Now Muscle Shoals has got the Swampers
And they’ve been known to pick a song or two (yes they do)
Lord they get me off so much
They pick me up when I’m feeling blue, now how bout you?
If you were to cut out the opportunism of picking a fight with Neil Young, and basking ambiguously in the glow of Wallace, what remains seems like pure gold. The song’s final verse gives you an earthy, soulful tribute to the Rick Hall’s legendary Muscle Shoals backing band, the swampers.
Skynyrd at the start of their career, in 1970, had gone to Muscle Shoals to record an album with Jimmy Johnson of the Swampers producing. Muscle Shoals in the ’60s became famous as a rare place in the segregationist south where, in the privacy of the studio racial divisions became invisible. The unique atmosphere of the studio, and the talent of the (all-white) swampers attracted names like Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, and Etta James to record there. Van Zant was certainly caught up in the romance of the place, ambitiuosly studying everything that Johnson and the swampers did in the studio. Skynyrd’s then manager Alan Walden claimed later that it was in Muscle Shoals that the band learned how to record. Their recordings in Muscle Shoals though were anything but succesful, with at least nine record labels turning them down. Walden recalls in Mark Kemp’s Dixie Lullaby: “we got turned down by nine different companies, and this was after they heard ‘Free Bird’, ‘Simple Man’ and ‘Gimme Three Steps'”.
The Muscle Shoals tapes would later be posthumously published as Lynyrd Skynyrd’s First and … Last. Reviewing the album in Rolling Stone, Dave Marsh wrote:
“Historically speaking, the LP is hardly revelatory. If the band’s English roots are showing–”Wino” is a cop from Jack Bruce’s studio songs for Cream–it’s mostly because Ronnie Van Zant hadn’t yet mastered the Southern idiom that was to become the focus of many of the group’s most familiar songs.”
Ironic then that, in creating the Southern Idiom that would define Skynyrd, Van Zant and the band had to move away from the Muscle Shoals environment that they laud in the song.
There is though an interesting Muscle Shoals contribution to the song, and it is, perhaps, the point that saves the song both musically and politically. It’s a voice, and a voice that is rarely mentioned in the same breath as the song. It’s the voice of Merry Clayton.
In 1970 Clayton had already established herself as one of the finest backing vocalists in the business, to the point where she came centre stage with the Rolling Stones when they recorded the song Gimme Shelter in Muscle Shoals. That song with all its danger and menace would have sounded like a nursery ryhme were it not for Clayton’s huge soulful vocals. She appeared on records by Neil Young, The Beach Boys, Barbara Streisand, BB King, the Stones, and Neil Diamond. She had also released her own album of cover versions, including a superb version of Neil Young’s Southern Man.
In 1973, in a twist of fate, Clayton got a call to do a session for some guy called Leonard Skynyrd(sic). She retells the episode in the superb documentary 20 Feet From Stardom: “[they told me] he wants to do a song called Sweet Home Alabama, and I said ‘Alabama? Honey, nobody wants to sing anything about Alabama,’ I certainly didn’t want to sing anything about Alabama.” There’s no mistake in her tone of voice. “It was basically like a slap in the face.”
Clayton, though, ignored here initial gut instinct to pass up on the session, and instead took to the session with gusto, using that brief space in the background to make her voice heard as a protest: “A-ha, sweet home alabama – we got your sweet home alabama, but we’re goin to sing you anyway, and we’re going to sing the crap out of you”, and that’s exactly what she did. Once you’ve picked Clayton’s voice out in the background it’s impossible to hear the song in the same way ever again.
Mark Kemp summed things up well in his book Dixie Lullaby when he wrote: “Those of us who have characterized [Van Zant] as a misunderstood liberal,have done so only to placate our own irrational feelings of shame for responding to the passion in his music.” In the end Skynyrd’s indifference and opportunism alone dismiss any defence of their good intentions with the song – but great songs rise above ugly intentions, and Sweet Home Alabama deserves to be listened to with a critical and attentive ear. Beneath the redneck rumble and tumbling there’s a slice of American History to be discovered.
1. Pg 134 Whiskey Bottles and Brand New Cars. The Fast life and sudden death of Lynyrd Skynyrd by Mark Ribowsky
2. Pg 308 Waging Heavy Peace by Neil Young
3. Pg 121 Whiskey Bottles and Brand-New Cars: The Fast Life and Sudden Death of Lynyrd Skynyrd by Mark Ribowsky
4. Lee Atwater’s Infamous 1981 Interview on the Southern Strategy
5. Interview with Susan Cross
6. George Wallace: Conservative Populist (2004) by Lloyd Earl Rohler
7. Quoted in George Wallace: Settin’ the Woods on Fire