As the resurgence of vinyl record stores come back into the public consciousness, music lovers will discover their favorite new artists on LP as well as rediscovering classic rock, soul, blues, folk and country artists whose original records debuted in that format. Several of these “classic” musicians, songwriters and bands (Paul Simon, The Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan, to name just a few) recorded with the Swampers (guitarist Jimmy Johnson, bassist David Hood, keyboardist Barry Beckett and drummer Roger Hawkins) in the legendary Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, starting in 1968.
These last few years have a resurgence in the Muscle Shoals Sound with artists such as the Civil Wars, Alabama Shakes, Jason Isbell and the Drive-By Truckers. Birmingham-based author Carla Jean Whitley wrote her first book (Muscle Shoals Sound: How the Swampers Changed American Music) on the Shoals’ legacy and generously answered a few questions about the process.
Chris K. Davidson for You Hear This? : So this is your first book; why the Swampers?
CJW: I’ve written about music for 10 years, and so when my editor at The History Press approached me about writing a book, it was only natural that we landed on a music-related idea.
I began writing about music in graduate school; my master’s project focused on independent musicians, and it was published in part in The Huntsville Times. I continued to seek such opportunities in the years that followed, and when I began work at Birmingham magazine, I was thrilled to take over the publication’s music coverage. I’ve been able to explore the stories of so many Alabama musicians, and it was great fun to learn more about the Swampers, legendary musicians who played a role in so many nationally and internationally beloved recordings.
YHT?: Talk about the writing process; how long did the book take and what role did your journalism experience play in its composition?
CJW: It was not an easy process, to be sure. I’m used to deadlines and long hours, but spreading those out over the course of a year makes for a very different experience. Writing a history book actually felt a bit upside down after a decade in journalism. I’m accustomed to doing a bit of research to support a lot of original reporting. But as I began interviews for this book, I quickly realized I needed to flip my approach. The history of Muscle Shoals Sound Studio has been told in bits and pieces through hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles. There was no need for me to recreate the wheel by asking the same questions folks had been answering for 40 years. After that a-ha moment, I took a step back, dug into research and began identifying places I need clarification or more information.
YHT?: Who were some of your favorite interview subjects and why?
CJW: Because of the nature of the book—a straightforward history—I relied more heavily on research than interviews. But the time I spent with Jimmy Johnson (Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section guitarist) was unforgettable. In the midst of several hours at his studio, Jimmy turned on his sound system and began playing several recordings from Muscle Shoals Sound’s heyday. Let me tell you, there’s nothing like listening to Paul Simon as a fine musician plays air guitar next to you.
YHT?: Without giving too much away, what were some of the biggest surprises you found out about the Swampers and the Muscle Shoals area in your research?
CJW: Quite honestly, the biggest surprise was how many people don’t know this area’s music history. I’ve talked to friends and family who have spent decades in Alabama and who are big music fans who didn’t realize bands such as The Rolling Stones recorded in the state. It’s been so fun to share these tidbits with people around me—although by now my boyfriend probably knows to answer “Muscle Shoals Sound” whenever I ask, “Do you know where this song was recorded?!”
YHT?: How do you see the Shoals legacy playing out today as well as the years to come?
CJW: So much has changed even since I started working on this book! In the past year or so, Muscle Shoals Music Foundation bought the studio with hopes of restoring it. After the documentary Muscle Shoals came out, Beats Electronics announced its partnership to renovate and preserve the studio via its Sustain the Sound program. That work is set to begin soon, and it’ll be exciting to see the additional attention that effort will bring to this area.
But the music has never stopped coming out of the Shoals, and recent years have seen a number of excellent bands emerging from the area. John Paul White of the Civil Wars calls Florence home. Alabama Shakes are from just down the road in Athens. St. Paul and the Broken Bones’ Browan Lollar was raised in the area. Jason Isbell. Drive-By Truckers. Secret Sisters. Belle Adair. The Bear. The list keeps going and going and going. Right now, national attention is on Alabama, and I hope these and so many other great bands are able to gain even more listeners as a result.
I also hope to see many more books coming from this area. There are so many stories yet to be told, especially by those who were there all along.
Muscle Shoals Sound: How the Swampers Changed American Music will be widely available in bookstores across the state, and has been available for pre-order from Alabama Booksmith, Church Street Coffee & Books, Barnes & Noble, Books-A-Million, thehistorypress.net and Amazon. The first book signing is scheduled for July 21 at 4 p.m. at the Alabama Booksmith, and there are many other events on the agenda. You can learn more at carlajeanwhitley.com.