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.)


You might think of this as my letter never sent to Michael Stipe, R.E.M.

“I am tired of second guessing.” — R.E.M.

In the news business, you sometimes get the opportunity to interview famous folks. By my third or fourth time doing it, my insides would start to pitch and tumble like wet clothes in a dryer as interview time approached.

I had learned by then celebrities sometimes react to interviews like they’re uncooperative witnesses being asked by a judge, “Where were you when the prostitute’s body was found?”

Over the years, I developed some strategies for getting them to engage. Sometimes I upped the dosage of Southern in my accent or dropped in some “y’alls” or “yes sirs”/”yes ma’ams” — or if things were going really poorly, all of those things.

I’m not sure why they work, but they do sometimes.

Also, a little flattery can do it. And some big names will perk up if you show you actually know something about their music or their TV show or some member of their band.

Another approach that takes some creative thought and strategic planning is to say something attention-grabbing they haven’t heard before — a funny line, a unique observation or an oddball personal anecdote.

Not just any oddball anecdote, though; it has to involve them somehow. It once worked with Ira Glass at a public radio fundraising reception. I put my arm around Jennifer and told him his first movie was our second date.

He raised his eyebrows, looked me straight in the eyes and didn’t say a word for a couple of seconds. “Really?” he finally said, his voice shooting up. “That movie usually has the opposite affect on couples.”

I’m pretty sure it was his most memorable conversation of the night.


Our waiter said Michael Stipe came to the restaurant somewhat regularly, but I didn’t think to ask the waiter if Mr. Stipe minded interruptions.

I’m not quite so sure any of those things work if you sidle up to a table and make uninvited conversation, which is one of the reasons I didn’t try that on Michael Stipe the night we found ourselves sitting a few tables away from him in Manhattan.

But if I had, I would have told him this in my best Southern accent: R.E.M. came to Tuscaloosa in 1984. I was a big fan. But one afternoon, propped up on my dorm room loft bed, I had given it some thought and told my roommate, Chip, I thought $10 was too much to pay for a concert ticket. I guess he agreed because we didn’t go.

I might have added that I regret it to this day. I’d like to go back to 1984 and slap some sense into my 21-year-old self. Since I can’t do that, I make it a point to go to the concerts of everybody I like so Tuscaloosa, 1984, never happens again.

P.S. I sat on the edge of my seat the entire night, so close to jumping off and walking over. Do you think my story of Tuscaloosa 1984 would have engaged him? Tell me what you think.

Concerts I did see in Tuscaloosa between 1983 and 1986*

  1. Oingo Boingo
  2. X
  3. The Go-Go’s
  4. Jason and the Scorchers
  5. Cheap Trick


*All were free. I guess I was just a cheapskate.


Talk about the passion: Mine for R.E.M. started in Tuscaloosa

Timing is everything. R.E.M.’s first album and I hit Tuscaloosa in 1983.

When I got there, I knew nothing about college or alternative rock. But I was ready for something beyond the Top 40 and found it on the University of Alabama campus radio station, WVUA.

VUA played “Radio Free Europe” from “Murmur” in as steady a rotation as a campus station is likely to do. I took notice. I remember the song seemed to just jump out of my car speakers one day as I crept over the train tracks on Hackberry Lane, past the Flowers bakery, making my way to campus. I thought, “Man, I really love this song.”

“Murmur” is usually called R.E.M.’s first album, and being new to college radio station I was unaware of the earlier “Chronic Town” EP, which I didn’t hear until a lot later — and by a lot I mean just the other day.

So I wasn’t on the R.E.M. ground floor, but thanks to WVUA I was a pretty early adopter. I bought “Murmur” around that time, probably at the grungy Vinyl Solution record store on the Strip. I was hooked and had no idea my love for R.E.M. was going to last well past college.

See the first post in this series here.

Next: 40 years later, still second guessing


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.