(Copyright © 2002 The Blacklisted Journalist)


Huntsville, AL 02/22/02 - - After the Kaffeeklatsch (the hippest joint in Huntsville) I get to sit down with my notebook.

Soulful trip, the flat red dirt cotton bottoms flashing by so frequently under an immense Confederate gray steel bowl of a sky that I still see them when I close my eyes, still seeing winter in Northern Alabama.

I get into Huntsville on the dogbus, after listening to some dude muttering rap lyrics for two hours, Ronnie Baker meets me.  We go looking for Lew. Don't find him and head out to Ronnie’s place on Cherokee Ridge.  Ronnie has a studio, and he and his friend Mike Ford on bass help me begin to get my shit together.

Ronnie's got a great wife in Marilyn, some kids mostly nearly grown, and an absolutely shameless little licky-licky lapdog named Buckwheat...a complete baby of a spoiled dog.  My favorite kind.  Buck and I bond immediately. Two great wussies meet.

After my fingers begin to say duh, oh yeah, guitar, Ronnie and I set out for Muscle Shoals so I can sing at the songwriters showcase hosted by Jerry McGee and Mickey Buckins.  Muscle Shoals is of course, THE Muscle Shoals, long central to rocknroll music, and I get to play with some famous guys I know of, like Pete and Spooner, and probably also some that I don't know, my lame card being punched in the process because I don't recognize them I'm sure. It is a good set.  I do my songs solo and at the end of the night there is a finale with Pete Carr, Spooner Oldham, Jerry and Mickey and their band and me.  Pete Carr has said he's feeling a little nonaggressive, perhaps, and then he gets up and rips the shit out of it.

After the gig, hospitality suite coming with the invitation to pick and thereby being assured of a place to fall over, I set out to drink Muscle Shoals, Sheffield and Florence dry, or die trying, which damn near turns out to be the case as far as the next day goes.

Short story:  Years ago our band Bethlehem Asylum made two records for Ampex via Capricorn...on the same deal was Sundown, Cowboy, Wet Willie, I think, and a coupla other bands.  We each made two albums for Ampex.  In Sundown was Chuck Leavell and in Cowboy was Scott Boyer, whom Lew takes me to say hello to at Somethin's Fishy after the songwriters thing.  Great to be among these other young faces grown older, and to be among these other green players now seasoned (but still whiplike quick, if I do say so myself).  This has been my first ever foray into Muscle Shoals as a player, though I know some of these guys from Nashville, two hours away by geography.

I manage to score a pint and Ronnie and I go back to the Holiday Inn, and drink moderately until we pass out. Daniel Pearl is dead says CNN; another journalist paying the supreme price.  Consumed with this thought I fall over into a strange sleep, lonely  without Patty...I wake up prematurely at 7:30 am, Ronnie is dressed watching TV, ready to head out because he has a day ahead of him.

"How you doing?" he asks.

"Wow, man I had this weird dream.  Wyker was supposed to be in it but he didn't show up."

After we fall out over that Ronnie takes off and Lew Wear shows up.  Lewie

Helen Keller
came from

takes me on a whirlwind tour of Muscle Shoals, which in my weakened, unfed, poorly slept state soon takes on the character of a goddamned Fellini movie.

First Lew took me to the Alabama Music Hall of Fame. Here's a partial list of people I didn't know were from Alabama: Nat "King" Cole, Candi Staton, The Delmore Brothers, Sam Phillips, Country Boy Eddie, W.C. Handy. Lewie introduces me to David Johnson, old-time record producer and current director of the Hall of Fame.  They talk about Sun Records.  I stare at death's face, feeling very nutrition-deprived.  The Inuits have a saying: "Food is sleep."  By now my metabolic processes are so slowed that I'm starting to run on ADP.  I can feel my muscles and bones giving up calcium and phosphorous, not to mention is a very strange deal.  I've progressed from Fellini to William Burroughs.

The Hall of Fame is an outward and visible sign of an inward and soulful cultural presence.  Whether you know it or not, a great deal of RocknRoll consciousness has been shaped in this mecca which seems to my slightly queasy reality to be now a cultural ghost town, the soul music business now having been co-opted by New York and L.A., even the locals who still produce go to other places to work.

Yesterday a little chick at Ronnie's had said, "Where's Muscle Shoals?"  We had cracked up, she meaning geographically, we thinking in a cultural sense, as if she'd said "Who's Elvis?"

There is a street here where in a few blocks one encounters half a dozen little dumpy joints where so much rocknroll was made, but most of the locals seem oblivious to it.

Lewie points out, this is where Cher recorded, the Stones cut here, George Harrison there.

Lewie finally drags me to the Smokehouse Pool Hall, as I am now beginning to hallucinate.  On the way we drive past Helen Keller's house, actually there are two houses here: one that the family lived in and a smaller house off to the side where Helen lived, back in the days when the shame of an infirm family member was kept hidden.  At the pool hall I finally eat beef stew and, though I'm still half-dead from sleeping drunk, I begin to think my body may stop consuming itself.  The prices here are right out of l970. Across the street is a parking lot where used to stand Spar Studios, Spooner Oldham's place.

I had scheduled a rehearsal with Ronnie and Owen Brown, but I now begin to think of the old Inuit saying "Sleep is rehearsal".  Lew takes me out to his place, which looks like Frank Lloyd Wright Discovers Barnwood.  Inside is a staggering collection of recordings, all destined for the Hall of Fame when the day comes that Lew stops walking around.

A long time ago I had a band, a bunch of cool guys, Owen Brown, David Pace, Ladd Henderson and Lee Roy Parnell. Owen now has a studio in Town Creek, halfway between the Shoals and Decatur.  The sweetest setup you could want, poplar trees falling away to live oaks and a golf course, the studio building being built in 1824.  Owen is a solid bass player, brings that tonic down on the one, slim, and tonight we're going to get to play together again after twenty years, at the Kaffeeklatsch in Huntsville.

Owen lets me crash on the studio couch.  I wake up ravenous, eat a can of salmon left over from Will Thomas's sessions.  My body has decided to come home. Owen and I set out for the 'Klatsch.

Whenever Owen and I get together we get giddy with player humor and tonight many of the old Panama Red routines surface, Owen feeding me lines to say to the audience, which tonight, as always in Huntsville, consists of my friends from Mighty Field of Vision.  I say, "damn.  it's amazing how many people came from Alabama:  Nat "King" Cole, W.C. Handy..."  "Helen Keller," Owen feeds.  "Yeah.  Helen Keller came from Alabama.  Only she didn't know it." And so we get through the night with this brand of insensitive, dark, gentle humor.

I've noticed for the first time this trip how close to the surface is the water table.  This area around Muscle Shoals and Huntsville and Decatur is of course delta:  cotton growing country.  People who know about such things have told me that they can go into a warehouse with thousands of 800-pound bales of cotton from all over the world and easily pick out the local variety, known as Belle Mina, by its light and fluffy color and texture.

There are numerous confluences of the Tennessee River where alluvial deposits result in superb cotton-growing country. Did the preponderance of

Whites found expression
in musical forms
of those they had oppressed

labor-intensive cotton farming and the slaves so necessarily densely compacted result in a cultural undercurrent that would a hundred years later produce Donnie Fritts, Felton Jarvis, Eddie Hinton? Obviously yes.

Placing Muscle Shoals at the epicenter of some hypothetical construct, at a hundred miles east an echo of Piedmont blues begins to overlap and thirty miles to the west the Mississippi River steamboat and cotton culture begins. Look at a map: from the western slopes in Georgia and Carolina the country falls in gentle plateaus of riparian flatlands to the Mississippi a third of the way across the continent.  And cotton is still king.

The Civil War brought a sense of defeat and resignation, the essence of the blues, to a population of whites who found expression in the musical forms of those they had oppressed, the is a strange observation but a true one that The Alabama Leaning Man, as Donnie Fritts was known in Nashville, is a cultural descendent of australopithecus. The black slaves have been replaced by John Deere tractors, cotton gins on wheels, but the blood in the red dirt remains.  No wonder, then, that these small studios which spawned The Letter, Breakfast in Bed, and a thousand others, sprang up like cotton.  There is a faded glory of thirty years before.  No R&B hits are happening here, currently at least, and the protagonists have come home to settle into a more or less comfortable retirement.

But the real shit is still played here in Muscle Shoals at the Holiday Inn. ##



The Blacklisted Journalist can be contacted at P.O.Box 964, Elizabeth, NJ 07208-0964
The Blacklisted Journalist's E-Mail Address: