Pilgrimage to the Heart of Southern Soul
I’ve spent It hasn’t By now I should The Shoals, The list of Four white Mention Muscle
five days with a dozen friends in a beach house on Dauphin Island, off the coast
of Alabama in the Gulf of Mexico. For nearly a week I have worn a sarong, and
had my toenails painted by beautiful women in coconut-shell bikinis. I have
lounged in a hot tub until I’m shriveled, and danced out the wrinkles until
dawn. I have crawled from the midnight surf and slept on the beach, gently illuminated
by the winking orange lights of the oil rigs far offshore. I have played beer
pong in the morning under an electric blue sky while the fishing boats trawl
and the pelicans dive, and eaten Gulf shrimp so large and tender they could
make a man cry, and did.
be in New Orleans, finishing my vacation wandering the French Quarter with a
hurricane in my hand, flirting with the bartender at Checkpoint Charlie’s
or eating catfish po’ boys at the Pearl. Instead I’m on a hair-raising
seven-hour drive north on I-65, past countless truck stops and fast-food joints,
on a road where if you’re not doing at least 80 then you’re getting
run over by little old ladies in F-150s. It’s crazy, but I can’t help
it. Muscle Shoals is calling.
or Quad Cities, are comprised of Florence, Sheffield, Muscle Shoals and Tuscumbia.
Nestled along the banks of the Tennessee river in the northwestern corner of
Alabama, this sleepy, picturesque region was known as the "hit recording
capital of the world" from the mid-1960s to early 70s. Along with Macon
and Memphis, Muscle Shoals formed the third point in a Golden Triangle of soul
music, and for nearly a decade produced some of the most original and unforgettable
music this country has ever heard.
artists who recorded here is staggering: Aretha, Otis and Percy; the Staple
Singers and the Rolling Stones, Paul Simon, Lynyrd Skynyrd and countless others.
And backing many of these artists, on more hit songs than you probably ever
realized, are the same four musicians: bassist Dave Hood, whose performance
on "I’ll Take You There"–a vocal remake of the Harry J.
Allstars’ reggae classic "The Liquidator"–is perhaps the
Everest of basslines; Jimmy Johnson, whose understated chukka-chuck guitar earned
him the title "king of chink," and not for his love of lo mein; the
technically awesome Roger Hawkins, who is perhaps the Bach of drums; and Barry
Beckett, whose percolating keyboards glued the whole thing together. Together
they formed the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, a group that was so incredibly
inventive and funky that as one story has it Paul Simon, upon hearing one of
their records, asked who "those Jamaican musicians" were.
boys from northern Alabama, that’s who.
Shoals today, and most people simply scratch their heads and look perplexed.
What happened? Why isn’t Muscle Shoals, musically speaking, as well known
as Nashville, Memphis or, hell, Seattle? Why has it been, for all but a small
percentage of music industry types and aficionados, completely forgotten?
By now I should
The list of
It begins with Some addresses I get out of I call George Noel Webster In a flash "People We go upstairs. For audiophiles, Noel tells Noel takes
a wrong turn. Traveling south on Rte. 43 through Muscle Shoals I miss
a left and wind up on a smaller two-lane street. I’m early for my first
appointment, so I decide to see the sights before turning around. I look at
a street sign to get my bearings and the hairs on my arms begin to rise. I go
another block and see a small, hopelessly forlorn flagstone building, alone
in an overgrown lot. I hit the brakes hard, nearly causing a pile-up behind
me, and screech into the gravel driveway.
speak for themselves: 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, say, or 10 Downing Street. For
lovers of Southern soul music that address may very well be 3614 Jackson Highway,
the site of the original Muscle Shoals Sound Studio. The Rolling Stones recorded
"Brown Sugar," "Wild Horses" and "You Gotta Move"
here. This is where Mavis Staples told Barry Beckett to "play, play your
piano now," and implored "little Davey" to play his bass on "I’ll
Take You There." Don Covay recorded his best work here, including his Superdude
and Hot Blood albums. Cher titled an early solo album simply 3614
the car, grab the camera and take a snapshot of the front. There is plywood
inside the windows, weeds and crabgrass everywhere. It looks like the loneliest
building in the world.
Lair, curator at the Alabama Music Hall of Fame, to tell him I’m in town.
He asks where I’m at and when I tell him he perks up. "You’re
at 3614?" he asks. "Have you gone inside and met Noel? He’s the
fellow who’s fixing up the place." George tells me he’ll be going
to lunch soon, so we make a plan for later. I walk around to the back and go
down some steps. The door is open.
is doing dishes. He’s wiry, wearing shorts and a baseball cap, with long
dark hair halfway down his back. I tell him who I am and what I’m doing,
and he shakes my hand. "You came to the right place," he laughs, "come
he’s at the fridge, pulling out burgers, buns and fixings. "We had
a big barbecue here yesterday. You hungry? We got tons of food." Soon I’m
devouring a delicious cheeseburger with potato chips. Noel tells me that 3614
still draws a small but steady stream of fanatics.
who know, know," he says. "During spring break we had something like
150 people come by here. It was insane. Just last week, a group of four girls
from Notre Dame drove all the way down just to see the place. We can’t
go up to work on the roof without someone screeching into the parking lot and
screaming SKYNYRD!" He shakes his head. "This town is like Mayberry
The studio is remarkable, a humble single room with a small vocal booth and
a glassed-in control room. Noel has found the original furniture and wall sconces,
and even tried to match the original color on the walls. "They had everything
in storage," he says. "When they moved out of this building they took
an inventory of every single thing, down to the pens and paper." He points
to the ugly orange vinyl furniture in the corner. "The Rolling Stones sat
on those couches."
3614 isn’t just a recording studio, it’s The Room. Noel stomps on
the floor, and there is a solid thrum that vibrates through me. "Hear that?
This whole floor is like the top of an acoustic guitar. You play a note on the
bass and the drummer can feel it over there. That’s how those guys were
able to lock in so tight, so rock solid. Of course, they weren’t bad players,
either," he adds with a wink. "Hell, Ted Turner could come down here
and build a ten-billion-dollar megaplex, state-of-the-art recording studio,
and know what? Nobody’d give a shit. It’s all about the feeling, man–you
just can’t buy what this room’s got."
me that he is originally from Chicago, but that his family moved to nearby Huntsville
when he was 15. Now 35, he says he decided to move to Muscle Shoals a couple
of years ago, in order to set up a rehearsal and recording studio for his band.
He says that when he bought 3614, he had no idea of its significance. "I
just needed a place to keep my equipment and make music. The building had actually
been condemned by the city. Most recently it had been a washer-dryer sales and
repair place. "When I got in here I found out the building’s history
and whoa, my whole life just changed."
me into the control room and reaches behind one of the monitors. He pulls out
some pieces of paper and hands them to me. They’re track sheets, which
studio engineers use to write down what’s on each track of the master tapes.
"They’re original," he says. "They were in storage, with
the other stuff." As a former engineer it’s like being handed one
of Shakespeare’s quills. I put them carefully into my valise.
It begins with
I get out of
I call George
In a flash
We go upstairs.
Music Hall of Fame
Noel hops in Opened in 1990, George walks George takes When my tour "How’d "Man,
the rental car and guides me to the Hall of Fame. George Lair isn’t back
from lunch yet, so we sit outside and have a cigarette, and a minute later George
pulls up. He invites me into his office and Noel takes off to explore the museum.
the Hall of Fame is an important first step in bringing people to the area,
but by itself it’s not enough to correct the lack of understanding about
Muscle Shoals’ greater significance. George says that the problem is primarily
one of promotion. "When people hear ‘Nashville’ they think country
music," he says. "Nashville made itself successful through a partnership
between the music industry and the local community. That’s what we’ve
got to do here, if people are ever going to understand." I ask him what
he would like people to think of when they hear the name Muscle Shoals, and
after some thought he answers, "the Muscle Shoals sound. It’s not
pop. It’s not country, like Nashville, or rhythm & blues, like Memphis,
but a blend of the three. Songwriters love saying they’re from Muscle Shoals
for that reason, because then they’re not going to get locked into one
me through the exhibits. The number of artists who were either born in Alabama
or made their mark there would be impressive for an entire country, let alone
for a single state: Hank Williams and Tammy Wynette; Nat King Cole, Lionel Richie
and Sun Ra; Alabama and Wet Willie. The thick, stapled list George gives me,
titled "Facts about a few of Alabama’s Music Achievers," reads
like a who’s who of American music.
me into a workroom, where there’s a giant tarp covering something. We each
take a corner and peel it back. It’s a huge Bonneville convertible that
used to belong to Nudie, the clothing designer. The car is a wonder, every bit
as flamboyant as the suits Nudie designed for country music stars over the years,
like the memorable marijuana, poppy and dinosaur suits he created for Gram Parsons
and the Flying Burrito Brothers. The interior of the car is upholstered completely
with tooled leather, there are pearl-handled revolvers for door handles and
a rifle mounted to the rear hood. Each seat has its own holster with a real,
functional pistol; even the steering column shifter is a long-barreled six-shooter.
George explains that they are still restoring the car, and when it’s finished
it will be put on display.
is finished I go to the gift shop, where I pick up a shot glass, bumper sticker
and refrigerator magnet–the holy trinity of cheesy tourist stuff. There
are dozens of great CDs for sale, but my budget will only allow one, so I decide
on a recent release from Travis Wammack, an obscure session guitarist who is
generally credited with inventing the fuzz guitar sound that came to dominate
rock music in the 1960s. The seminal reissue of Wammack’s early work, That
Scratchy Guitar from Memphis, features the 16-year-old wunderkind’s
paint-peeling solos and frenetic picking work. Remembering the fuzzed-out frenzy
of tracks like "Scratchy" and "Night Train" makes me smile,
so I pick up Wammack’s new disc, Snake, Rattle and Roll in Muscle Shoals.
I pay for the stuff and go out to the lobby. Noel is regaling George with his
idea for a Hard Rock Cafe-style restaurant in Muscle Shoals. Noel is animated,
talking fast. When he’s done I thank George, then Noel and I head out to
your talk with George go?" I ask. Noel pulls down his cap and snorts.
I think I talk way too fast for these folks. I don’t think he understood
a word I was saying."
Noel hops in
Opened in 1990,
When my tour
My next appointment "Black "What’s "Vanilla She crinkles "Syrup. "Did you "Yeah, Noel is shaking "Vanilla The girl runs "You’ve A gentleman "You know Noel tells We get our "What "I want "Oh hell, I do, and Roger "What "I told
isn’t for another hour, so Noel suggests a stop at the Palace, a renovated
drug store and soda fountain that had its grand opening a week earlier. It’s
a big deal in sleepy downtown Tuscumbia, the beginning of what Noel hopes will
be a sustained revitalization. We sit at the counter and Noel orders a chocolate
shake. I order the same, then change my mind. I tell the waitress what I want.
She asks me to repeat myself.
and white shake," I say.
ice cream and chocolate syrup."
her brow. "Chocolate what?"
Sirr-up," I trill. I make a motion like I’m squeezing an upside-down
say chocolate surp?"
chocolate surp," I say. She carefully writes it down and walks away, still
looking completely perplexed. I’m glad I didn’t ask for an egg cream.
with laughter. "Shit, man, you nearly blew her mind. Look over there, they’re
having a conference about it." I look. Indeed, four waitresses are huddled
around, staring at the order ticket like it’s a dead snake in the road.
Noel nearly falls off his stool. Another waitress, a fine young thing, comes
over and asks in a hard voice to explain what strange and exotic creation I
ice cream," I say, "with chocolate syrup. Or surp. Either is fine."
back, another huddle. One of the waitresses looks over her shoulder and gives
me a dirty look. They’re all wearing Palace t-shirts. On the back it says
"We treat folks the way they used to be treated." Hmmm.
done it now," Noel chuckles, "you’ve gone and created a major
incident in downtown Tuscumbia. They’ll be talking about it for weeks."
I’m feeling suddenly very hot.
and lady walk up. The man and Noel shake hands and Noel introduces us. We exchange
pleasantries, then the man and the lady go over to a table and sit down.
who that was, don’t you?" Noel asks. I shake my head. "That was
me that Roger isn’t playing drums anymore, because of some health problems.
"He’s got a ringing in his ears, real bad, and I think a problem with
his back. It’s really a shame."
order and enjoy the milkshakes, which are delicious, without further incident.
When we’re done Noel snatches the check and pays. Back at the car, I get
my valise and pull out one of the original Muscle Shoals track sheets.
are you doing?" Noel asks.
Roger to sign it," I say. Then I pause. The man’s having lunch, and
if I’ve already caused so much trouble just by ordering a milkshake, then
Disturbing A Legend During Lunch might get me six months on a chain gang.
just go in," Noel prods.
listens patiently while I tell him who I am and what I’m doing here. He
smiles slightly and takes the pen. He signs the track sheet, hands it back,
and I thank him profusely and duck out.
did you say?" Noel asks when I get back to the car.
him it was for you," I say.
My next appointment
Noel is shaking
The girl runs
We get our
I do, and Roger
As we drive Noel interrupts "His studio?" "Not exactly," We pull into Travis is leaning "I feel We pull back A day ago I "Come
through town, Noel continues his improvised, unofficial history of the area.
"In the 30s and 40s there used to be a bully in town," he tells me,
"and this guy was really, really mean. He had a saying, ‘Nobody will
ever run over me.’ Well, when he died, know what they did? They buried
him in an intersection, right in the middle of the road, so every day people
drive right over him."
his soliloquy. "Travis Wammack’s over there." He points to a
small brick building.
he explains. "I mean that’s his blue van. He’s probably in there
recording. Want to go in and say hi?"
the parking lot and I get my bag from the Hall of Fame gift shop. I pull out
the Travis Wammack CD I’ve just bought. Noel smiles when he sees it. "Shit,
man, did you just buy that? Hell, bring it in and have him sign it."
back in a swivel chair with two men. He looks good, youthful despite the graying
beard, still trim and with a wicked look in his eyes. It’s the look of
an unrepentant hellraiser and prodigious guitarist. Travis and his two companions,
both named Donnie, look amused as I shake their hands and unwrap the CD. There
is some argument over what’s the best pen to use, but it gets done. We
sit and make small talk for a few minutes, then take off.
like a boob," I say in the parking lot, looking at the CD. Noel laughs.
"Are you kidding? They love that shit. Absolutely eat it up. I bet it blows
their minds, this New York guy coming in and knowing who they are. Travis could
walk into the Family Dollar across the street and nobody would look twice. Here
you come all this way and act like he’s a rock star."
into the road. Noel is still laughing, something he does wonderfully often.
"Did you think in a million years when you came down here that you’d
be meeting Roger Hawkins in an ice cream shop, or get Travis Wammack to sign
your new CD? The Good Lord will provide," he says.
might have laughed at such a statement. But now I just nod.
on, let’s go see what’s happening at FAME," he says.
As we drive
We pull into
Travis is leaning
We pull back
A day ago I
FAME, which In the Muscle Daniel Beard, Walking into When we get
is an acronym for Florence, Alabama Music Enterprises, is the 800-pound gorilla
of Muscle Shoals. Although the region had long had a fertile music scene, it
wasn’t until a Sheffield bellhop named Arthur Alexander came to a young
producer named Rick Hall with a song called "You Better Move On" that
the true golden age of Muscle Shoals began. The song did well, and the next
single Hall produced, on his newly formed Fame Records label, was Jimmy Hughes’
"Steal Away," which broke into the Top 20. As Hall has said in an
earlier interview, "I was batting a thousand, and nobody could tell me
Shoals musical mafia, Hall is probably the capo di tutti capi. He has a reputation
for being reclusive and unapproachable, at least to strangers, and handles all
interview requests through his son, Rodney. In photographs, Hall frequently
wears his mustache waxed and twirled up at the edges, like his other gig is
tying virtuous women to railroad tracks. I’ve been told he rarely grants
interviews. I decide not to push it.
the studio manager, shows me around. He says that the entire recording industry
is in a slump, and that Nashville is hurting, which only hurts Muscle Shoals
more. Much of FAME’s continuing success, he says, is centered around the
publishing arm of the business, trying to place songs with new and established
artists. One of FAME’s writers recently hit paydirt with the mega-smash
Studio A is like walking into any number of old photographs I’ve admired
over the years: here’s Jerry Wexler standing next to a young Aretha Franklin;
here is Spooner Oldham working with Dan Penn and Chips Moman on their latest
song. In the control room we talk about mixing consoles, outboard equipment
and echo chambers, then I buy a t-shirt and move on.
back to 3614 I’m exhausted. The sun, the heat and the driving have all
taken their toll, and I’m nodding off–on the same couch Keith Richards
probably once nodded off on, in fact. Noel offers me a place to crash, but I’ve
spent the past week sleeping on beaches, hammocks and roof decks. I sorely need
a proper bed. I find a cheap, clean room at the Holiday Inn in Florence, and
halfway through a can of Coors Light my eyes begin to close. It’s not even
7:30. It’s all I can do to get over to the bed before I fall straight across
the covers, fully clothed. For the next 12 hours I dream of Travis Wammack playing
guitar in a sarong and Mavis Staples singing in a coconut-shell bikini.
In the Muscle
When we get
Shoals Sound Studio
Dave Hood is I’d never "I just Dave explains
pressed for time. He’s got to drive to Nashville for a photo session that
Fender guitars has organized. "It’s for some kind of publication,"
he explains, "and they want to get pictures of all these bass players.
We’ve been trying to set it up for a couple of weeks, and today is the
only day it worked out for all of us." Dave says that he’s picked
a favorite bass, a 1956 Fender Precision, but doesn’t know what they expect
him to wear. "From April to October, I’m in shorts." He pauses
thoughtfully. "I hope they like my legs."
know he was in a rush if he didn’t tell me; Dave takes me on a leisurely
tour of the new Muscle Shoals Sound. Gold and platinum records line the walls:
"Chain of Fools," "Respect," "There Goes Rhymin’
Simon" and many more, stretching up to the ceiling. Does he have a particular
session, or record, that stands out to him as definitive?
recently listened to the Staple Singers’ Beatitude: Respect Yourself,
maybe for the first time since we did those sessions. I have to say, listening
to that record again, all the way through, I think we were doing some pretty
advanced stuff, stuff that hadn’t ever been done before, how it blends
gospel, pop and soul."
that the studio was sold to Malaco Records in 1985, and that eventually the
four Rhythm Section members went their separate ways. Three are still in the
area, but keyboardist Barry Beckett has gone on to a successful career in Nashville.
Dave is clearly eager to keep playing, but admits that there aren’t as
many gigs as before, and that most of his work is for blues records, a style
he admits to never being particularly crazy about. "But hey, it’s
work," he shrugs. He notes the time and says he has to get on the road
if he’s going to make his photo session. I tell him there’s just one
more thing, and hand him the track sheet to sign.
Dave Hood is
After leaving "I’ve Bobby Whitlock Noel has sung On the way We leave the If Muscle Shoals "None
Muscle Shoals Sound I swing by 3614. Noel is already in overdrive, getting the
studio ready for a session.
got some of the original guys from the band Cowboy coming in this afternoon,"
he says. "They’re cutting some new tracks, and I’m worried we’re
going to get rained on big time in the studio." He’s looking through
the yellow pages, trying to find a roofer who will spray an extra layer of tar
where the roof joins the outside walls. He’s not having much luck. "Well,
I guess it’s back to using the big cans to catch the leaks," he chuckles.
emerges from the front offices. Whitlock is one of the members of Derek and
the Dominos, and is the first bona-fide Rock Star I’ve met since arriving.
I learn that he’s sleeping in the front offices while his new house is
being renovated. He had been staying at a hotel, but at Noel’s urging has
decided he’d rather be here. I soon understand why. Whitlock picks up one
of the vintage Stratocasters from a rack and plugs it into a classic Marshall
stack. He begins wailing out a series of blues-rock riffs and progressions at
an ear-splitting volume. When he’s done he puts down the guitar and pumps
his fists in the air. "GodDAMN, that feels GOOD!" he screams. We all
grin at each other and nod.
the praises of the Hollywood Inn, a nearby soul food restaurant, so we break
for lunch. At the Hollywood we are greeted by Feedie, a tall, immaculately dressed
black man. We go into the back room, a former bar, which Noel calls "the
smokin’, spittin’ and cussin’ room." Two beauties in hospital
scrubs are enjoying fried chicken, mashed potatoes and cigarettes. We pull out
our Marlboro Lights. Feedie is playing a kind of down-home dozens with one of
the waitresses. They’re the floor show, snapping on each other in an hilarious,
rapid-fire exchange, accusing each other of trying to reserve the best tables
for their friends, tearing up one another’s tickets, stealing tips. Noel
points to the cashier, an ancient black man hunched over the register. "Every
once in a while the old man gets ticked off," he whispers, "and will
yell at those two, ‘Cut that silly shit out now!’"
back we stop to see the gravestone of Arthur Alexander, one of the early soul
giants from the area. We pull into a hilltop graveyard and Noel points out a
large black stone with musical notes inscribed on it. "Arthur died several
years back, and there was no money for a headstone. It was such a shame. About
six months ago there was a big benefit, and everybody, I mean everybody, came
out and played. It was pretty amazing. We gave all the money to the family."
cemetery and a stunning blonde in a convertible pulls alongside us at a stop
light, teasing her honey hair and singing along to Rick James’ "Super
Freak." Noel snorts and slaps his knee. "How perfect is that? It’s
like a babe bomb went off down here. You can’t believe how many beautiful
women there are. Trouble is, most of them wind up with illiterate redneck assholes."
is ever to revive itself and reclaim its rightful place in pop music history,
then Noel Webster might well play a vital role in that renaissance. Although
he has his reservations–a full day later, for instance, he’s still
worried that George Lair didn’t understand a thing he was saying, and he
frequently mutters things like, "They’re probably going to run me
out of town"–Noel takes some obvious pleasure in his outsider status.
"It’s actually helpful that I’m not from here. These other guys
have so much history between them. I don’t know what went down or who did
what to whom, or what bad blood there might be, but none of that matters to
me. My job, as I see it, is to bring people together.
of us can make it if we don’t all work together," he adds, as we pull
into 3614 for the last time. "There’s plenty of work out there for
all of us. We just have to get it here." We shake hands, he runs off to
make his session and I give the building one last look before pulling out onto
Noel has sung
On the way
We leave the
If Muscle Shoals
I’m not Jimmy’s "What I tell him, "Nashville’s Jimmy, who The phone rings I ask Jimmy We go into Before leaving,
looking forward to meeting Jimmy Johnson. The legendary guitarist and producer
has sounded gruff and intimidating on the phone, and has given me the distinct
impression he’d rather have minor dental surgery than entertain some pushy
stranger from New York. He has explained that he is flying out of town in a
day or so and has a lot to take care of, but I persist, and when I tell him
I’m leaving town in a few hours he finally relents.
office, in a building adjacent to his father’s house, is a riot of equipment,
CDs and papers. He appears to be overwhelmed with work before his upcoming trip.
On top of it, he’s having printing problems. A file that looked fine before
is now all wrong. Luckily I’m able to help, and the problem is soon fixed.
The new pages are printing fine, and Jimmy is pleased. The tension I felt in
the air is dispelled. Just when I think my technical prowess has won him over,
Jimmy focuses a hard gaze on me.
kind of article are you going to write?" he asks. When I start to give
him my standard line he waves me off. "I mean, is it going to be positive
or negative? Because a lot of writers, you know, have an agenda. I just want
to ask you up front, so I know where you’re coming from."
as honestly as I can, that although I have come as a fan of the music, I also
want to know why the region is languishing in obscurity while Nashville has
flourished. He nods slowly.
done it right," he agrees. Like George Lair, he believes the problem can
only be cured by promotion, promotion, promotion.
is still very much in demand as a producer, is passionate about another area:
artists’ rights. He says that the modern recording contract treats artists
"basically as slaves," and says that he is working to correct that
through his own company. "A lot of big artists have recently spoken out
about the abuses," he says. I mention Prince and Courtney Love. At the
mention of Love’s name, Jimmy leans over the desk. "You want to know
something about Courtney Love?" His voice drops to a growl, and his finger
punches every word into the desktop: "Courtney…Love…is… fucking…right."
constantly. I hear him explaining to one caller that "you can’t make
it unless you get a band together and write your own material. There’s
no Colonel Parker with a cigar who’s going to come up and make you a star.
I’d help you if I can, but I can’t offer what I can’t give. You
have to do it on your own." When he hangs up he looks at me. "I have
to tell it to them like it is," he says.
who his biggest musical influences were. "Basically, all the black guys,"
he says. "Jimmy Reed, Robert Johnson, Chuck Berry." He says that the
key to his distinctive style was, ironically, not to stand out but to blend
in, to become a part of the drums and bass. "Nothing I do on its own would
really stand out," he says, "but if you took it away, you would notice
a lack." Just like his playing, it’s an amazing understatement.
the studio next door for some pictures. In the room with me are Jimmy, his father
Ray, son Jay and grandson JJ. Jay is the leader of the Southern Rock Allstars,
and Ray was a local celebrity in his own right in the 1930s and 40s, as Country
Ray. Jimmy and Jay have recently produced an album of Ray’s favorite songs,
with Ray singing. Ray gives me a copy, and I ask him to sign it. As the elderly
Johnson leans over the mixing console and signs his name in a shaky hand he
whispers to me conspiratorially: "I signed one of these for Sam Phillips."
I pull out the track sheet. Jimmy takes a big Sharpie and signs boldly across
I tell him,
The phone rings
I ask Jimmy
We go into
Better Move On
The weather I stop into Properly fueled,
news is not good. Major thunderstorms are expected over most of the state for
the next two days. In fact, the only part of the state that is not going to
be affected is the southernmost strip, including Dauphin Island. I have two
choices: I can stay another day and possibly be caught in vicious thunderstorms,
turning my seven-hour drive into a 12-hour nightmare, or race the storm and
spend a few more days on the beach.
what appears to be the lone bohemian enclave of Florence, a coffee shop with
the word "espresso" spelled correctly in the window and a chap with
a goatee and beret sitting at an outdoor table. I go in and ask for an iced
cappuccino. "Sorry, don’t have that," the barista drawls. Iced
coffee? "Naw, didn’t make none today." Iced anything? "I
kin put some coffee in a cup with ice if that’s what you want." Well,
fuck me in the mouth, it’ll have to do.
I begin the long trip back to Dauphin Island, where I’ll stay for a night
or two, alone, before flying out of New Orleans. Tonight I will sleep in the
hammock on the roof deck, under a blanket of stars, lulled to sleep by the sound
of the waves and the gentle Gulf breeze. With any luck I’ll be there by
midnight, a 12-pack of Coors Light and some frozen pizzas under my arm. Sarong
optional. I hit the Interstate, get the Dodge up to 85 and look for something
good on the radio.
I stop into