Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Aretha Franklin and the Rolling Stones. What do all of these talented musicians have in common? They all recorded music in Muscle Shoals, Alabama.
Known for recording many hit songs from the 1960s to today, Muscle Shoals is the music industry's best kept secret. Because the city has two recording studios, FAME studios and Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, it wasn’t uncommon for an infamous artist to be recording there at any given time. However, not many people know this. Few know the history and story of Muscle Shoals, which is why Amy Black, a singer-songwriter and Muscle Shoals educator, decided to record the Muscle Shoals Sessions. She brings her "Muscle Shoals Music Revue" to the Beachland Ballroom on Thursday.
Born to two Sheffield natives, one of four towns that make up Muscle Shoals, Black got into music and learned about Muscle Shoals later in life.
“I started singing when I was 35; I always had a good voice, but I was working for a software company in Boston and we owned a house and life was nice and normal and I remember sitting at the kitchen table one night thinking you know, I never tried doing anything with my voice,” she says via phone. “So I started at an open mic in my little town and then it just kept building, people started coming out to shows and then I started writing music and then I started recording. It started becoming what I wanted to do, so two and half years ago I left corporate America, and I’ve been touring and making music ever since. It’s a pretty cool way to go into your forties.”
Part of what makes Black’s music career so successful is her strong, soulful vocals which can be accredited to her upbringing.
“I sang a lot at church and at home growing up; the church we went to didn’t have any instrumentation so it was really just about your vocals,” she says. “I got comfortable with my own voice and learned to not rely on music, so now I try to do one a cappella song at every show.”
Additionally, Black grew up listening to talented female vocalists which no doubt helped shape Black into one herself.
“When I was 16, I found Bonnie Raitt for the first time and that was really eye opening,” she says. “She continues to be one of my top influences, and I had never heard of her; it was way more rootsy and it had the electric slide guitar, and I was like, ‘What is this?’ It was so different from anything that was on the radio. And then I started listening to the jazz ladies and worked my way through the older stuff when I was in college. Now, pretty much everything I listen to is the Muscle Shoals stuff and Mavis Staples. I really love a soulful sound; that’s what’s moving me right now.”
With a solid foundation of musical experience under her belt by way of two albums, Black decided to pay homage to her roots by recording some original music in Muscle Shoals. But what she originally planned to be a four-song EP turned into a full length 12-track album due to the outpour of positive responses the four songs and the Muscle Shoals Revue received.
However, a 12-track album is only a small sliver of Muscle Shoals music, so deciding which songs to include on Blacks’ The Muscle Shoals Sessions
was no doubt a difficult process.
“I listened to the full catalog of songs recorded in Muscle Shoals; I was trying to find songs that I could sing and bring something to, but I didn't want super iconic songs because I didn’t want to be compared to Aretha or Etta James because I’m not them, I’m me," she says. "I tried to find songs that were a little bit more obscure and I tried to find quite a few songs that men had sung because I thought it would be interesting to bring a female voice to those songs. It was a mix of high energy and slow burners that have a really cool groove.”
With nine Muscle Shoals originals, Black then decided to throw in three original songs. She wrote “Please Don’t Give Up on Me,” “Woman on Fire” and “Get to Me."
“I wrote ‘Please Don’t Give Up on Me’ in the vein of the Muscle Shoals era, it’s meant to have a nostalgic Muscle Shoals feel to it while ‘Woman on Fire’ is a song I wrote when I was down in Texas; I wanted it to kind of have a sexy feel to it," she says. "And ‘Get to me’ I wrote with a motown feel in mind; I had two options for melodies, but the motown feel wasn’t working which is how we ended up with the melody that you hear now.”
What makes Black’s original tracks so unusual is probably that fact that she isn’t a conventional songwriter.
“I’m not one of those people that writes down everything in a notebook; I probably should do that, but a lot of the times I’ll start singing a couple of words in the car and then I just start singing that. Like with ‘Get to Me,’ I started with the chorus, but it wasn’t coming from a certain place. I don't always know what's happening, it just happens.”
The result is musical brilliance. Black’s deep, rich vocals intertwine perfectly with the unusual instrumentals and lyrics, leaving the songs pleasantly ringing in your ears for hours to come.