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"Muscle Shoals" documentary celebrates 10 years

Historic recording console at Muscle Shoals Sound Studio
Joe Moody/APR
Historic recording console at Muscle Shoals Sound Studio

Muscle Shoals is known for its iconic music studios. Fame Recording Studios was started by the infamous Rick Hall. His original rhythm section was a studio band called the Swampers, who were to go on to establish the Muscle Shoals sound studio, and essentially what is known as the Muscle Shoals sound. This may seem like common knowledge today, but this has not always been the case. Rodney Hall is Rick Hall’s son and also the co-owner and president of Fame Publishing and Fame Recording Studios. "We had always been known in the music business. People knew something had happened, but they didn't really know the full story or impact until the documentary came out. And the public didn't know anything. Even here, in the Shoals, they didn't have a clue. They really didn't. They just knew, you know, they heard “Muscle Shoals has got the Swampers” in Sweet Home Alabama and that's about all they knew. And they didn't really even know what Swampers were. They just, they just knew that it was… it mentioned Muscle Shoals," says Hall.

What really put Muscle Shoals on the map for the general public was a documentary appropriately titled “Muscle Shoals” that was made in 2013 by director Greg “Freddy” Camalier and his buddy producer, Steven Badger. They grew up together in Maryland listening to old records that had been made in the Shoals.

Director Greg "Freddie" Camalier, Producer Stephen Badger, and Dan Penn (prolific Muscle shoals songwriter & singer )
Leslie Alsheimer
Director Greg "Freddie" Camalier, Producer Stephen Badger, and Dan Penn (prolific Muscle shoals songwriter & singer)

Camalier recalls, "I think the first liner note that I read that had Muscle Shoals in it, I think it was Dwayne Allman’s Anthology. And I think in those liner notes was the first time I'd seen it," Camalier recalls, "and then I also remember, you know, I was a fan of Clarence Carter's. And so those two come to mind."

The idea of the documentary started during a road trip that they took across the country. Badger remembers, "We got on to the Natchez Trace and then we were looking for a place to stay that evening and we were basically sort of, you know, headed towards Tupelo and I was looking at the map and I was like, well, there's Tupelo and that's the birthplace of Elvis and… or… my eye went from Tupelo to Muscle Shoals and I said...well, there's, there's Muscle Shoals you know, like, I mean... He's like "Muscle Shoals?" And I was like, yeah, you know, like, you know, Muscle Shoals like, you know, Sweet Home Alabama.”

In less than 24 hours in the Shoals, they decided that they wanted to make a movie. Camalier and Badger had a dream but little experience. What really brought it all together was bringing in a team, especially with Director of Photography, Anthony Arendt. Rodney Hall remembers, "Tony Arendt was the cinematographer, and he absolutely made our area look incredible. And it is, it is a beautiful area, but he really captured that. And that's not easy to do." Anthony Arendt is known for his work on such films as Avatar and Urban Outlaw. "I've been in the business for quite a while and, and then, you know, my name got thrown in the hat and Freddy called me 25 times. It was like, wait, what kind of cameras should we use? And it's like...and I was like...well, I don't know. Let's... let's talk about the project first." Arendt remembers, "We all came into the Nashville airport at the same time and never set eyes on each other. And we sat in a van for like 45 minutes just kind of introducing each other and kind of, you know, Hey, how are you? And it's like, you know, it's kind of interesting, you know, it's like, I’ve never seen these guys. Okay, tomorrow, we're going to Muscle Shoals and we're going to start filming."

Putting together the documentary was not so easy. filmmakers had tried it before. It took getting the trust of one of the movies main subjects, Rick Hall, founder of Fame Recording Studios. He was portrayed in the film as someone who had an extremely serious work ethic, a perfectionist. Hall recalls of his father, "He was tough on anybody he worked with. But, you know, the success, it's hard to… it's hard to argue with, you know. I would have arguments with him, and he would just point to the wall and say see these gold records? It's hard to argue that." However, after all was said and done, the movie earned the stamp of approval from the man. Badger remembers, "He was not an easy one to seal by any stretch of the imagination. I mean, actually I was ruminating today, I don't think we got his release signed until the last day of filming."

Many of the film stars have now passed on, including Rick Hall. It was at its showing at the Sundance Film Festival in 2013 that many of the documentary stars were able to watch the film in its entirety for the first time. Rodney Hall recalls the festival. "We all went to Sundance when it played Sundance, that was the first time we all saw it. We all got to sit together. My dad and Jimmie Johnson, David Hood and, and the whole crew, Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham. And we all sit together and watched it. And it was really emotional," he says. "It was, that was probably the highlight of my life is watching that film with these guys. And it was, yeah, it was better than we could have imagined." Anthony Arnedt had a similar memory. "For me, that was one of arguably one of the greatest moments in my film career was watching his face when he saw the movie for the first time at the Sundance Film Festival. That was awesome."

The 10th anniversary of the documentary was honored with the showing of the movie in the historic Shoals Theater in downtown Florence in April, the director, producer, and director of photography were all in attendance, as well as one of the original Swampers, David Hood. The documentary has not only shed light on a good story, but it has helped the local economy tremendously. "So, the documentary changed a lot of things. The number one thing it did though, is it created music tourism in the Shoals which didn't exist before. I mean, we had some people that would come," Hall says, "but it wasn't full on tourism. And you know, then after the documentary, we had to start, we were basically forced to start doing tours because people just started showing up."

Producer Stephen Badger, Director Greg "Freddie" Camalier, and Joel Hood (crew member)
Leslie Alsheimer
Producer Stephen Badger, Director Greg "Freddie" Camalier, and Joel Hood (crew member)

These travelers with a dream not only changed this little area in the northwest corner of Alabama but they were able tell the story of how it became one of the birthplaces of American music. According to producer Steven Badger, "It’s so deep, it's so powerful. It's so rich. And I would just encourage anybody who has not been to Muscle Shoals who's listening to this, that it is well worth the pilgrimage. And it's not going to you know, hit you with its glitz, but it's going to hit you with I think one of the truest and best versions of America that exists."

Joe Moody is a senior news producer and host for Alabama Public Radio. Before joining the news team, he taught academic writing for several years nationally and internationally. Joe has a Master of Arts in foreign language education as well as a Master of Library and Information Studies. When he is not playing his tenor banjo, he enjoys collecting and listening to jazz records from the 1950s and 60s.
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