With his former band Drive-By Truckers and his current act, the 400 Unit, Jason Isbell has helped revive the gritty country-and-soul-tinged rock that emerged from Muscle Shoals, Alabama, in the sixties and seventies. Isbell, whose latest, Here We Rest, is out this month, has the backstory on a few favorites.
1 | "A Fallen Star," Bobby Denton
"This was the first successful single to come out of this area, recorded by the future 'singing senator' from Alabama's 1st District. Bobby told me that soon after the song was finished, he ran into Sam Phillips in the lobby of a Muscle Shoals radio station, accompanied by a young Elvis. They had to be introduced. Hard to imagine a time when somebody met Elvis and didn't already know who he was."
2 | "You Better Move On," Arthur Alexander
"Still one of my all-time favorite R&B tracks, and the first Muscle Shoals hit, eventually covered by the Stones. Despite the success of the song, there was no money for a headstone when Arthur died, so the local music community put on a benefit."
3 | "I'd Rather Go Blind," Etta James
"Probably my favorite thing ever to come from FAME Studios. It was on the Tell Mama album, produced by Rick Hall in '68. Truly perfect music."
4 | "Wild Horses," the Rolling Stones
"Recorded in late '69 at Muscle Shoals Sound Studios, just a few minutes down the street from me, with the late, great Jim Dickinson on piano. The Black Keys cut the Brothers album there recently."
5 | "Still Crazy After All These Years," Paul Simon
"Simon cut this, 'Kodachrome,' and 'Loves Me Like a Rock' with the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section. Rumor has it, when meeting Barry Beckett, David Hood, Roger Hawkins, and Jimmy Johnson, Simon thought he was meeting the office staff because he assumed the musicians were all black."
6 | "Take Time to Know Her," Percy Sledge
"'When a Man Loves a Woman' was certainly a bigger hit, but this one's the real deal. I love the fact that the song focuses on not just romantic love, but the wisdom of family."
7 | "Hey Jude," Wilson Pickett
"An incredible singing performance, but the guitar work really makes this cover stand out. When the folks at Atlantic Records asked producer Rick Hall who was playing the solos, he said, 'Some hippie cat that's been living in our parking lot.' He was describing Duane Allman. Atlantic offered Duane a contract, and he and Gregg held auditions for the Allman Brothers at FAME."
8 | "I Was Checkin' Out She Was Checkin' In," Don Covay
"As my friend Justin Townes Earle pointed out to me, there wouldn't have been a Rolling Stones without Don Covay. Greasy soul around a straight-ahead drum beat works every time."
9 | "I'll Take You There," the Staples Singers
"Great playing on an inspirational classic. That's Eddie Hinton on guitar, by the way. When Mavis says 'Daddy' on the solo, she'd originally said 'Eddie,' but that was edited later to make folks think Pops played it. 'Little David' was, in fact, David Hood. Probably the only time you'll hear him play a solo."
10 | "Bloody Mary Morning," Willie Nelson
"Off 1974's Phases and Stages, an underrated concept album if ever there was one."
11 | "Breakfast in Bed," Dusty Springfield
"Recorded in Memphis, but written by Muscle Shoals musicians Eddie Hinton and Donnie Fritts. Incredibly powerful stuff. As a side note, Dusty talked Atlantic Records' Jerry Wexler into signing Led Zeppelin during these sessions. Small world."
12 | "I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)," Aretha Franklin
"Young Aretha belting this one out with much less polish and restraint than in her later recordings. That roughness was something you could count on from that era of Muscle Shoals music."
13 | "Gotta Serve Somebody," Bob Dylan
"Slow Train Coming is certainly not one of Dylan's best albums, but I love this song. I've heard that born-again Bob tried to walk on water while he was recording here, but I don't believe it worked."