Muscle Shoals, Alabama, is the place that musicians have travelled to when they wanted to change, to sound different. Aretha Franklin went to Muscle Shoals as an unknown pop singer who had recently been released from a recording contract. When she came back, she was Aretha Franklin, the one that we know today. The recording studio there—Muscle Shoals Sound Studio—began as a cinder block bunker in Sheffield, Alabama, literally in sight of cotton fields. Aretha, as with all the people that the studio recorded in the early days, arrived without a band, and used the session musicians that the studio had on hand. Locals, to a person, were white with thick southern accents. Bono, from U2, noted rightly that they looked more like supermarket cashiers than soul musicians.
Still, there they are on Franklin’s “Respect” the first song she recorded at Muscle Shoals. Wilson Pickett came, as did The Rolling Stones, Elton John, U2, Paul Simon, Willie Nelson, and on and on. It’s one of those improbable stories that, for whatever reason, is true: this little place in the middle of nowhere, with these musicians, has had a huge impact in the world of pop, country, and rock music.
It’s the Muscle Shoals sound that musicians come for, one that is a bit grittier, more soulful, more situated in R&B. For some, they’re hoping that a bit of the storied success of the studio will rub off as well.
For the SteelDrivers, however, the sound on this album isn’t really different in any tangible way from what they’ve been doing all along. Chris Stapleton, the original singer for the band, has a rough, gouged voice that, if it doesn’t do delicate, it does loud, brash, assertive. It’s the kind of voice that people respond to, especially the ones who like to get up out of their seats and wave their arms around.
Stapleton solidified the place of the band within the grand sweep of bluegrass: rough and ready. He left the band in 2010, with Gary Nichols stepping in, a singer who continued pretty much in the same vein, though perhaps tending a touch more to the country end of the musical spectrum. He’s featured on 2012’s Hammer Down, though it’s clear that the band has been looking for a project that will gain a bit of a bigger splash, and they’ve found it in The Muscle Shoals Recordings. It’s gritty, forward, and full of all the allusions we expect from the outlaw end of the musical spectrum. “Brother John” is a criminal on the run. “Drinkin’ Alone” is about drinking and fighting. Elsewhere there is regret, cheap thrills, excess, ill-conceived affairs, and all of it drenched in country wisdom. “When the gas is gone, you’ll be left out in the rain.”
It’s the right mix for radio, and the album debuted at number 1 on the Billboard bluegrass chart. The playing is tight, just as we’d expect from the SteelDrivers, and there is a lot of crossover here with the tropes of country music, not limited to the focus and the hooks of the lyrics. There are only two ballads in the lot, though they both lack delicacy. “River Runs Red” attempts to capitalize on the patriotism that follows the Civil War, and tries to gain emotion through strained vocals and quotes of “Dixie” and “Home Sweet Home.” And it works in the way that an advertisement does: hits the right notes to gain some attention to itself without adding anything to the conversation.
The album’s pretty good, I guess, if this is the kind of thing you’re into. But it’s an album made to appeal to a wider audience, namely a country audience. It’s achieving that goal, and no doubt this album will get a Grammy nod in the bluegrass category. Which I’m not sure is a great thing.