The hidden sounds of Alabama

Boulder director makes Sundance with documentary on Muscle Shoals sound

Mick Jagger appears in Muscle Shoals.
Still from the film courtesy of Greg Camalier

The section of the Tennessee River that forms the northern border of Muscle Shoals, Ala., didn’t always go by that name. Early Native Americans called it “The Singing River” and believed a river princess sang its soft melody.

With the river’s song coursing through its veins, Muscle Shoals became home to two highly influential music studios: FAME Studio and, later, Muscle Shoals Sound Studio. Musicians like Willie Nelson, The Rolling Stones and Lynyrd Skynyrd visited the tiny Alabama town to record some of their most famous hits. However, few know that this hotbed of American music even exists. Muscle Shoals documentary director and Boulder resident Greg “Freddy” Camalier discovered it by accident on a 2008 road trip with a friend.

“One night we were tired and we saw Muscle Shoals on the map,” Camalier says. “We knew some of our favorite music was from there, so we turned around and spent the next 24 hours there. We were blown away by the town and the story that hadn’t been told.”

Ever since 2009, first-time director Camalier and filmmaker Stephen Badger have worked tirelessly to tell the Muscle Shoals story. Camalier recently took another road trip, but this time he traveled to Utah to view his completed documentary at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Muscle Shoals features cinematography by Anthony Arendt (Avatar), along with celebrity interviews that include Mick Jagger, Aretha Franklin and Bono. Though corralling busy musicians was no easy task, Camalier says many felt compelled to talk about this rich piece of music history.

“[The musicians] had respect for the story and the players,” Camalier says. “I loved interviewing them all; they all brought great stories and insights, which collectively made an awesome tapestry in the film.”

One of Muscle Shoals’ central players is Rick Hall, the founder of FAME Studio. Hall started producing hits in the 1950s, and he worked with many artists, like R&B legends Franklin and Wilson Pickett. The film shows Hall recording in the studio and explores his role in creating the Muscle Shoals sound.

“[Hall] is a fascinating character,” Camalier says. “He was driven. He really wanted to make something of himself and succeed. He’s a classic American figure, very genuine, very authentic.”

Hall wasn’t the only one shaping the Muscle Shoals sound, which Camalier describes as “funky and propulsive.” As a long-time music lover, Camalier says it was exciting to meet the people who worked on classic tracks like “Sweet Home Alabama” and “Brown Sugar.”

“When I was younger I always wanted to be a musician,” Camalier says. “I loved a lot of this music from Muscle Shoals. … What I knew from there was [Lynyrd] Skynyrd and The Allman Brothers. But when I started making the film I realized that there was even more music that I had always loved, but I didn’t know it had been cut by The Swampers.”

The Swampers, who were originally part of the FAME Studio Rhythm Section, split from FAME in 1969 to form their own Muscle Shoals Sound Studio. Elton John, Paul Simon and Bob Dylan were just a few of the performers who enlisted The Swampers to add that Muscle Shoals magic to their songs. More recently, The Black Keys recorded their acclaimed 2010 album Brothers in the famous studio.

Camalier interviewed the three surviving members of the The Swampers, Jimmy Johnson, Roger Hawkins and David Hood (Barry Beckett died in 2009). Camalier says the men were glad to finally participate in a film about their contributions to music.

“They were pretty receptive to the idea and super-friendly,” Camalier says. “It was great to work with them to tell the story; they were happy someone was going to tell it.”

Beyond telling the long-awaited story of Rick Hall and The Swampers, the film looks at Muscle Shoals, the town. Aspects of American history, like race relations in the Deep South, make appearances in the film.

“You’re in Alabama, the center of racism at that time,” Camalier says. “It makes it even more fascinating in the belly of the beast, but people made great music together that lasted for- ever. That’s a fascinating part of the film.”

With Sundance this week and the Boulder International Film Festival coming up soon, Camalier is looking forward to gaining feedback on the film. But to him, he’s glad to have unearthed a place that embodies the spirit of music.

“I think it’s more than just a music documentary,” Camalier says. “It’s a story that we’d like to tell about music.”

Muscle Shoals will screen at the Sundance Film Festival Saturday, Jan. 26. It will also show at the Boulder International Film Festival on Thursday, Feb. 14. For more information, see