The New Sound of the ShoalsBelle Adair brings a modern twist to Muscle Shoals
The weight of history hangs heavy in Muscle Shoals. Not many towns as tiny as this Northern Alabama burg have such a strong connection with celebrity past, and the result is that Muscle Shoals’ national identity has been almost completely consumed by events that occurred there many decades ago. I refer, of course, to the legendary music that was created in the Shoals in the 1960s by Aretha Franklin, Eric Clapton, Wilson Pickett, The Allman Brothers, Otis Redding, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Etta James and countless others at FAME Studios and Muscle Shoals Sound Studio.
Those studios were a haven for black and white session musicians alike, and provided an unlikely space for collaboration between the two in the racially divided Alabama of the 1960s. The resulting “Muscle Shoals sound” was distinctive and attractive, and it wasn’t long before the rock and R&B stars came calling, looking for an out-of-way place where they could peacefully lay down some of their best tracks with some of the best players available.
Music has moved on since then, and Muscle Shoals and its musicians were left trying to reinvent themselves. In the late 1990s, spurred by the success of Shoals band Drive by Truckers, the area began to see a resurgence of interest in the music it was producing. FAME Studios and Muscle Shoals Sound Studio still exist, and in their halls a new generation of bands are reinventing the definition of “Muscle Shoals sound” one track at a time.
Enter Belle Adair, who will arrive at the Bottletree August 18 with a few of their Shoals brethren for “Muscle Shoals Music Night,” a local celebration of the revitalization of the music coming from our northern neighbors. Belle Adair’s front-man Matt Green recently moved to the Shoals from Birmingham, and I had a chance pick his brain about the genesis of the new project.
“Belle Adair began as a recording project after three years of failed attempts to put together a proper band,” Green says. “From the start, we weren’t centrally located. Grey Watson (guitar) and I lived in Birmingham, Ben Tanner (keys/engineer) was working out of the Shoals area, and Matt Myrick (drummer) lived in Tuscaloosa. After a few marathon recording weekends in the Shoals without rehearsal and with maximal overdubbing going on, we ended up with a six-song EP that we released digitally early this year.”
The resulting eponymous record is gorgeous, with a slow, lazy open that gains speed into an energetic middle that will have you toe-tapping and then quietly winds back down. At its softest (as in the opening track “STN”), the album is comforting, full of deft harmony, wandering melody and ambient noise. At its most upbeat (in the single-worthy “Paris is Free”), it is accomplished acoustic-pop at its best. You’ll hear many of the familiar tropes of Americana here, but never in an obvious or clichéd manner.
The recording process was not an easy one for Green. “There was a lot of frustration for me at the time: trying to navigate weekend trips among four people and trying to put together a recording without any consistency and without prospect of playing live,” he recalls. “After a freak apartment fire and other life goings-on, I decided it was time to move back home to the Shoals area, but it took eight months or so to put together a working group.” After he was done, Belle Adair’s lineup was markedly different, now consisting of Green (guitar/vocals), Tanner (keys/vocals), Daniel Stoddard (pedal steel/ vocals), Chris James (bass) and Patrick McDonald (drums).
Ben Tanner, who works at FAME, also engineered and helped mix the EP. “Ben and I have been close friends since we were little kids, so it’s always been natural and intuitive working with him,” Green says. “He’s been playing keyboards with me since I started writing songs. We share an interest in a certain palette of sounds, from Wurlitzers and synths to pedal steel and more ambient textures, that heavily influences our choices in the recording process. He’s kind of my musical co-conspirator.”
Recently, the band reestablished their connection with Birmingham music when Travis Morgan, founder of local label Skybucket Records, began managing them. “Personally, I think Belle Adair is a treasure among the current bands in the Shoals,” Morgan says. “I don’t think any other bands that I’ve heard are taking song composition to the creative and fascinating production level that Belle Adair is. While I respect what Jason Isbell (of Drive By Truckers) and The Civil Wars are doing musically, I feel Belle Adair is doing something more modern and way more interesting.”
So, if you like interesting things and want to catch the new sound of an old favorite, head down to Bottletree on Thursday, August 18 at 9 p.m. Belle Adair will be playing with Shoals bands The Bear and The Pollies, and admission will be $7. For more information on Belle Adair or to download their EP, visit www.belleadairmusic.com . To purchase tickets, visit www.thebottletree.com.
Sam George is the Editor-in-Chief of Birmingham Weekly. Please send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.