cle Shoals?

Hav­ing spent a mag­i­cal af­ter­noon in 2014 in Nashville talk­ing with one of my mu­si­cal idols, Dan Penn, who co-wrote not only “Do Right Wo­man” for Aretha Franklin but also the great­est cheat­ing song in soul, “Dark End of the Street”, the only con­clu­sion I can draw is that Penn (one of the key writ­ers and pick­ers in the 60s at Mus­cle Shoals) and his fel­low black and white mu­si­cians there were ba­si­cally colour-blind.

David Hood, a bassist at FAME, who played on Pick­ett’s 1969 Shoals ver­sion of “Hey Jude” with Duane All­man – pos­si­bly the great­est-ever cover of a Bea­tles’ song – swears

that “when you’re a kid, you don’t know what colour any­body is and it doesn’t mat­ter, it’s just the mu­sic you like best”.

South­ern soul drifted out of the spot­light by the mid­dle of the 1970s, but it never died. You could find hints of it in the All­man Brothers Band, or more re­cently in the Drive-by Truck­ers, a ter­rific coun­try rock band whose leader, Pat­ter­son Hood, hap­pens to be the son of David Hood.

The torch for deeply heart­felt south­ern mu­sic is be­ing car­ried to­day by two gifted Alabama bands, the Alabama Shakes and St Paul & The Bro­ken Bones. Nei­ther is an old­school soul re­vival act but, in an al­most per­fect touch, the lead vo­cal­ists – Brit­tany Howard with the Shakes, and Paul Janeway with St Paul – have back­grounds that are quintessen­tially south­ern.

Howard, the daugh­ter of a black fa­ther and a white mother, says she grew up happy in a house in the mid­dle of the fam­ily-owned junk­yard in Athens, Alabama. The house burned down when it was struck by light­ning, but, “I didn’t feel sorry for us, be­cause that’s just the way life was.”

As a teenager she loved Mavis Sta­ples, Tom Waits and Bruce Spring­steen, and while there are some traces of all three in Howard’s de­liv­ery, she’s de­vel­oped her own pow­er­house style, which can burn or cut at will.

The Shakes’ first al­bum, Boys & Girls, ar­rived on the back of a ra­dio hit, “Hold On”, which would have sounded at home at a FAME ses­sion in the 60s. The sec­ond, Sound & Colour, is more di­verse and less eas­ily ac­ces­si­ble, but re­wards close lis­ten­ing.

St Paul singer Janeway told Rolling Stone that when he was a small child in Chelsea, Alabama, he would line up his stuffed an­i­mals in his bed­room and preach to them, ap­ing the preach­ers he heard at the charis­matic church his fam­ily at­tended.

He fell out with the church when his pas­tor told him Ma­hatma Gandhi had prob­a­bly gone to hell. “I ex­panded my world view.”

Janeway has an al­most freak­ish voice. If you’ve never heard him, a good start be­fore check­ing out the band’s two al­bums, which fea­ture only orig­i­nal songs, would be to go to Youtube and search for “St Paul & The Bro­ken Bones, A Change is Gonna Come” and watch Janeway sing the Sam Cooke clas­sic in the style of Otis Red­ding.

There is a jaw- drop­ping dis­con­nect be­tween how Janeway looks (he’s been com­pared to Drew Carey and Roger Ebert, and wears a Peter Dun­nelike bowtie and white shirt on stage) and how he sings, when he can chan­nel at will Red­ding or Wil­son Pick­ett. As his band-mate Jesse Phillips says, “You don’t ex­pect that to come out of this.”

I still pre­fer the band’s first al­bum, Half the City, to last year’s Sea of Noise, mostly be­cause Half the City in­cludes the stun­ning “Bro­ken Bones & Pocket Change”, a heart­break­ing bal­lad Dan Penn would be proud to own – but both are keep­ers.

Critic Greil Mar­cus coined the phrase “the old, weird Amer­ica” to de­scribe the her­itage Bob Dy­lan and The Band called on when they recorded what would be­come the myth­i­cal Base­ment Tapes.

The Alabama Shakes and St Paul & The Bro­ken Bones aren’t old, but they draw in­spi­ra­tion from the same won­der­fully weird well.

When her fam­ily home burned down, Brit­tany Howard said, “I didn’t feel sorry for us, be­cause that’s just the way life was.”

Paul Janeway of St Paul & The Bro­ken Bones.

Alabama Shakes’ Brit­tany Howard, a pow­er­house tal­ent car­ry­ing the torch for deeply felt south­ern soul.

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