Wade on Birmingham

a town without a watchdog

Tuesday, August 4, 2015 by Wade Kwon

Graft flowed to outstretched
hands, while the downtrodden fought
for their measly crumbs.

• • •

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The Birmingham channel: With the windows rolled down

Monday, August 3, 2015 by Wade Kwon

A look at Birmingham in videos …

“Havoline Football Saturdays” aired a report last week called “Ever Faithful — The Resurrection of UAB Football.” From Raycom Sports.

The Raycom report didn’t mention the behind-the-scenes power struggle between UAB and the UA Board of Trustees, but host Tim Brando included this note following the segment. From Joey Watson.

The Regional Planning Commission of Greater Birmingham and UAB Sustainability created this bike safety video. From UAB Digital Media.

Reporter Jack Royer remembers Birmingham radio legend Doug Layton. From Jack Royer.

Springville country singer Trey Lewis performs “Back in Birmingham.” From Trey Lewis.

“Dining Out With Comedienne Joy” on the 2015 Taste of Birmingham. From Comedienne Joy.

UAB at No. 10 Oklahoma, Sept. 2, 2006. From Tim Bliss.

A day at the driving range with John Wesley Hardin Jr. From Zaida Ricklen.

Rock band Def Leppard performs “Love Bites” in June at Oak Mountain Amphitheatre in Pelham. From d bear.

Center Point’s Dan Sartain performs “Sinking in the Shallow End” at the Syndicate Lounge downtown. From Spectra Sonic Sound Sessions.

A look at Birmingham-Southern tailbacks Shawn Morris, Joe Moultrie, Isaac Nichols and Samir Usman. From T7GTTMvids 16.

Memphis rapper Young Dolph visits Birmingham. From RobGreenTV.

Nashville rapper Jelly Roll signing autographs after his show in July at Zydeco on Southside. From 226 Film Production.

A glimpse of the March Quilts, more than 450 squares sewn into seven quilts to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Selma-to-Montgomery marches and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. From the UAB Department of Art and Art History.

Feeding giraffes at the Birmingham Zoo, shot on a head-mounted GoPro. From Mrs. Mitch.

Summer days of fun. From Marison and Micah Clayton.

Promo for the Lego Americana Roadshow Tour, coming Aug. 20 to the Riverchase Galleria in Hoover. From General Growth Properties.

North Carolina indie pop duo Sylvan Esso performs “Coffee” in March at WorkPlay in Lakeview. From Jeff Paiml.

Demo reel for sports anchor/reporter Melissa Kim at WIAT 42. From Melissa Kim.

Georgia rapper Young Hustla performs at the High Note on Southside. From Young Hustla.

Jitney cab. From Steve K.

Driving through Southside and Hoover. From Luz Clemente.

Playing Breakout Birmingham. From Scott Neumann.

• • •

Send us links to your videos. | More videos on the Birmingham channel.

annual assigned reading 3-day cram session

Monday, August 3, 2015 by Wade Kwon

IfIhurryI-
canreadallmysummerbooks-
beforeschoolstartsback.

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Books: Excerpt from Carla Jean Whitley’s ‘Birmingham Beer: A Heady History of Brewing in the Magic City’

Sunday, August 2, 2015 by Wade Kwon

Carla Jean Whitley, Birmingham Beer

Cheryl Joy Miner

The following chapter is an excerpt from Birmingham author Carla Jean Whitley’s “Birmingham Beer: A Heady History of Brewing in the Magic City” [aff. link]. She is a features reporter at Alabama Media Group, a freelance writer and a journalism instructor at the University of Alabama and Samford University, plus a good friend.

This is her third(!) book in 13 months, and the second to be featured on this site. (Read an excerpt from her book, “Muscle Shoals Sound Studio.”) “Birmingham Beer” traces the century-long rise and fall and rise of local brewing.

In this excerpt, Whitley takes us behind the scenes of the real battle, not in Birmingham but in Montgomery …

• • •

Chapter 6, Brewery Modernization Act

Free the Hops initially identified alcohol limit and container size as its top priorities. After the success of the Gourmet Beer Bill, the organization considered continuing along that path. However, lobbyist Michael Sullivan recommended launching the Brewery Modernization Act instead. Because 2010 was an election year, the Gourmet Bottle Bill was unlikely to see much attention. However, the brewery efforts stood a better chance as a pro-business, economic initiative.

Dan Roberts, of both Free the Hops and Alabama Brewers Guild, explained that the Brewpub Act of 1992 was insufficient because it was so difficult to find an approved location. He, too, expected fairly quick progress with the Brewery Modernization Act since it focused on business operations rather than the alcohol itself. “We are severely limiting the growth of an industry that is finding success and creating jobs in other states,” Roberts said to the Birmingham News. “It’s really about making an environment more friendly for business, which ordinarily we would all be in favor of.”

Five Alabama production breweries were in operation as the Brewery Modernization Act made the legislative rounds in 2011. But if visitors wanted to tour Good People, Madison’s Blue Pants Brewery, Huntsville’s Yellowhammer Brewing, Old Black Bear Brewing or Straight to Ale Brewing, they could admire brewing equipment without appreciating the fruit of its labor. State regulations meant breweries were unable to serve even a sample on site. And by 2011, all brewpubs had closed.

“Why are breweries and brewpubs under different legislation? At the end of the day, they both manufacture beer,” Stuart Carter said to the Birmingham News.

“Everything about it [the Brewpub Act of 1992] is set up to make a brewpub fail,” Carter told Birmingham magazine. Why should 21st-century businesses be bound to Prohibition-era precedents? The proposed legislation would loosen the historic district requirements and allow taprooms in breweries. But the Brewery Modernization Act, which passed the Senate, didn’t get a final vote in the House because time ran out.

“Alabama law will not allow us to even charge $5 for a tour followed by free beer tastings like they can at wineries. Why are we treated differently?” Craig Shaw asked the Birmingham News. Shaw was brew master at Avondale Brewing Company, which was gearing up for business as the legislation went through the 2011 session.

That wasn’t the only lost opportunity. Because of the existing laws, Alabama breweries — and therefore the state itself — missed out on tourism dollars, proponents said.

“In many states, breweries are tourist destinations. Our phones are ringing and our email inboxes are filling with travelers looking for interesting places to stop while heading to the beach, in town for business, or looking for places to take their out-of-town guests. Currently we must deny their request for tours or to sample our products at the brewery,” the Alabama Brewers Guild wrote in its statement supporting the Brewery Modernization Act.

“That’s what it’s all about — enabling Alabama business to grow,” Roberts, the ABG’s executive director, explained to the Birmingham News. “If you go to other states, taprooms are the most common things in the world. Tasting rooms and tours are the way small breweries grow their brand. When you’re dealing with beer on this level, it’s not a commodity like the big beer brands.”

“At a time when we need more job creation and economic activity, our laws are preventing growth in one of the industries that is trying to grow here,” past Free the Hops president Stuart Carter said to the Birmingham News.

“It’s taken the hard work of hundreds of craft beer makers several years to change things. Of the 50 million cases of beer sold in Alabama last year, wouldn’t it be better if more of that revenue stayed in this state?” Back Forty’s Jason Wilson asked the News.

The city’s existing brewery and brewery-in-the-making both hoped to utilize freedoms a successful bill would offer. The repeal of brewpub laws would allow for on-site taprooms at Good People, Avondale and any breweries to come.

“At the end of the day, it’s about two things: economic development and competitiveness for Alabama businesses. It’s a travesty we can’t have a group of tourists stop by our brewery, show them around, sell them a pint of beer, talk to them about our brewery and Birmingham, tell them which grocery stores carry our products and recommend a great lunch stop or a hotel. We are constantly contacted by out-of-town people wanting to stop by the brewery to buy a pint of beer, and upon our explaining the restrictions of Alabama law, I doubt many people take the exit off of I-65,” Good People brewmaster Jason Malone told Black and White City Paper. He noted that taproom revenue would help subsidize brewery growth.

Likewise, the paper noted that breweries could stimulate growth in other ways. “Avondale Brewing’s [Coby] Lake says that he and his partners advocate SB 192 because they have spent considerable dollars to renovate a building that could easily become a hotspot in a Birmingham neighborhood that has been challenged for years,” the paper’s Chuck Geiss wrote.

Free the Hops’ Gabe Harris explained in the same article:

“The Brewery Modernization Act will help create jobs and revive dying neighborhoods in local communities. In addition, this bill allows brewpubs to provide tours and samples, which in turn would increase receipts from such taxes that go straight into Alabama’s education fund. Existing data supports how the earlier legislation has benefited the businesses that are now carrying these beers and all the things that our opponents once railed against simply haven’t happened.”

Budweiser Boycott

The act’s proponents ran into another obstacle before the bill could come up for vote, and a surprising one: an area distributor. In April 2011, Birmingham Budweiser, the local Anheuser-Busch distributor, worked against the bill. Gadsden’s Back Forty Brewing co-founder Jason Wilson said distributors worried that, with breweries being allowed to sell beer on premises, larger breweries like Anheuser-Busch and Coors could challenge the three-tier system. That system requires manufacturers to sell their beer to distributors, which then sell to stores. If breweries were permitted to self-distribute, Wilson explained to the (Mobile) Press-Register, distributors could see their business decline.

Free the Hops (by then 1,700 members strong) quickly called for a boycott of all beer carried by Birmingham Budweiser, which meant not only avoiding products such as Budweiser but also national and even local favorites, including Back Forty.
Harris told Black and White City Paper:

“Anheuser-Busch and their individual distributors have every right to work the legislature against the Brewery Modernization Act. They can be opposed to a jobs-creating, economic development bill that would benefit local business. They can oppose craft beer and Free the Hops. But the craft beer community and Free the Hops can oppose them, too. Anheuser-Busch products and products from their distribution network are now banned from Free the Hops events. This will have its first big effect on the Rocket City Brewfest and will continue with the Magic City Brewfest unless the Brewery Modernization Act becomes law in a form we find acceptable. The state can support many more breweries and we think it is in the best interest of consumers, the economy and the state to see [the legislation] move forward.”

(In 2012, the Alabama Wineries Association called for a similar boycott on beers distributed by opponents to a bill that some said aimed to create an exception to the three-tier system for wineries alone.)

It wasn’t a decision Free the Hops members took easily, the organization’s Stuart Carter explained to the Birmingham News:

“The only power we have is the content of our wallets. What we’re saying with this boycott is we as consumers don’t want to be channeling profits to wholesalers who are using those profits to prevent other consumers from getting the beer we want to drink. This is hurting friends, either friends we know or friends who brew the beer we love to drink. The problem is they’re the innocents in this who are caught in the crossfire.”

Those beers would have been excluded from Huntsville’s Rocket City Brewfest and Birmingham’s Magic City Brewfest had negotiations not resulted in a compromise prior to the events. But within weeks, the parties reached an agreement. Free the Hops conceded to maintain a distinction between brewpubs and production breweries. As a result, breweries were allowed to offer tastings without restriction or an additional license, but sales were limited to on-site consumption. Draft-to-go must still be purchased elsewhere. Brewpubs, on the other hand, still faced a number of the existing restrictions. Some were modified: the historic requirement was expanded to include economically distressed areas as determined by the municipality, not just a historic building; they were allowed to sell to wholesalers for outside distribution; and while a restaurant was still necessary, the minimum seating requirement was eliminated. This compromise was necessary in part because distributors wanted the brewpub license to remain special and limited.

On the Free the Hops blog, Alabama Brewers Guild executive director Dan Roberts wrote that the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Bill Holtzclaw (R-Madison), favored the economically distressed area addition. “Does an area with an empty building — a building that would be perfect for a brewpub — constitute an economically distressed area? That’s up to a city council,” Roberts wrote.

In addressing the media, he explained that the compromise was preferable to the alternative. “It will not be everything we wanted, but it is definitely a workable solution and represents a significant improvement over the current restrictions,” he told the Birmingham News. “We were not going to get everything we wanted. The bill we ended up with is still a vast improvement over what we currently have.”

Jason Malone echoed those sentiments in an interview with the paper. “Anything in the right direction is better than the current status quo. Obviously, some compromises did have to be made, and while we would have rather not had to give up anything that we were going after, that’s not realistic.”

Moving Forward

Birmingham Budweiser became a top-level member of Free the Hops after the gourmet beer boycott, and the legislation gained forward momentum. On June 1, 2011, the Brewery Modernization Act passed the Senate and awaited Gov. Robert Bentley’s signature. Many worried that he would veto the bill, but Bentley explained that responsibilities as governor differed from those of state representative. “When I represented my local community, I voted against Sunday alcohol sales and things of that nature,” he said to the Birmingham News. “As governor, it’s a little bit different. I don’t feel I should impose my views on everybody in the state. The legislature has had a chance to look at it and passed it. I’m sure I will sign it.”

He did so, and Free the Hops again celebrated success. “It’s the biggest change in Alabama brewing laws since the repeal of Prohibition,” then Free the Hops president Gabe Harris told the Associated Press. The bill was expected to result in more breweries and brewpubs opening in the state. The bill opened up the viability of the businesses by creating additional revenue opportunities.

“The state will be able to print a beer tour map of the state where people can go from Huntsville to Mobile visiting brew pubs and breweries,” Carter said to the Associated Press.

Meanwhile, Kline also rejoiced in the organization’s success. “We went from taking 5 years on a bill to taking 2 years on a bill,” Kline said. “There was starting to be some clear economic impact from craft beer that people could see and quantify. Free the Hops had gained the reputation of only advocating bills that do good things, as opposed to bills that do bad things. So it got easier each time,” Kline said.

The economic impact was evident almost immediately: The state’s brewery production increased by 672.19 percent in the year following the bill’s passage. Following the passage of the bill, brewpubs were able to sell beer to wholesalers, which could then distribute the beer. It didn’t stop there. Between 2012 and 2013, United States breweries increased production by nearly 15 percent, and in Alabama, the growth was even more significant: at 22.35 percent. “The thing that I think has spawned all of the growth in the industry is the taprooms. That really gives you a ready revenue source rather than having to wait 30 days for a wholesaler to pay,” Good People Brewing Co. co-owner Michael Sellers told the Associated Press. He said the brewery’s taproom would create additional jobs, and his business partner, Jason Malone, indicated expectations for continued growth. “I’m excited about where the market is headed in Alabama as people get more tuned into how much better craft beer is. We’ve come a long way and I think this trend is here to stay,” he said to the Birmingham News as Avondale prepared to open.

Although Avondale debuted later that year, it was far from the last brewery to reap the legislation’s benefits. Although only five breweries existed in Alabama as the Brewery Modernization Act began circulating through the legislature, thirteen were in operation by 2014.

In 2014, Alabama Brewers Guild president and Back Forty co-founder Jason Wilson attributed that to the act. “So when you prohibit these small microbreweries from doing things like selling pints at their production facility, that’s the difference between a profitable and an unprofitable business model. The slightest restriction you impose on them can mean the difference between it being successful and failing,” he told Business Alabama. “Since these pieces of legislation have passed, we haven’t seen a single brewery shut down in the last five years. That’s a testament to the impact this legislation has had.”

• • •

Carla Jean Whitley has book signings for “Birmingham Beer: A Heady History of Brewing in the Magic City” throughout the rest of summer and fall:

  • Thursday: 4-7 p.m., Trim Tab Brewing Co., Lakeview
  • Saturday: 2-4 p.m., Books-A-Million, Brookwood Village, Homewood
  • Aug. 12: 5:30-7 p.m., Neighborhood Hops and Vine, Homewood
  • Aug. 13: 5:30-7 p.m., Neighborhood Hops and Vine, Crestline Park
  • Aug. 14: 5-7 p.m., Little Professor Book Center, Homewood
  • Aug. 15: 1-3 p.m., Vulcan Park
  • Sept. 4: 5-8 p.m., Good People Brewing Co., Southside
  • Oct. 9: 7 p.m., Hoover Public Library

“Birmingham Beer: A Heady History of Brewing in the Magic City” (July 27, Arcadia Publishing)

Carla Jean Whitley

#sundayread for Aug. 2, 2015

Sunday, August 2, 2015 by Wade Kwon

flower bookmark

Photo: Danel Solabarrieta (CC)

My picks for #sundayread for Aug. 2, 2015:

More posts from Wade this week:

The latest #sundayread tweets

the longest con

Sunday, August 2, 2015 by Wade Kwon

Living a robust
perpetual denial
about growing old.

• • •

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shuffle off this mortal coil? check.

Saturday, August 1, 2015 by Wade Kwon

The to-do list will
never be done. The good news
is we’ll all be dead.

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the meltening

Friday, July 31, 2015 by Wade Kwon

The molecular
structure of all things breaks down
in this goddamn heat.

• • •

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the pizza accords

Thursday, July 30, 2015 by Wade Kwon

First party agrees
to extra cheese, while second
party requests ham.

• • •

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concrete rain

Wednesday, July 29, 2015 by Wade Kwon

Bits of freeway fell
in storms of debris as cars
shook the bridges loose.

• • •

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the neighborhood crank

Tuesday, July 28, 2015 by Wade Kwon

A loner with an
agenda finds almost no
support for changes.

• • •

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The Birmingham channel: Such sights to behold

Monday, July 27, 2015 by Wade Kwon

A look at Birmingham in videos …

Keep Birmingham weird? From Igor N. Rykov.

An Oxmoor Landing homeowner deals with flooding. From Lisa Antoine.

Skateboarding around town in the late 1990s. From Haoyan of America.

The first Sloss Music and Arts Festival, filmed on a GoPro Hero 3 and an iPhone 5s. From Anagrace Salem.

Birmingham City Schools Band Camp 2015. From Magic Moody Films.

Swedish folk duo First Aid Kit performs “Emmylou” at Sloss Fest. From Seth Nelson.

The Avett Brothers performs “Walking for You” at Sloss Fest. From Donna Gobbell.

Attendees of the first Magic City Con this weekend at the Cahaba Grand Conference Center share their experiences. From Starnes Publishing.

Celebrating Birmingham Black Marriage Day in March at the Harambe Room downtown. From CaptuREAL Photo and Design.

Soca artist Island Rooster performs at Caribbean Day in June at Linn Park downtown. From Island Rooster.

A look at WWE Smackdown earlier this month at the BJCC Legacy Arena downtown. From SmackTalk420.

Attempting to fly into the Birmingham airport through a major storm. From Brandon Snider.

The competition during June’s Magic City Mega Bowl disc golf tournament at George Ward Park. From The Disc Golf Channel.

Promo for OnBoard Birmingham, a program to help regional employers recruit and retain young professionals. From Birmingham Business Alliance.

Brandy Wood talks about her guide dog, Rascal, and her work at the Southeastern Blind Rehabilitation Center on Southside. From Starnes Publishing.

A look ahead to the Birmingham Bowl’s 10th anniversary celebration on Dec. 30. From Birmingham Bowl.

Michael Greer lacrosse highlight reel. From Susan Bryan.

Promo for art pieces on Railroad Park from photographer Ginnard Archibald and painter Joseph Longoria. From Ginnard Archibald.

Speeches from a rally for Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders earlier this month at Good People Brewing Company on Southside. From Left in Alabama.

Jim Adkins of Jimmy Eat World performs “Polaris” and “The Kill” earlier this month at Saturn in Avondale. From Thomas Kreutzer.

A family’s summer outing to the Birmingham Zoo. From Ken Lee.

Tennessee country artist Shelby Lee Lowe performs in the Battle of the Bands earlier this month at Tin Roof on Southside (our vertical video of the week). From Dollar Bill Lawson.

Primus performs “My Name is Mud” at Sloss Fest. From Mike Wallace.

Artist Yaacov Agam signs his recently restored “Complex Vision,” a massive kinetic sculpture on the side of the Callahan Eye Hospital on Southside. From UAB News.

More. Sloss. Fest. From Pedroam Marashi.

Support group UAB Connections holds Dinner in the Dark in June, giving blindfolded diners an opportunity to experience a meal with a visual impairment. From UAB News.

• • •

Send us links to your videos. | More videos on the Birmingham channel.

among the charlatans

Monday, July 27, 2015 by Wade Kwon

A sense of purpose
may never ring true yet can
guide us to safety.

• • •

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Books: Excerpt from Blake Ells’ ‘The Muscle Shoals Legacy of FAME’

Sunday, July 26, 2015 by Wade Kwon

Blake Ells

The following chapter is an excerpt from Birmingham author Blake Ells’ “The Muscle Shoals Legacy of FAME” [aff. link]. He is a public relations professional and music journalist, having written for AL.com, the Birmingham Post-Herald, the Birmingham News, Weld for Birmingham and Birmingham magazine.

His book looks at FAME Publishing, the epicenter of the musical revolution coming out of Muscle Shoals starting in the 1960s.

In this excerpt, we see the start of FAME and how Muscle Shoals has felt some, but not all, of its place in music history …

• • •

Chapter 2, FAME

There are a few Muscle Shoals stories of fame. There’s that one, the tale of a community at a crossroads hoping to age gracefully but not knowing how. There’s the fame that existed before the Quad Cities became known as the “Hit Recording Capital of the World,” the foundation that was built by Dexter and Ray Johnson, James Joiner and W.C. Handy’s blues before them. And there’s Florence Alabama Music Enterprises (FAME), the publishing company that evolved into a recording studio founded by Rick Hall, Billy Sherrill and Tom Stafford in 1959.

The original FAME Recording Studios was located above City Drug Store in Florence, Ala., the birth of the acronym that became a proper noun. The partnership dissolved, and the facility moved to another location on the south side of the Tennessee River briefly before Hall built the current studio at its Avalon Avenue location in Muscle Shoals. Arthur Alexander’s “You Better Move On” had achieved immeasurable success, having been covered by the Rolling Stones, and Hall’s empire was born.

The session musicians at FAME were known as the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, and the first version consisted of Norbert Putnam, Peanut Montgomery, David Briggs and Jerry Carrigan. It was the second Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section that Lynyrd Skynyrd immortalized as “The Swampers” in “Sweet Home Alabama”: David Hood, Jimmy Johnson, Barry Beckett and Roger Hawkins. Junior Lowe, Spooner Oldham and Duane Allman also spent time in this version of the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, but the first four men were the partners who would leave in 1969 to found their own Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in Sheffield. Lowe bridged the divide to the first FAME Gang (a later incarnation of FAME’s rhythm section), Oldham largely stayed until he left for Memphis and Allman would leave to form an eponymous Rock and Roll Hall of Fame band of his own.

The group backed hits recorded by Wilson Pickett, Candi Staton, James and Bobby Purify, Clarence Carter, Arthur Conley, Etta James and, most notably, Aretha Franklin while under Hall’s roof. It was a famous, alcohol-soaked confrontation between Hall and the latter’s husband, Ted White, that is largely responsible for the collaboration’s demise. White was heavily intoxicated, and conflict emerged between himself and a trumpet player on the session. Hall’s efforts to defuse it didn’t help, and Franklin left Muscle Shoals. The Swampers joined her to finish her record and record a few more, including “Respect.” Shortly after their return from New York, their own studio was born, the location that welcomed Cher, Paul Simon and the Rolling Stones.

“In the ’60s and ’70s, there were periods every two or three months that we would have 10 percent of the Hot 100 in the world from our studio,” Jimmy Johnson said. “I think about it now, and I shake my head. I don’t even think we realized what we were doing. We were paying $50 a month for rent on that building. We started cutting some hits. That was the whole key. No hits? No business. We didn’t have to advertise. They’d look at Billboard and Record World and Cashbox, and that’s how they came. Based on the charts. That’s how we got known.”

But the departure of the Swampers wasn’t the end of FAME. Not even close. In 1971, Billboard named Hall “Producer of the Year” as he soldiered on with other incarnations of the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, backing several styles of music into the new millennium. The Fame Gang carried on FAME’s tradition throughout the ’70s and ’80s with at least two formal versions but probably three or four: Junior Lowe, Harrison Calloway, Jesse Boyce, Aaron Varnell, Ronnie Eades, Mickey Buckins, Harvey Thompson, Clayton Ivey and Freeman Brown composed the first version, while Ralph Ezell, Chalmers Davis, Walt Aldridge, Jimmy English, Owen Hale and David Barone were the second, but definitive lines of where one group’s tenure finished and another began were blurry.

“I think it was FAME Gang Four or Five, actually,” joked Chalmers Davis.

A 2009 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, Dewey Lindon “Spooner” Oldham Jr. isn’t usually remembered as being a part of the Swampers. The entirety of his stay in the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section was under the FAME roof, throughout most of the ’60s. He left for Memphis in 1967 to join his songwriting partner Dan Penn. It’s his organ heard on “When a Man Loves a Woman” by Percy Sledge and “I Never Loved a Man” by Aretha Franklin. With Penn, he penned “I’m Your Puppet” by James and Bobby Purify and “A Woman Left Lonely” by Sledge. His departure from Muscle Shoals paved the way for Beckett’s full-fledged membership into the group.

“My songwriting partner, Dan Penn, had moved to Memphis to work in a new studio called American,” Oldham said. “He was gone a year before I decided to join him there. I was missing the songwriting partnership that we had at FAME. I didn’t want to abandon Rick Hall, and I was loyal to Barry Beckett. He had come up from Pensacola. We were walking from the studio to the grocery store one day to grab a soda pop, and he asked me if he could get some session work, and a light bulb went off in my head. Because [Beckett] could do anything that I did. So he came here, and I went to Memphis.”

Oldham eventually moved to Los Angeles. He backed Bob Dylan, Joe Cocker, Jackson Browne, Bob Seger, the Everly Brothers, J.J. Cale and Frank Black. He recorded Neil Young’s Harvest Moon and Amos Lee’s Last Days at the Lodge. He joined Drive-By Truckers for 2007’s The Dirt Underneath tour. He was a nomad.

“I remember touring with Dylan, and he called me in my hotel room one day, which he never did,” said Oldham. “We’d talk at the gigs and ride to the shows together on the bus. He would sit in his seat, and we’d sit in ours, and you didn’t talk a whole lot. But we were in Boston, I believe. And he said, ‘Would you walk with me to the record store? They want me to sign some records, and I’ve never done that.’ This was in ’80 or ’81. It was winter. I was cold, and I had on a long overcoat, and I said, ‘Bob, I’m cold.’ And he said to me, ‘I like it. It makes me feel alive.'”

In the half century that FAME has served as the centerpiece for the Muscle Shoals music scene, it has been responsible for “You Better Move On” by Arthur Alexander; “Steal Away” by Jimmy Hughes; “What Kind of Fool Do You Think I Am” by the Tams; “Hold On to What You’ve Got” by Joe Tex; “Slip Away” and “Patches” by Clarence Carter; “Mustang Sally,” “Funky Broadway,” “Land of a Thousand Dances” and “Hey Jude” by Wilson Pickett; and “I Never Loved a Man” and “Do Right Woman” by Aretha Franklin. Arthur Conley’s “Sweet Soul Music” was cut in the same room, as were a string of hits by the Osmonds, including “Down by the Lazy River,” “One Bad Apple” and “Yo-Yo.”

As disco took over and sessions slowed, Hall, like his peers at other studios in Muscle Shoals, collected a group of songwriters and shaped the sound of Nashville in the ’80s. Walt Aldridge penned hits for Ronnie Milsap (“There’s No Gettin’ Over Me”), John Anderson (“She Sure Got Away with My Heart”) and Ricky Van Shelton (“Crime of Passion”).

Although FAME sold its publishing company in 1989, a new publishing company was soon formed by Hall and his three sons: Rick Jr., Mark and Rodney. Gary Baker penned one of the biggest hits that FAME was ever responsible for in 1994, John Michael Montgomery’s “I Swear,” a crossover hit that was later covered by pop act All-4-One. Mark Hall added Tim McGraw’s “I Like It, I Love It” to the Halls’ resume in 1996, shortly before joining his brothers Rodney and Rick to buy the remaining shares of the company from their father.

Under their ownership in the new millennium, FAME has scored hits from George Strait, Kenny Chesney, Alabama, Dixie Chicks, Sara Evans, Chris LeDoux, Travis Tritt and Billy Ray Cyrus, among others. Patterson Hood of Drive-By Truckers produced Bettye LaVette’s “The Scene of the Crime” there, and his band recorded “The Dirty South” there. Jason Isbell signed a publishing deal with FAME and recorded his debut, “Sirens of the Ditch,” there before leaving to tour with Drive-By Truckers. His publishing deal with FAME covers his catalogue up to the 2013 critically acclaimed and award-winning “Southeastern.”

James LeBlanc came to town and penned a number of hits, including “Modern Day Bonnie and Clyde,” which he coauthored with Walt Aldridge. The Travis Tritt tune peaked at No. 8 on the U.S. Hot Country chart and remains the singer’s most recent Top 10 hit. He penned “Learning How to Bend,” a Top 10 single recorded by Gary Allan. And LeBlanc wrote “Relentless” with Aldridge’s disciple, John Paul White, for Jason Aldean, a song that reached No. 15. His collaborations connected the past and present of Muscle Shoals as significantly as anyone.

“I met John Paul — he was working at Sam’s [Club] selling computers,” said FAME’s Rodney Hall. “We struck up a friendship there, and I said, ‘Well, why don’t you come over and sing?’ I gave him some of Walt’s tracks, and he came over and sang them. They were country. He wasn’t what he is now.”

This all happened — well, most of it — at a building on the corner of Woodward and Avalon Avenues in Muscle Shoals, Ala. And it’s still happening. The centerpiece, the foundation, the FAME that gave the community fame is a modest structure that has had little renovation and little updating over the majority of its 50 years. It’s nearly hidden now, as a CVS Pharmacy covers it to the Woodward Avenue side. Predictably, a Walgreens faces the historic studio from the other side of Avalon Avenue, while a Pizza Hut and Sweet Peppers Deli surround the building’s eastern side. There’s a mall, Southgate, that is barely surviving nearby, and Muscle Shoals High School isn’t far, either.

But the rest of Woodward and Avalon Avenues are covered with fast food restaurants, liquor stores, check cashing storefronts and doughnut shops. Back then, there was even less. There are affluent people in the community, but there aren’t enough jobs to ensure that there are many. There are teachers, lawyers, bankers and doctors, as there have always been. And there’s the Tennessee Valley Authority, which became the area’s largest employer after Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Tennessee Valley Authority Act and brought new life to an area devastated by the Great Depression. But the businesses that line the highways of Muscle Shoals proper line the highways of every blue-collar town in America. It’s far less romantic than the sounds it has created, sounds of which the community was unaware.

“In my household, all those songs that David and Roger and Jimmy and Spooner and Dan and all those guys played on, I had heard them a thousand times,” said Greenhill native Jay Burgess, lead singer of Muscle Shoals-based, Single Lock Records product the Pollies. “But I didn’t know that was Spooner playing piano. I didn’t realize that was David playing bass. I didn’t know that that was them. I knew I liked the songs, and I listened to it. I grew up here. I can remember being a kid and driving by FAME, and I’d ask Mom what it was, and she’d just say, ‘It’s a recording studio.’ It wasn’t that big of a deal for these guys — they walked around constantly. You’d see them everywhere. Those two words, ‘Muscle Shoals,’ were never really that big of a deal to me. That was one of the four cities. That’s all it was.”

Musicians came to Muscle Shoals because it wasn’t self-aware, and only now is the community beginning to realize its own appeal. It took outsiders to do that. It took the 2013 documentary “Muscle Shoals” and Billy Reid. It didn’t happen when the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, the Swampers or Fame Gang One, Fame Gang Two or Fame Gang Four or Five cut the biggest hits in the world. And if it didn’t happen when Mac McAnally and Donnie Lowery penned “Old Flame” for Alabama, it sure wasn’t going to happen when Patterson Hood tried to make it with a rock ‘n’ roll band with a punk rock attitude in 1991.

It didn’t happen when rumors would fly of acts like the Backstreet Boys sneaking into town during the height of their career, and it hasn’t happened when Alicia Keys has done the same.

Today, Court Street is the center of the Muscle Shoals arts community, but Court Street is in Florence. Rivertown Coffee is a block away on Seminary, and on any given Tuesday, you’ll find John Paul White or Donnie Fritts spending uninterrupted hours sitting at a table enjoying a cup of coffee. Some of it is because the community is polite, but most of it is because the community has no idea the magnitude of celebrity that calls it home.

Athens, Ga., residents won’t hesitate to remind you that they have 60 bars in six blocks. Seattle knows that it was the center of the grunge universe. Austin’s economy has always received a significant boost as the home to South by Southwest. But only recently have Muscle Shoals, Florence, Sheffield and Tuscumbia begun to realize their own appeal.

“If you acted too good, you were bullied,” said John Paul White at the 2013 Billy Reid Shindig. “To our detriment, we don’t want to sing our own praises. Who are we? Who are we to do that?”

Since 1982, the community has hosted the W.C. Handy Music Festival each summer in honor of its namesake native son. And each of those years, the festival, which engulfs every bar, restaurant and street corner in the Quad Cities, has seen musicians who have played on some of the biggest hits that were ever recorded — those hits that were recorded at FAME — jamming on cover versions at parks (like Wilson Park) and chain restaurants (like Red Lobster or Outback Steakhouse). These days, that’s a normal Thursday on Court Street.

David Hood, Scott Boyer, N.C. Thurman, Mike Dillon and Kelvin Holly have spent several years performing as the Decoys. Barry Billings will join half of Jason Isbell’s backing band, the 400 Unit (Jimbo Hart and Chad Gamble), on weekends at DP’s in Sheffield. Rob Malone, who recorded and helped write the first three Drive-By Truckers records, including “Southern Rock Opera,” often performs with Rob Aldridge at bars like On the Rocks. These artists are around, and it’s been that way for 50 years.

Outsiders began to discover the story of FAME, and the community has slowly become self-aware of its own fame.

• • •

Blake Ells will have an appearance Aug. 29 at the Alabama Music Hall of Fame in Tuscumbia. Visit his site for more details.

“The Muscle Shoals Legacy of FAME” (June 29, Arcadia Publishing)

Blake Ells

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#sundayread for July 26, 2015

Sunday, July 26, 2015 by Wade Kwon

old brown books

Photo: Charles Hackley (CC)

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