Rick Hall and my claim to FAME (Recording Studios that is)

When I was a reporter at the TimesDaily, I got a call out of the blue that Rick Hall wanted to meet with me. After quite a bit of back and forth, we agreed to a day and time. I arrived and was led to a room inside FAME where I waited. And waited and waited. I still had no idea what he wanted to talk about.

He finally appeared wearing a loud sport coat and his trademark handlebar mustache and eager to talk about Shenandoah, a new country band he was producing. I never cared much for the music, but you can’t argue with its success.

Not many people remember Shenandoah now, but the R&B Hall produced in Muscle Shoals lives on as some of the best American music ever made. So glad Rick Hall finally got his due before his death this week.

Here’s the excellent New York Times obit by Jon Pareles. It helped a lot with this recollection of my Rick Hall interview because I was having trouble remembering exactly what it was we talked about. Then I saw the reference to Shenandoah and it came back. So thanks to Jon Pareles for being so thorough.

In the video, check out the cameo by Rick Hall at the :48 mark. (There’s another one later too.)


That’s him in the corner: Michael Stipe sighting launches R.E.M. pilgrimage

Journeys sure do start unexpectedly sometimes.

If you follow them, they can take you to sacred moments from the past and then on to new places and discoveries of things you might have missed the first time. It’s risky, though. Trips to the past can bring joy but can stir up old heartbreak too.

This one started in an oyster bar in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan. These are not places I frequent often — Manhattan or oyster bars in general. But Jennifer and I were near the end of a visit to the city earlier this year and enjoying our drinks amid the echoing clatter of food being served and the crunch of ice serving as temporary bedding for oysters.

We were deciding whether to add oysters to our order when the host seated a man several tables behind Jennifer who wasn’t quite as pedestrian-looking as the rest of us in the restaurant. He sported a bushy, gray beard, black horned-rim glasses and what in Alabama we always called a toboggan — you might call it a knit cap — covering his bald head.

I barely noticed those signifiers and focused mostly on the man’s nose (or septum) ring. It very gradually started to dawn on me I might be having a New York celebrity sighting. I asked Jennifer to Google to see if Michael Stipe wore a nose ring. A quick image search showed that he did, indeed, sport one — and horned-rim glasses and a long beard.

For me this wasn’t just any celebrity sighting. I described it to the kids this way: Think of your all-time favorite band, and then imagine the lead singer walking in and sitting a few tables over. I hadn’t really listened to R.E.M. much in a while, but the answer to “who’s your favorite band of all time,” would certainly, if I thought hard about it, always be R.E.M.

I didn’t bother Mr. Stipe, who was sitting alone at a small table near a window before being joined by someone a short time later. But boy did the R.E.M.-related moments and connections and missed opportunities and meaningful songs start stirring.

The posts that follow are what I imagine I’d have told him if he’d invited us over to his table for a chat.

Next up: Murmurs of new music in Tuscaloosa




A follow-up on site traffic

Nice example of having success generating more traffic to a blog. Textbook.

Talent in the Triangle

In my last post on my blog’s site traffic, I talked about just how little attention this blog was getting. In the month since, the traffic to my blog has gone up exponentially! I’m not even kidding, you guys. It’s a little ridiculous. I’m getting more than 10 hits a day, which doesn’t sound like much but is huge compared to the 10 hits total I had before.

So, clearly, I made a few changes in my posting style to make all this happen. First of all, I started posting more than I had been which should be an obvious tactic. Secondly, I started tagging my posts with key words that were relevant, like “North Carolina” “entertainment” and other terms someone would use in a Google search. Another thing I did was use more hyperlinks about the blog content to link to other pages, which I noticed specifically got those…

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New York Times spotlights problems with Alabama Music Hall of Fame; here are some possible solutions


Photo via Alabama Music Hall of Fame.

It’s sometimes said all publicity is good publicity, so a New York Times story about the struggles of the Alabama Music Hall of Fame is probably a good thing for the beleaguered museum.

Alabama Museum, in Area Where Stars Found Sound, Seeks an Audience: Tourists

The story suggests the museum, with its long history of closings due to funding problems, might need to do some things differently to be successful in the future, including moving to another city.

As a reporter and editor at The TimesDaily in Florence, I covered the hall of fame before it had a building or displays and was raising funds through an annual all-star concert in Birmingham.

I heard and met an amazing lineup of musicians and music industry types on this beat, including members of the country band Alabama, Martha Reeves of Vandellas fame, Jim Nabors, David Hood and Jimmy Johnson of the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, blues legend Johnny Shines, Charlie Louvin, FAME Studios founder Rick Hall, bandleader Erskine Hawkins, the Commodores (minus Lionel Richie), Percy Sledge, Bobby Goldsboro, Jimmy Hall of Wet Willie and Marty Raybon of Shenandoah, Clarence Carter and more. One year’s show ended with a group of stars on stage for a spine-tingling rendition of “My Home’s in Alabama.”

(There were almost more people on stage as in the audience. The Birmingham News didn’t cover the event and the city didn’t support it particularly well.)

When the funds were raised, construction began in the late 1980s on a parcel of old cotton field off U.S. Highway 72 south of downtown Tuscumbia, one of the four cities that makes up the metro Shoals area of Alabama (Florence, Sheffield, Tuscumbia and Muscle Shoals). The Shoals became home to the hall primarily because it was the general area where famous musicians had come to record at several recording studios, most prominently FAME and Muscle Shoals Sound. Also, the powers behind the hall of fame were mostly Shoals-area people with connections to the music industry.

The precise location, though, was a head-scratcher. It’s on a stretch of 4-lane highway that isn’t a main artery between any major points and is used manly by locals who live outside  Tuscumbia or are driving from Northwest Alabama to Corinth, Mississippi or maybe Memphis, Tennessee. The four cities’ metro population is about 200,000 and as you’d expect have several highly trafficked although smallish downtowns and newer, car-oriented commercial areas. For some reason, though, the hall was built just outside the metro area, on the opposite side the fairly busy Huntsville-to-Florence corridor.

When I lived in the area, the hall was surrounded by what would have been pretty countryside if it weren’t for the uneven distribution of over-lit gas stations, fast-food restaurants, billboards and newish churches with huge, paved parking lots.

In the late 1980s Tuscumbia itself was a dusty little town that could have been the location of a movie set during the Great Depression just by changing out the cars on the street. Over time, though, while the U.S. 72 site of the hall of fame gained new fast-food neighbors downtown Tuscumbia came back to life through the generous investments of a local millionaire, making the hall’s isolated location look even more ill-conceived and short sighted.

The Times reports the current debate about the hall centers on whether it should move to Huntsville, Birmingham or Montgomery with the argument being those cities have the critical mass that could keep the museum busy vs. those who’d prefer to keep it close to the  music culture and history of the Shoals.


The second Muscle ShoalsSound Studios. The front, at left, overlooks a scenic stretch of the Tennessee River. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons.)

I lean toward keeping it in the Shoals, but not at its present location, which never made much sense and has failed to draw crowds. This is easier said than done since the warehouse-like building is constructed around the band Alabama’s tour bus, among other built-in exhibits.

The downtowns of one of the Shoals cities or even a well-traveled commercial strip would be an improvement over the hall’s current location. If the reason for having it in the Shoals is because this is the state’s musical heart, then it would make sense to connect it to that music culture and heritage. Where it is now, it might as well be in Huntsville or Birmingham or Montgomery. It just sits by the highway, isolated and unconnected to much of anything.

Moving it near Muscle Shoals Sound Studios would connect it to that history, give the attraction added dimension and give people more incentive to visit. I was initially thinking of the second facility, located at 1000 Alabama Ave. in Sheffield — a beautiful spot on the Tennessee River — certainly an aesthetic improvement over the current location with the river offering an added attraction. When I worked in the area, the studio was still in use but has since closed, with some of its recording equipment sold.


The more iconic Muscle Shoals Sound Studio building in Sheffield.

Another option might be the more famous and somewhat iconic original Muscle Shoals Sound Studios at 3614 Jackson Highway in Sheffield. It’s been purchased by a foundation for redevelopment. Either site could feature, in addition to museum exhibits, opportunities for visitors to watch actual recording, which would give the hall an extra dimension, coupled with the thrill of knowing these were places where actual stars like The Rolling Stones, The Black Keys, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Percy Sledge, Art Garfunkel, Bob Dylan, Bob Seger, Cher and many others, recorded.

Stuck in a boxy building outside an already remote small town, the hall of fame is the definition of out of sight, out of mind. By connecting it to the rich Muscle Shoals-area music tradition, the place could be truly unique, be about much more than just Alabama music, and be a destination for music lovers of all kinds.

NYT story about clothing manufacturer in Bristol, Tennessee is a great read for lots of reasons

This New York Times story is both interesting and inspiring. It’s the story of a clothing maker in the rural South that still creates clothes the way it has for 100 years. 

A Tennessee clothing factory keeps up the old ways

It’s a familiar plot: A craft outlasts all others and finally begins to get recognition. It’s a classic combination several important news values: currency, unusualness and human interest: An archaic way of making textiles, once common across the South, finds its time has finally come.

Despite being an old trope, the story works. A great read. It’s inspiring because it shows a future for a traditional Southern clothing maker, offering hope for a company and its employees and bringing recognition to the longterm support of the town of Bristol, Tennessee.

The New York Times joins those reporting extreme conservatism isn’t ‘the North Carolina Way’


Moral Monday protestor in Raleigh on June 17 of this year. (Photo by Yashmori via Flickr Creative Commons.)

The New York Times has taken an in-depth look at the political turmoil in North Carolina.

North Carolinians Fear the End of a Middle Way

Splashed on page one today, it’s a thorough overview that attempts to show that even moderate and some conservative people are taken aback by the string of ideological legislation that’s been passed in just one legislative session.

As is often the case when a national news organization swoops in and takes a big-picture look at an issue, there’s not a lot there that hasn’t been reported in bits and pieces by local and regional newspapers.

But, fresh perspectives include voices like that of David French of rural Rockingham County who laments extremism in government, and the observation that, while signing all of these divisive bills, the governor never got around to passing his signature economic development initiative, an overhaul of job recruiting.

The idea that the legislature’s extreme agenda is contrary to the moderate political history of the state was also made notably in this News & Observer essay. (Note the similar headlines.):

The North Carolina Way takes a sharp right turn

For essayist, Huntsville is the new town that became a hometown


When a new town becomes a hometown by Beth Thames

A lovely and thoughtful essay on the slow, steady process of adapting to the place you’ve moved to. It’s what I’m in the midst of trying to do in Chapel Hill, and all the more poignant since the place the essayist now calls home is the place I’ll never quite get over leaving.