ABOVE Burlap on the ceiling, shag carpet on the floor and a whole passel of history in between — the newly renovated Muscle Shoals Sound Studio shares the spirit with visitors from around the world and the studio space with today’s musicians. Photos by Art Meripol
Back in the day, the legends of music gathered in the most unlikely spot — a small concrete block building at 3614 Jackson Highway in Sheffield. All the legends came — from the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and Paul Simon to Rod Stewart, Cat Stevens and Lynyrd Skynyrd.
All wanted to record alongside The Swampers and capture the sound. But the scene outgrew the space and the building at 3614 fell down the musical foodchain, once landing a gig as an appliance store before it became just an empty building with nothing but residual spirituality.
That all changed with the release of the documentary “Muscle Shoals, ” which debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in 2013.
“Since that premiered in 2013, it has rocked our world here in the best possible way, ” says Judy Hood, chair of the Muscle Shoals Music Foundation and wife of Dave Hood, bassist with the Swampers. “It reignited a spark here — there’s so much excitement and momentum around Muscle Shoals music. I spend every waking hour finding ways to keep the dream alive.”
Though a documentary, “Muscle Shoals” has all the drama of a movie, says Hood, plus a cinematographic tribute to Alabama’s river region and a musical backdrop that’s like “the soundtrack of our lives.”
Excitement generated by the film helped raise enough funds locally — especially a gift from Gene Hamby of Sheffield — to enable the Foundation to buy the building. But they realized they had “a fixer upper and no money to fix it up, ” says Hood.
But the movie had wide appeal, playing to audiences worldwide. And in a theater in Santa Monica, California, it played for current musical legend Dr. Dre. He was so moved by the film that he and his partner Jimmy Iovine created a philanthropic wing of their Beats Electronics to save legendary music studios — starting with MSSS.
Beats’ generosity has recreated the space as it was in its heyday “right down to the ugly orange carpet, ” says Hood. Their interior designers were “meticulously attentive to detail. They maintained the funk but got the building structurally sound. They didn’t want to mess with the mojo.”
When her husband Dave first walked into the renovated building, he said it was like coming home.
“Muscle Shoals music never ever went away, ” Hood says, “but it had gotten to the point where it wasn’t vibrant. Now it is. This has reignited the spark.”
“This is a tiny little concrete building. Nobody can believe it became one of the most influential recording studios in the world, ” says Hood. But then they recognize that if people have enough passion — as the Swampers did — “anybody can do anything. It’s part of the message of hope.”
The studio won honors as the Alabama Tourism Destination of the Year for 2017, just as it was about to open.
As of January, 3614 is open for tours. “We have an absolute moral obligation to be open for tours; the music did have an international impact, it’s an important part of history.”
But the renovated studio is open, too. “Muscle Shoals music isn’t just history — it’s also present and future, ” she says. “So many young musicians are getting a chance to grow and thrive and not have to leave the area, ” she says. “I love to see that become possible.”
And as the studio itself draws visitors, the rest of the region is celebrating its heritage, too. Businessmen Marty Abroms and Bill Lyons have re-opened the old SunTrust Bank building at 201 S. Court Street, adding the Gold Record Room in the lobby area. Another businessman, Billy Ray Casteel, is building a new boutique hotel with rooms named to honor key elements of the local music scene.
Sharing the sound is part of the heritage, Hood says.
“Nobody in the world owns that mojo. We don’t own it. We want to share it.”
“I’m a sucker for happy endings, ” she says. “Maybe that’s why I love this one so much. The studio is restored with the mojo intact. In fact, so much passion, soul and hard work went into this that we may have even kicked it up a notch.”
ABOVE Small and anything but prepossessing, the 3614 building was home to some of the legendary sounds of the Sixties and Seventies.
Nedra Bloom is copy editor and Art Meripol is a freelance contributor to Business Alabama. Bloom is based in Mobile and Meripol in Birmingham.