In 1973 an unknown singer from the suburbs of Birmingham, Alabama, recorded his first LP in a basement studio known as Sound of Birmingham. The resulting album produced a minor hit, “I’ve Been Lonely for so Long,” which led to the work being distributed by the legendary Memphis label Stax. His name was Frederick Knight.
Why do I know this?
For Christmas this year, my brilliant son enrolled me in a vinyl record program produced by a company known as VMP Classics. Every so often a beautiful LP arrives at my New Mexico door, and each delivery has contained a treat.
This month it was Frederick Knight’s album and last month it was a soundtrack, also recorded for Stax, by the legendary Isaac Hayes, who most of my readers know from either the soundtrack to “Shaft” or as the character Chef on the animated television series “South Park.”
Both recordings are similar in style and substance. The albums feature huge production teams sporting large horn sections, backup singers, and lots of funky percussion. The music makes for excellent dinner preparation soundtracks and most certainly, house dancing.
Coincidentally, I watched a brilliant documentary for the second time last week titled “Muscle Shoals.” This film told the story of Fame Studios and its house band called The Swampers. Aretha, Wilson Pickett, Paul Simon, and even the Rolling Stones encamped to northern Alabama and produced some of their most renowned recordings.
When asked about the “magic” of Muscle Shoals, several musicians pointed out the nearby Tennessee River. The recording studios of Memphis have The Big Muddy less than a few blocks away, and indeed Frederick Knight had the Cahaba River at his doorstep.
Music and space are important. That gumbo of The South and its rhythm and blues music has long been recognized as a real thing.
Sorry, Montana friends, but those long prairie stretches may inspire some great poetry, but no major American musical forms have emerged from those fields of waving grain.
American icon Bo Diddley lived here in Valencia County, New Mexico, for a brief time, but his music is never described as that “New Mexico Beat.”
What made LA’s Laurel Canyon a mecca for music of the early 1960s? Something about those rolling hills, cheap rents, and permissive atmosphere drew Frank Zappa, Joni Mitchell, and even The Monkees to create memorable melodies and rhythm.
The same environment drew young musicians to Athens, Georgia, and that milieu gave birth to REM, The B52s, Pylon, and more, yet both Laurel Canyon and Athens, Georgia are no longer the cradles of music culture that thrived for a time.
I think that when these examples of “lightning in a bottle” occur, the protagonists are generally unaware of an emergence of a “newness.”
Two folks get together and find a mutual affection for music past. Susan writes poetry and Lauren plays the piano. Johnny likes to play his guitar loud. A pizza joint owner sees cheap, but talented young musicians as a way to boost his Friday night deep-dish sales.
It happened in the early ’60s in Austin, Texas. A run down storefront, actually just shell of a space, became a music venue for local Texas musicians and eventually lured blues greats like Muddy Waters and Lightnin’ Hopkins. Seeds for cultural blossomings were planted.
Oh, did I mention? The local folks, as in the grownups, hated it. Somehow the music thrived and inspired.
So where’s it happening today?
Nashville has moved from its country conservative platform to a wide variety of musical forms. Songwriting is still king in Music City, but one doesn’t have to look very far to find musical explorers of a most diverse kind. Brooklyn? New Orleans?
Actually, right now, it’s a bedroom.
Musicians of all stripes have retreated to their bedrooms during this Time of Quarantine. Armed with a laptop, a microphone, some music software, and tons of imagination, folks from Portland to Jacksonville are producing the music of our time.
My studio here at Ranchero Musselwhite would normally be a bedroom, but instead provides a space where I record all sorts of music using real and electronic instruments. The bathroom for this room is a Voice Over recording space rendered acoustically dead by all sorts of sound absorbing materials.
Just as the internet decentralized society, music making has become an intimate act which, in a matter of seconds, can be recorded and shared with the entire world. Now instead of CBGB’s it’s 22 Oak Street, Anywhere, USA.
Here’s to the next generation.