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'Muscle Shoals' Documentary Tells Story of Small-Town Recording Studio

Some of the world's biggest hit records from the 1960s onward came from a recording studio in a little town in northern Alabama called Muscle Shoals. Aretha Franklin, Percy Sledge, Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones and many others recorded there and still do. A new documentary that tells the story of Muscle Shoals recently played at the South By Southwest Festival (SXSW) in Austin, Texas.

Muscle Shoals, population 13,000, sits on the Tennessee River, "the river that sings," according to Native American legend.

Over the past 50 years, some of the world's top musicians have made hit records in Muscle Shoals.

"This is a rural spot in rural America, whereas when you think of other music meccas in America, they are more urban-based," explains filmmaker Greg Camalier.

It started with the vision and determination of Rick Hall, says Camalier. Hall started FAME studios in Muscle Shoals in the late 1950s.

"His first hit was a song by a local bellhop at the hotel there, and it was a guy named Arthur Alexander, and he recorded the song "You Better Move On," said Camalier.

Using old films and photos, the documentary shows how Hall developed a unique sound based on skilled studio engineering and the support of local talent, regardless of race.

At a time when Alabama Governor George Wallace was fighting efforts to end racial segregation, black and white musicians in this corner of the state were working together, producing huge hits.

"As their songs became cutting-edge songs down there, people were hearing them around the world and were like 'I want that sound,'" said Camalier.

The British rock group, The Rolling Stones, also came to Muscle Shoals. Camalier interviewed Mick Jagger and Keith Richards for the film. "It was pretty funky, that was the whole idea of it," recalled Jagger.

By that time Rick Hall's in-house musicians had started their own studio in Muscle Shoals, and today there are several in town.

The film tells that story and others that local people have been excited to learn about.

"They had a screening of the film down there, and now people are embracing their past, their heritage and are learning more about it," said Camalier.

Muscle Shoals is now in movie theaters and will be broadcast on public television in the United States.