Thursday, September 8, 2011

Shoals Soul Shakin' : The W.C. Handy Festival July, 2011

Muscle Shoals has a hold on me. First there was the music, for as long as I can remember, pouring out of radios and record players, deeper than deep: "You Better Move On," "I Never Loved A Man, "Mustang Sally," "Slip Away," "Tell Mama." I've sung these songs all my life, tried to do them justice. Then, a soul journey in September 2010 at the behest of my dear friend Kim Stovall brought me face to face and heart to heart with some of the pioneers of the Shoals scene (I visited with Rick Hall at FAME and toured all the other still-active studios) as well as with some of the cats who keep the flame burning today, when I joined the Decoys--the latest incarnation of the "Swampers"-- at their regular Wednesday night gig on the outskirts of town (Kelvin Holly, NC Thurman and Mike Dillon; Scott Boyer and David Hood were absent that evening, but songwriter Donnie Fritts and the great guitarist Travis Wammack showed up for the ride). We all became immediate friends--a mutual admiration society. Later in 2010, Kelvin and Spooner Oldham came to NYC as part of Pegi Young's band, with her husband Neil in tow, and we hung out on the bus, on Jimmy Fallon's NBC soundstage, and at my favorite breakfast spot in the Village. An idea was floated: maybe I should come down for the WC Handy Festival in July, 2011. Maybe I would, I said.

Springtime came and plane tickets were purchased. The die having been cast, Kelvin and I talked songs, day after day. Finally in late July I flew into Nashville and grabbed a rental car. I hit the Shoals city limits Thursday night and dove into that river of song straight on, meeting the Decoys at a country club shindig they were playing. Of course I got up, and right away, the song of the week was established: Arthur Alexander's "You Better Move On," one of the first-ever hits cranked out of FAME Studios. Bittersweet and stately and soulful and gritty, it became our anthem.

Friday dawned. Bonnie Bramlett was on her way down from Nashville, they told me, taking a leisurely drive on the Natchez Trace to make the scene that night with The Decoys at Crocodile Ed's, and a scheme was hatched for some duet action. I thought the natural choice was "Cover Me," written by the late, great Eddie Hinton, whose tremelo-guitar-pickin'-soul-singin' ghost I could almost see in the humid night air. Miss Bonnie arrived, and after dinner and drinks we joined the band by the side of the stage. With Donnie Fritts sitting square in front of us, and not a dry eye in the house (including ours), Bonnie and I threw down for Eddie:

"Swampers" is the sprawling, appropriately-named cocktail lounge at the Shoals Marriott Hotel, and super-chick-supreme Suzanne Bolton had engineered a Sunday night gig for me there. The joint was packed, Kim seated front and center with her mom Brenda. Kelvin was onstage along with Mike Dillon and NC Thurman, and from the first note, the music couldn't have been more right. We swamped, we gospel-ed, we rocked and rolled. They are such a thrill, those three musicians. Love them all dearly. Mike has a groove and gospel voice to die for, ditto NC's keyboardist's arrow-true sense of the song, ditto my soul brother Kelvin's peerless tremelo-laden guitar chops.

An added kick was the arrival of the great session drummer James (J.M.) Van Eaton, veteran of every Jerry Lee Lewis session at Sun studios. To me, taking nothing away from DJ Fontana, Van Eaton is the king, his behind-the-beat snare making him the rockabilly cousin to Al Jackson, Jr. J.M. had graciously agreed to sit in, and we romped through Jerry Lee's "Night Train To Memphis." I hoped that somewhere, Sam Phillips was smiling. Later in the week I'd have dinner with Jerry Phillips, Sam's son and a major player on the Shoals scene (indeed, in the entire Shoals/Memphis/Nashville triangle) with his triple-threat endeavors: 100,000-watt radio station Q-107, The Sam Phillips Festival, and live podcast "Muscle Shoals To Music Row" ( Jerry has become a friend, and I'm deeply grateful that Q-107 regularly pumps out my song "Love Make You Do Stupid Things" from The Deep End over the morning airwaves via Jimmy Oliver's "Morning Show with Jimmy O." (Jimmy was there at the Swampers gig, beaming as we swamped up "Stupid Things" ) Sam Phillips' presence is very much felt in the Shoals, and it's beautiful to have the timeless spirit of the music he created co-existing and mingling with the FAME/Muscle Shoals Sound/3614 Jackson Highway vibe). Suffice to say, the Swampers' house was properly rocked.

My last night found me on the main drag of Sheffield. A stage had been erected in the shadow of the Sheffield Hotel, where Arthur Alexander was working as a bellhop when Rick Hall discovered him. Again, with the Decoys--fittingly--the song of the evening was Arthur's "You Better Move On." Jerry Phillips and photographer/raconteur/renaissance man Dick Cooper were both there (Dick's roadhouse photos from my September visit grace the interior booklet of Christine Ohlman & Rebel Montez's new concert DVD Live Hive), and everyone was beaming, including me. Perfect.

On the drive back up to Nashville on Highway 43 the next morning, with plenty of time to spare, I got beautifully lost while yapping to NYC on the cell phone, and took a leisurely detour through some achingly fine Southern back roads before reconnecting with my main route. It was a fitting end to this latest soul journey.

A shout-out to my Shoals family: Kim, Dylan and Brenda Stovall, Dick Cooper, Kelvin and Tonya Holly, Spooner Oldham, Jerry Phillips, Mike Dillon and Rhonda Curington, NC Thurman, David and Judy Hood, Scott Boyer, Suzanne Bolton, Terry and Anita Pace, Sonny Edwards, Jilda Watson, Steve "Papa T" Turner, Gary Asher, Deborah and JM VanEaton.....if I forgot anyone, I'm so are all deeply in my heart, as is the place you call home.

I humbly close with this quote from Terry Pace (writer, film historian, playwright) describing a backstage photo of Jerry Phillips and me:
Soul singer supreme Christine Ohlman -- the beloved "Beehive Queen" and longtime vocalist with the Saturday Night Live band -- with producer, performer, songwriter, publisher and Big River Broadcasting president Jerry Phillips (son of the "Father of Rock 'n' Roll," Shoals native Sam Phillips) during a W.C. Handy Music Festival outdoor event in downtown Sheffield, Alabama. Christine made a number of unforgettable appearances in the Shoals during this year's festival, jamming with The Decoys and fellow soul diva Bonnie Bramlett, resurrecting Muscle Shoals soul classics like "You Better Move On," "Respect Yourself" and "Cover Me" and performing a stunning show of her own with Decoys guitarist Kelvin Holly at Swampers in the Marriott Shoals Hotel in Florence. (July 25, 2011)

Thank you, Terry. Thank you all.


Jilda said...

That Sunday night listening to you and The, truly I was in the presence of greatness! It was a musical memory I will never forget and am so grateful that I was there. May the music gods always bless and keep you! I know my friends are so tired of me telling them to buy your cds! love and many hugs!

Jimmy said...

Hey guys! Is there going to be another festival any time soon? Thanks in advance!

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Kimberly said...

I'm so happy you enjoy it down here. You are loved and appreciated. We can't WAIT to see you back down this way again soon!