FAME Studios: From Revolutionizing ‘60s Soul to Reimagining Nashville Country

The iconic FAME Studios has become nearly synonymous with the legendary rhythm sections that drew some of the world’s most iconic musicians to the unassuming town of Muscle Shoals, Alabama throughout the late 1960s and ‘70s. But in 1961, the fledgling studio’s destiny hung on the success of a man who couldn’t even play an instrument.

When he first sang “You Better Move On,” Arthur Alexander didn’t have any backing. He just sang and snapped his fingers to the beat. That was enough for FAME founder Rick Hall to recognize his first hit and place the song with Dot Records.

Not only did the record sell, but by 1964 Alexander’s music had been covered by both the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, and the world was suddenly taking notice of the distinctive sound coming out of Hall's corner of the “Dirty South.”

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The Muscle Shoals Sound

There’s always been a sense in the Shoals that music rises from the mud of the Tennessee River. For hundreds of years, the Yuchi Native American tribe that lived on its banks called it the Singing River, and in the mid-’60s that muse manifested itself again in what became known as the Muscle Shoals Sound.

Hall traces its origin to the recording of “Steal Away” by Jimmy Hughes in 1964. The track captures the genesis of a rhythm section that Lynyrd Skynrd would later immortalize as The Swampers: Barry Beckett on keyboard, Roger Hawkins on drums, David Hood on bass and Jimmy Johnson on guitar.

“It was a different sound than was coming out of other places. A lot more organic and funky, really no rules,” says Hall’s son Rodney, now president of FAME Music Group. “It was unlike Nashville where you couldn’t have drums or a horn—it was no-holds-barred rock and roll, or the beginnings of rock and roll.”

It was a different sound than was coming out of other places. A lot more organic and funky, really no rules.”

That sound came to define some of the most beloved soul and R&B recordings of all time. By the end of the decade, FAME had formed a relationship with Atlantic Records through which they cut (to name just a few) Percy Sledge’s “When A Man Loves A Woman,” Wilson Pickett’s “Land of 1,000 Dances” and “Mustang Sally,” Etta James’ “Tell Mama” and even helped a young vocalist named Aretha Franklin find her groove on “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You).”

“It’s one of the most unlikely stories in music. Period,” says Patterson Hood, front man for the Drive-By Truckers and son of the Swampers’ bass player. “It was just such a freaky fluke of circumstance and talent.”

Within the walls of FAME Studios, the only thing that mattered was the common goal of creating great music, but Patterson recalls the air of secrecy that often surrounded his father’s work elsewhere. He learned early on not to advertise what his father did for a living to other kids at school.

“It was almost like my dad was in the mafia, except that he wasn’t breaking any laws,” Patterson says. “He was just making music that was the soundtrack to this countercultural thing happening in our country.”

A Remade Man

In 1969, when the Swampers left FAME to strike out on their own and found Muscle Shoals Sound Studios on Jackson Highway, it looked as though FAME’s run of hit records was at an end. But if there’s one thing Hall never learned, it was how to go down without a fight.

“I think part of Rick Hall’s brilliance was that he was able to reinvent himself as necessary,” says Patterson. “When dad and those guys left, [Rick] essentially lost the reason people were coming to record [at FAME]. But he put together another backing band really quick that had a different sound but was fantastic.”

Hall’s new rhythm section was dubbed the Fame Gang, and continued to back up the likes of Aretha Franklin, Clarence Carter and Wilson Pickett. But as the ‘60s came to a close and prominent black artists began gravitating more toward black producers, Hall started to pivot away from soul toward pop.

Inside FAME Studio's Recording Room

Wilson Pickett at FAME Studios (Photo from FAME Studios)

While none of the studio’s pop work had the same musical impact as those early soul records, it did reap big rewards for FAME. Hall’s relationship and work with the Osmonds proved particularly fruitful, as the group sold 11 million records in 1971, earning Hall the award for Billboard Magazine’s World Producer of the Year.

In the early ‘80s, after a short hiatus to look after his health, Hall reinvented himself once again, this time embracing his roots. Growing up the impoverished son of a sawmiller, he had listened to the crooning of Hank Williams and Ray Price, and even learned to play the country fiddle himself.

When Hall returned to FAME hungry for another hit, his first project was returning to Mac Davis, with whom he recorded several successful records throughout the ‘70s. But it was Ronnie Milsap’s success with “(There’s) No Gettin’ Over Me” (1981, RCA Victor) that Rodney says really convinced Hall he had a future in country music.

“Up to that time a hit country record might sell 30,000 or 40,000 records, which was nothing compared to what he’d been doing in R&B and pop,” says Rodney. “After that, he started to realize there was a business model here where you can survive.”

FAME had a new sound, albeit with a bit more twang, and one that could still make its presence felt in the music industry.

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A Place For Real Music

Since then, FAME Studios has become something of a mecca for fans of music history, but it’s by no means a museum. FAME Music Group now encompasses several publishing companies, an array of songwriters, production companies and labels that make the money, but the studio continues to develop young musicians with a unique voice.

In fact, FAME has quietly been one of the shapers of Nashville’s new country and Americana movement, now gaining mainstream traction behind artists like Chris Stapleton and Sturgill Simpson. Completing that triumvirate is FAME’s own Jason Isbell, whose recent Grammy wins and breakout success started 15 years ago when he signed on as a writer for the studio in 2001.

I think the soul is the key thread to it all. There’s a soul and a realness to the music, it’s always been very organic."

The sound that Isbell and his musical peers have tapped into is one that Rodney Hall believes FAME has been helping to define over the last decade, whether through its work with Patterson Hood’s hard-rocking Drive-By Truckers or the emotive writing of an up-and-comer like Dylan LeBlanc. Much like the “original” Muscle Shoals sound of the ‘60s, it draws from a variety of influences -- but there is one constant.

“I think the soul is the key thread to it all,” says Rodney. “There’s a soul and a realness to the music, it’s always been very organic. We were never the type to jump on the synthesizer when it came out and become Air Supply.”

Rodney’s hope is that FAME Studios can maintain the same sincerity now that made it the site of such an unlikely revolution in its early days, even if it requires a few extra takes to get each track right.

“To me it’s about saying, ‘Let’s not fix that in the mix. Why don’t you sing that again,’” he says. “When you don’t do that, the music feels contrived and we don’t ever want to be that. I think there will always be a place for real music and real musicians and songs, and we want to be that place.”

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