“A Little Bit of Soul” Nashville’s Essential Connection to Muscle Shoals
Jim Crow notwithstanding, American music has always been a child of miscegenation. Drain the blues influences from Father of Country Music Jimmie Rodgers or from Western Swing creator Milton Brown, to cite just two key examples, and what we now call country music simply wouldn’t exist. And this is as true today as ever — if you want to hear straight-up blues licks on commercial radio, you’d better tune in a country station.
But the blues is hardly country music’s only African-American influence. Soul music, for instance, has transformed the genre from the groove up during the past three decades. Indeed, perhaps the most important musical development in country history between Elvis and Garth was the arrival in Nashville of the original Muscle Shoals rhythm section.
After bassist Norbert Putnam, pianist David Briggs and drummer Jerry Carrigan left Alabama for Nashville in late 1964, they anchored a second-generation A-team that helped fashion a new soul-and-pop-inflected country music. The record that set all this in motion was Arthur Alexander’s “You Better Move On”. Alexander’s R&B chart debut paved the way for producer Rick Hall and a talented cast of northern Alabama musicians to make a success of Fame Studios, and, later, of what became known as the Muscle Shoals sound — home of classic hits by everyone from Aretha Franklin to Wilson Pickett to Lynryd Skynyrd.
The Muscle Shoals gang was on its way to changing country music before those famous rock and soul records were even made. Convinced they had a hit with “You Better Move On”, Hall and Alexander made the rounds of the Nashville labels, but until Dot took a chance on the record, it was always the same thing: “Good song; singer’s too black.” Or so they were told.
Heard today, Alexander’s work on “You Better Move On” puts one very much in mind of Charley Pride, which makes sense for a kid who’d grown up on singing cowboys and the Grand Ole Opry. With Alexander delivering his lines in a soulful twang, part C&W restraint, part good ole boy threat, “You Better Move On” sounded like a Southern, down-home take on Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me”. The strings were gone, the backing vocals suggested the Nashville Sound more than urban R&B, and the groove had lost its Afro-Cuban vibe. In its place, Briggs, Carrigan and Putnam (along with guitarist Terry Thompson, who died of a drug overdose in 1965) had laid the foundation for country soul.
Prior to Alexander’s hit, the Muscle Shoals rhythm section had been busy backing singer-songwriter Dan Penn in legendary blue-eyed soul outfit the Mark V’s. After Alexander’s record took off, they started spending even more of their time at Fame, laying down a country-soul groove for Jimmy Hughes, Tommy Roe, Joe Simon and a host of others — until friends began telling them they could be making a lot more money, in a lot less time, by doing the same thing 100 miles north in Nashville.
So, on thousands of sessions over the next decade, both together and as parts of other configurations, the members of the original Muscle Shoals rhythm section played country music. (Meanwhile, their replacements — Barry Beckett, Roger Hawkins, David Hood, Jimmy Johnson and others — went on to brand-name recognition when they too left Fame to open Muscle Shoals Sound studio in 1969.)
Briggs, Carrigan and Putnam didn’t affect this change all by themselves, of course. Producer Billy Sherrill, who’d been present at the birth of Fame Studios before moving to Nashville in 1962, played a pivotal role in this shift. Also important was the influx throughout the late ’50s and early ’60s of other rock-and-soul-bred musicians, songwriters and producers, particularly those from Atlanta’s Lowery Music group (including the guitar-picking triumvirate of Chip Young, Joe South and Jerry Reed). Still, it was the arrival, more or less en masse, of Briggs/Carrigan/Putnam that established critical mass for this transformation.
By the early ’70s, the more soulful rhythms and quiet-loud-quiet pop dynamics the Muscle Shoals boys had helped transport across state lines were the dominant sound on country radio. Joe Stampley’s “Soul Song”, a country chart-topper in 1973, is one aptly titled example of this new country music, but there are dozens of others. Sammi Smith’s “Help Me Make It Through The Night”, Lynn Anderson’s “Rose Garden”, Jerry Reed’s “Amos Moses”, Dolly Parton’s “Jolene”, Bob Luman’s “Lonely Women Make Good Lovers”, and Conway Twitty’s “How Much More Can She Stand”, as well as any number of hits by Sherrill collaborators Tammy Wynette, George Jones, Tanya Tucker and Charlie Rich, all boasted rhythmic pulses quickened by a little bit of ever-so-slightly-behind-the-beat soul. They also featured newly lush arrangements (borrowed from soul’s own influences in pop) and more melismatic phrasing (from soul music’s origins in black gospel).
Typically, the musical ideas flowed in both directions. In the mid-’60s, as a generation of white session players mixed country with a little bit of soul, something similar was taking place back down in Muscle Shoals and over in Memphis. Soul singers such as James Carr, Percy Sledge, Joe Simon, William Bell and others — often backed by white Southerners who knew C&W every bit as well as they did R&B — created the country soul ballad. In his book Say It One Time For The Brokenhearted: Country Soul In The American South, Barney Hoskyns describes the style as “really a black gospel foreground, with all the vocal improvisation and intensity that implies, superimposed on a white country background.”
That definition cut both ways in 1971 when Elvis Presley placed a soulful rendering of Dallas Frazier’s “There Goes My Everything” in the country Top 10. As on so many hits of the era, the country soul band performing behind Presley included Jerry Carrigan, Norbert Putnam and David Briggs.
Though it typically goes unmentioned, the influence of black soul music persists unabated on country radio. Whether it’s the gospel-inspired phrasing of Martina McBride, the simmering diva moves of Trisha Yearwood, the songwriting of Buddy & Julie Miller, or the groove that propels Lee Ann Womack’s “I Hope You Dance”, Southern soul continues to shape the sounds of what writer Tex Sample once described as “white man’s soul.”