Saturday, June 14, 2014

Muscle Shoals

Two days ago I watched the documentary Muscle Shoals, which I recommend highly to anyone who is interested in American culture. I get the impression that many younger people today don't understand what the music scene was like in the U.S. from the early '60s to the early '70s. There is a lot that I can say about this documentary because it relates to many of my favorite topics.

Arguably that period produced the best art in American history, and it was characteristically American because it melded vernacular art with social movements and commerce and it flourished in small, entrepreneurial enclaves. Muscle Shoals is a little town on the Tennessee River in northwest Alabama. A poor sharecropper named Rick Hall decided that he wanted to be rich and famous, and he founded Fame Studios there in the late 1950's. Against all odds, Hall put together a small backup ensemble of local white high school kids who, along with his engineering and producing skills, became a draw to several big names, including Percy Sledge, Wilson Pickett and Aretha Franklin, early in their careers. Southern rock took off from there when Duane Allman learned the slide guitar while hanging out in the studio. As Fame's reputation spread, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and many others began to show up.

Although I am often critical of capitalism, when you look at it in this context, it seems more productive and human, and it reminds me of vegetable gardening. The small-scale entrepreneur is looking for a crop, and, to that end, ordinary business practices are of secondary importance to finding, nurturing and developing talent. Without the entrepreneurs, many of the popular artists of the period would never have seen the light of day. What makes this scenario interesting is the process in which raw talent seeks an outlet, and a good entrepreneur cultivates it like a good farmer. In these early stages, to continue the analogy, the garden is small, and agribusiness hasn't yet entered the picture. It is easy to forget that once upon a time this wasn't a corporate state.

Lacking the formal traditions of Europe, perhaps the U.S. is better at creative synthesis in the arts. Often this seems to be more about free expression than about art, and I'm not sure that Americans can tell the difference. Thus, if you write a one-paragraph essay, eliminate the punctuation and break it up into short lines, it's a poem. Formal shoddiness pervades America, while spontaneous expression often does better than elsewhere.

As Rick Hall's business grew, his backup group, The Swampers, jumped ship and formed their own company, which also did very well. The transition to long-haired groups was difficult for Hall, and he made a major mistake when he dumped Duane Allman just as he was taking off musically. In the aftermath, that innocence is probably gone, and my guess is that Muscle Shoals is now like a mini-Nashville.

Compared to the 1960's, the U.S. seems dull and decrepit these days. I haven't heard any good popular music in decades, and instead of marches on Washington we have the Tea Party and the Koch brothers. At least Vermont retains a certain 1960's aura, though New England has an anal-retentive quality, which, along with political correctness, does not provide fertile ground for the arts. Most of the best art in the U.S. seems to emanate from the South, which historically had more cultural diversity than other regions.

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