Catching Up With Rick Hall of Muscle Shoals

Movies Features Muscle Shoals
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Tonight is the night that you lose your last excuse for not seeing the masterful documentary Muscle Shoals. Stephen Badger and Greg “Freddy” Camalier’s film about the greatest small town in rock and roll history premieres tonight as part of PBS’s Independent Lens series, and nearly everyone in the country will have free access to it. (You can check listings here.) You’ve already heard from us time and time again about why you should see the documentary (and then again and again.) So, as a final preview we thought we’d bring you a conversation with the man who started it all in Muscle Shoals, legendary producer Rick Hall.

Paste:Tell me about the first time you met Stephen Badger and Greg “Freddy” Camalier.
Rick Hall: I met them here in Muscle Shoals. They were riding through the countryside, taking the backcountry. They didn’t want to go the freeways. So they were coming down the Natchez Trace Parkway, which is one of the oldest highways in the United States. The Indians used to use it to travel East to West. And they came to a sign that said something like Muscle Shoals 13 miles, Tupelo 40 miles. They decided to come to Muscle Shoals.

Paste:Not the first great moment in rock and roll history to happen at the crossroads, by the way.
Hall: Yeah, exactly! But Tupelo was where Elvis was born, and they thought maybe they should go there, but they decided to come to Muscle Shoals because they were familiar with a lot of the music here. They spent the night in the hotel at the bank of the Tennessee River. When they went downstairs to eat at the bar, they saw all these pictures and gold records hanging on the wall. Pictures of us, and of different people who had recorded here. They said to the manager of the hotel, “Who can we talk to about this? We’re thinking about the possibility of doing a documentary.” And he said, “Well, you need to meet Rick Hall,” and gave them my number. They called me the next day and set up a meeting. They came to my office, and we became instant friends.

Paste: What made you think from the beginning that these two guys, forget Alabamians, not even Southerners, and had never done a film, were the ones to tell the story?
Hall: Well, I didn’t think that. I thought the reverse of that. I thought, these couple of dodos from out West don’t know anything about the music business. I had severe doubts about their ability to do a movie. I had a lot of questions for them, but they seemed to have good answers. And the part I really liked about them is that they were honest people. They were good guys, and I felt at ease with them. We had a ball doing it.

Paste: It shows in the final product; that film has a lot of fun in it.
Hall: I didn’t know what would become of the film until I saw it the first time at Sundance. We saw the first showing of it, and of course Freddy and the whole gang were ecstatic, but they were very concerned about what Rick Hall thought about the movie. Whether I was going to beat somebody up or get drunk or what, they didn’t have any idea. They were on pins and needles, and as I recall they sat behind us and watched my every move. If I was frowning, they thought, “My God, he’s going to kill us all.” But I was so pleased with it.

Paste: And you’re still recording, right?
Hall: Oh yeah, we’re still recording every day. And to be honest with you, man, our studio is covered up with people every day. Busloads come in, from India, from South America, from Japan, and everywhere, because of this movie. You know, my music has always been huge in Europe because it’s black. The Percy Sledges and Wilson Picketts and Aretha Franklins and Etta Jameses and all that stuff.

Paste: Muscle Shoals has always been big in the music scene, but it’s really had a moment in the last couple of years, with the stuff that you’ve been doing; the stuff that David and Jimmy and those guys are still doing [at the Muscle Shoals Sound]; with John Paul White blowing up and being half of the biggest folk duo in the world with The Civil Wars; with Jason Isbell making what I think was the best record of the year last year with Southeastern; with the Drive-By Truckers still making great music; and Candi Staton, who has got a new record coming out in May. What do you think it is about Muscle Shoals? This is going on fifty years—more than that—that Muscle Shoals has been sort of a nerve center for some of the best music in the world.
Hall: We have been thought of in the music business as outcasts. Those Southern boys from Alabama that hate black people. And they don’t know this, but we’ve all thrived on black music our whole lives. And while we were doing Gary U.S. Bonds and Tossing and Turning at fraternity parties, New York and all of them didn’t know anything about us.

The other thing is, I set such high standards early in my career for all the musicians and songwriters and singers. I was hard to live with. I was a tough dude. I knew that being good wasn’t good enough, you had to be the best in the world. And when you start being the best in the world, having the number one record in the world, it’s a tough gig. That’s what made us as good as we were.

We knew no boundaries. We’d cut anything we thought was a hit. We weren’t concerned about the religion you belonged to, or the type of music it was. Country or pop. Black or white, green or yellow. We just wanted to have hits.