From Muscle Shoals to Mobile, the country’s best music is coming from the state of Alabama. The music has always been here, but today it is different. Alabama bands are topping the Billboard charts in multiple genres and selling out shows across the country. Alabama is in the songs they sing, the tattoos on their arms, and the stickers on their guitars. It is on the shirts and hats they wear and the ones they sell. They are changing the image of Alabama to the rest of the world, and to itself. There is new pride in saying: “We saw them play here first.”
The pride in music seems new, but from W.C. Handy, Hank Williams, the Louvin Brothers, and Tammy Wynette to Emmylou Harris, Wilson Pickett, and Nat King Cole, Alabama has a deep musical heritage filled with soul. Trouble on Saturday night and church on Sunday morning. Real-life music straight from the heart and the gut when music was a ticket out of poverty or the only way to pass the time.
Today, Alabama soul music lives on in the new generations of musicians who grew up here and they are mixing soul with a variety of influences and making it popular again. The Alabama Shakes, discovered from a post in a music blog, stirred up a Southern soul revival that raised awareness of music in Alabama and lifted up other bands such as St. Paul and the Broken Bones, John and Jacob, Moon Taxi, Banditos, The Pollies, and Belle Adair.
“Alabama music is resonating with larger audiences,” says Scott Register, the voice of Birmingham music and the host of “Reg’s Coffee House” on Birmingham Mountain Radio. “There is an energy and synergy in the music community and people are working together instead of against each other. They are making soulful music that people can relate to. It is music inspired by Muscle Shoals and for whatever the reason, this is the time again for that music, and the best artists who are making it are from Alabama.”
Success is coming from all directions. In the spring and summer of 2015, Alabama bands topped the Billboard charts. Jason Isbell’s Something More than Free was number one on the rock, country, and folk album charts. Yelawolf ‘s Love Story topped Billboard’s Top R&B/Hip-Hop albums (Yelawolf is from Gadsden). The Alabama Shakes Sound & Color was number one on the Billboard 200.
At the same time, St. Paul and the Broken Bones played the major festivals and opened two shows for The Rolling Stones. Anderson East took off with his new album, Delilah, played on “Late Night with Seth Myers,” and opened for Brandi Carlile.
“There is a great movement here,” says East, a fast-rising soul singer from Athens, Alabama. “None of these bands are bullshit, they are just doing what they love to do. That is the spirit of why it works and that is the spirit of Alabama music. It is an exciting time to be a part of music because people aren’t complacent about what they listen to. Everything has already been hit on and now and it is a word game and whoever believes what they are saying has a better chance of being heard. Someone once said that a great song makes everyone’s life interesting. There is nothing that makes me feel more alive than to hear a good song.”
“I do A&R that scouts music talent, and five years ago if I told someone I had an Alabama artist, they wouldn’t be interested,” Register says. “Now I mention an artist is from Alabama and they want to know all about them. The perfect storm that has been generating for years is finally starting to hit.”
A major wave of that storm hit the whole state in 2013, the year the Alabama Shakes were nominated for a Grammy for Best Rock Performance and played the next week on Saturday Night Live. Jason Isbell released Southeastern, one of the best albums of that year. His songwriting and story of sobriety made him a favorite of every major media outlet, including The New York Times and NPR’s Fresh Air. The Civil Wars released their final album, The Civil Wars.
The year 2013 was the start of the popular Americana bands The Mulligan Brothers and Willie Sugarcapps and the release of their self-titled debut albums. It was also the year that Birmingham Mountain Radio went on the air and Single Lock Records was started by Ben Tanner, keyboard player for the Alabama Shakes, John Paul White of The Civil Wars, and Will Trapp.
Tanner grew up in Florence, Alabama, and returned home after college for recording experience at FAME studios in Muscle Shoals. He planned to move to New York City or Nashville, but started Single Lock Records and settled down in Florence. He recorded Half the City, the debut album for St. Paul and the Broken Bones, in January 2013, before the band had a manager or a booking agent and lead singer Paul Janeway was still a bank teller and accounting student. The album has sold more than 100,000 copies (Soundscan).
The documentary Muscle Shoals was released in 2013, and showed the world the stories and musicians behind the classic songs that Aretha Franklin, Paul Simon, Percy Sledge, Traffic, The Rolling Stones, and Wilson Pickett recorded in Muscle Shoals in the ’60s and ’70s. The film revitalized recording and production in Muscle Shoals and still attracts tourists to the area.
From Muscle Shoals to Mobile, Alabama music is all genres: soul, jazz, hip-hop, Southern rock, blues, and country. Musicians say the common thread is music from the heart with a heavy bass and drum.
“It doesn’t matter if it is it is straight ahead jazz, rock, or soul, there is always a heavy groove tucked somewhere like a backbeat,” says Mac Kramer, drummer for the band Willie and the Giant. Kramer grew up in Birmingham. “The rhythm is big and that has been a big influence. Alabama has its own way of doing the fat backbeat stuff. It is a southern groove that no one does the same way.”
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Muscle Shoals. Birmingham. Mobile. Each region has its own sound and music scene with waves of past success.
In the Northwest corner of Alabama, the legacy of Muscle Shoals lives on with respect and reverence for songs and songwriting as players and producers give care to the song to make it the best it can be.
“The seeds that were planted 10 or 15 years ago started coming to fruition over the last few years,” says Tanner. “People started playing in bands and taking music seriously. The Old Town Tavern in Sheffield was a dive bar but it was a place you could play original music and a lot of bands started up here because of that place. I got a lot of those bands to record for cheap at FAME because I was trying to learn. We were feeding off each other and working in side projects together. We also have players from the older generation such as David Hood who are encouraging and supportive and are showing us how to do it. We have the best players in the world right here.”
In Birmingham, music is more alternative and experimental with hop-hop and soul.
In the ‘90s, Birmingham’s Verbena, Remy Zero and Little Red Rocket signed with major record labels and Remy Zero’s “Save Me” was the theme song for the television show “Smallville.” City Stages was one of the best music festivals in the South, and Birmingham singers dominated the early years of American Idol. Birmingham music had flashes of attention and success and the Dexateens and the late Topper Price deserve more national recognition, but today the Magic City is the hottest spot in the state for producing a diversity of bands that are breaking out of Alabama.
“We left Birmingham because there are more opportunities in Nashville, but we moved away and six months later Birmingham became the coolest version of itself,” says Jon Poor, lead guitarist of Willie and the Giant and a co-founder of Birmingham’s Secret Stages music festival. “If Birmingham music was then what it is now, I might have made a different decision. Now Birmingham feels like you can get there from here. It is getting to the point where being from here gives you some legitimacy and people listen to what you have to say.”
On the coast, there is singer-songwriter and original music culture that began more than 30 years ago at the Flora-Bama and the Frank Brown International Songwriters Festival. The coast was the home of Jimmy Buffett and the band Wet Willie, and music is still shaped by the bay and the beach. Lyrics and melodies matter at listening venues such as The Frog Pond at Blue Moon Farm, The Listening Room, and soon The Steeple in a renovated church in downtown Mobile. Callaghan’s is the favorite place to play for every rising band touring through the South.
“There is a great support for music on the coast. Our music is diverse, but you can still feel the heat, the humidity, and the Gulf of Mexico in all of it,” says Ross Newell, lead singer of The Mulligan Brothers from Mobile. “You can play here seven nights a week and there is a great group of listeners who go to the shows and that means you will be booked for another night. They listen close enough to have an opinion and let you know what they love, even if they are too polite to tell you what they hate. Instant feedback is important to know how the song is perceived because as the writer, I hear the song differently.
“We are lucky to have music scenes across Alabama that are a close enough drive for regular shows,” Newell says. “Building fan bases across Alabama is a big step before you start touring the country. Everywhere in Alabama feels like home.”
“There has always been music in Alabama and it is our heritage, but there was a period when people weren’t listening. If we played loud enough, maybe someone may get to know a song,” says Will Kimbrough who grew up in Mobile and played with the popular band Will and the Bushmen for nine years. Kimbrough is now one of the top players in Nashville and is a part of the Gulf Coast supergroup Willie Sugarcapps with Grayson Capps, Corky Hughes, and Sugarcane Jane.
“It is different now because people are paying attention to the songs and looking for someone who sings what they like,” says Kimbrough. “The internet has made music much more accessible and musicians no longer have to sign with a record label or leave Alabama and go to Nashville, Memphis, or New York to be heard.”
“In the Telluride days, there were few clubs to play in Alabama and fewer festivals,” says Rick Carter of the longtime popular Alabama bands Telluride and Rollin’ in the Hay. He also has Rick Carter Radio, an internet radio station that only plays music from Alabama. “Now the Hangout Festival and Sloss Fest are bringing national exposure to our music.”
Once banned and prohibited in many counties in Alabama, alcohol is another reason for the growth in music. Clubs opened as counties went from dry to wet and gave musicians a place to play. “These venues started generating bands and made it possible for musicians to stay here and learn their trade,” says Dick Cooper, curator of the Alabama Music Hall of Fame. He co-produced the Drive-By Truckers iconic breakthrough album, Southern Rock Opera, and introduced Patterson Hood and Jason Isbell when they were both crashing on couches at his house. Today young musicians get experience, encouragement, and exposure playing at Cooper’s house parties.
“No one springs out of the womb knowing how to be a musician or a recording engineer,” says Cooper. “Once we had clubs, bands had a place to play a few nights a week and made enough money to buy the amps or guitars they needed. You have to have a place to learn and the business to support it. Play in a club, build an audience, and build a career.”
Clubs build music careers, but music venues, along with restaurants and breweries, are also revitalizing downtowns in Florence, Birmingham, Tuscaloosa, and Mobile. “The restaurant scene is booming and that has helped reinvigorate the music scene,” says Register. “The alcohol content laws changed and breweries are booming too. Music, food, and beer are drawing people downtown and creating a lifestyle that is starting to keep talented young people in the state. It’s not a coincidence these are happening at the same time.”
Locally-owned venues, recording studios, record stores, record labels, and radio stations such as 92ZEW in Mobile are building an infrastructure for developing music and giving musicians a chance make it in Alabama.
“A band can’t get beyond the state line without the gigs and support that gives them the confidence to stay with it,” says Kimbrough. “We have that now because Alabama people are making private investments and starting businesses in their own music scenes such as Anthony Crawford and Jeff Zimmer who recently started their own record label, Baldwin County Public Records.”
The music that the world listens to and critics praise comes from the state that is still struggling with its past and its future. “Great art comes out of times and scenes when the environment is stifling,” says Register. “People need inspiration. Sometimes being told they have to keep things the way they are inspires great art. Artistic people don’t like being put in a box or told how to live. They want to question authority and go against social mores. They don’t think the way the masses think.”
Alabam’a political environment might not improve, but the music will. As good as the music is today, it is just getting started. “I think we are on the front end of this,” says Register. “The bands we know that will be breaking still haven’t broken. They are still far from being arena bands, but they are working that way. If one of them breaks through, it is a total positive for our state.
“Bands are already drawing positive attention to Alabama and showing that it is not all of the negative crap people have heard the past 50 years,” says Register. “When our musicians walk onto stages across the country and say they are from Alabama, they are saying ‘We are from Alabama and we are as good as you’.”
Before the Alabama bands play arenas and festivals, or climb the charts and win awards, they belong to us, the local fans. We see them working day jobs and trying out their songs in local dive bars at night. Working up to bigger clubs, an extra pedal, a new guitar, a self-produced EP, or new clothes that fit the image of their music. We are the first to fill their tip jars and buy their t-shirts and their CDs.
Our bands tell our stories and sing about the places we know. Their songs become our songs. The songs we sing and the ones we share. The songs that make us feel alive. As we watch Alabama bands come together, we know we are supporting something special and that makes us special too.
We saw them play here first.