Phil Gifford pays tribute to the wonderfully weird well of America’s southern sound.
Magic sounds from old, weird America.
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.