Caught by the River

Delta Swamp Rock

3rd June 2011

Sounds From The South: At The Crossroads Of Rock, Country And Soul (Soul Jazz)
Review by Nathaniel Cramp

This new double-CD from Soul Jazz could be seen as more of a lesson in cultural and political history rather than a mere compilation.

At its heart lies the small town of Muscle Shoals, Alabama. It was there that Rick Hall opened FAME Studio in the late 1950s and recorded some of the most gloriously heartbreaking music you’ll ever hear; music that took in the soul sounds from Memphis, 150 miles to the west, and the country sounds of Nashville, 130 miles to the northeast, and stirred them up in a – yes – melting pot of black and white musicians. All right under the nose of Governor George Wallace who made his infamous “segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” speech upon being elected in 1962.

Muscle Shoals was where Dan Penn (whose ridiculously funky ‘If Love Was Money’ is included here) learned his trade, effortlessly churning out soul hit after soul hit. And it was where established stars such as Cher travelled to in 1968 in the hope that some of the grits and grease of the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section – who by then had left FAME to open their own Muscle Shoals Sound Studio – would rub off on them. Her version of ‘I Walk On Gilded Splinters’ is proof enough that it did, as is Leon Russell’s ‘Out In The Woods’. It was Russell who christened the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section ‘The Swampers’, the same ones who were “known to pick a song or two” in Lynyrd Skynyrd’s ‘Sweet Home Alabama’. That track isn’t included here, thankfully, and neither is the similarly over-exposed ‘Freebird’, but two lesser-known tracks taken from Skynyrd’s early recordings in Muscle Shoals are.

But this album is not just about Muscle Shoals. This new, soul-infused Southern rock spread to Macon, Georgia from where The Allman Brothers are also represented by some obscure selections, with two early Duane and Gregg cuts featuring alongside ‘Ain’t Wastin’ Time No More’ from Duane’s swansong, ‘Eat A Peach’. The sound also traveled back upstream to Nashville and informed the music of good ole country boys like Waylon Jennings and Music City’s very own Swampers, Area Code 615, whose ‘Stone Fox Chase’ somehow ended up as the theme tune to ‘The Old Grey Whistle Test’.

However, as is always the case with compilations such as this, you can’t help but think of the songs that aren’t there, especially when there’s a good half-hour of free space on each of the two CDs. You start wondering why the compilers didn’t follow Bobbie Gentry’s ‘Mississippi Delta’ all the way down to New Orleans, although Soul Jazz’s ‘Saturday Night Fish Fry’ already drew a pretty decent musical map of The Big Easy. But there are anomalies too; Big Star’s ‘Thirteen’, unimpeachable pop classic that it is, is the work of a bunch of anglophiles who just happened to live in Memphis (and be distributed by Stax), whereas a track from Alex Chilton’s previous band The Box Tops would’ve worked much better here among the blue-eyed soul of Billy Vera and Joe South. There’s also the slightly baffling inclusion of Johnny Cash singing Tim Hardin’s ‘If I Were A Carpenter’ and a late-period Link Wray track recorded in San Francisco.

But these problems are mainly geographical rather than musical, and any compilation featuring Tony Joe White’s ‘Polk Salad Annie’ and Boz Scaggs’ ‘I’ll Be Long Gone’, along with a lovely, informative booklet explaining how the real revolution of the ’60s and ’70s happened in the Southern states, rather than New York, Los Angeles or even Detroit, is surely worth having.

Copies of Delta Swamp Rock are now on sale in the Caught by the River shop, priced £10.00

Dan Penn: If Love Was Money
[audio:|titles=09 If Love Was Money]