The Stax Museum didn’t open until ten. It was still raining as I drove there, past the Holy Ghost Temple and a sign that said I Love Soulsville. I parked in back and walked past the Satellite Record Shop. As soon as I’d entered and paid, a security guard came in and told them not to let anyone else in. The whole neighborhood was under lockdown orders due to a recent school shooting. Two minutes later and I would’ve been out of luck and desperately unhappy. As, it was, I got to go inside and have the museum all to myself.
Stax Records was created in 1957, by siblings Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton, who put their last names together to come up with the name. Prior to that they’d called it Satellite Records. It wasn’t their intention to invent Southern Soul Music, but that’s what came out of the mix of gospel, country, and blues music that was coming into the studio at the time. This resulted in ethnically diverse musicians working together and a singular sound, based on the fact that they always used the same studio, setup, songwriters, and session players. They went on to partner with Atlantic Records for distribution and make an enormous impact on the world of music, until finally being forced into closure in 1975.
The tour started with a short movie clip about the label. It was just me sitting there, then getting up and walking into the next room myself. There, the front room of a country church had been set up, much of the soul in soul music coming from gospel and spirituals, that surrendering to a higher power, be it God or just love. The Stax groove was explained as the power that the drummers had to make you want to dance and move. There were exhibitions on Booker T and the MGs, the Bar-Kays, the mixing board from Studio A, Isaac Hayes gold-plated Cadillac, and a long hallway lined with all the hit records they’d produced.
Now feeling inspired, I realized I was for sure busting east of the Mississippi River, in fact I knew exactly where to head next, the famous music town of Muscle Shoals, Alabama. I Googled it when I got back to the car and found out it was only two and a half hours aways. Somehow, I noticed that if I veered slightly north, I could also hit up the home of mythical railroad man Casey Jones, so I got on the 40 heading east.
Casey Jones has become a folk hero in story and song, since giving his life in 1900 to slow an out-of-control freight train that was hurtling into a packed station. The legend is that he died with one hand on the whistle cord and one hand on the brake. The Casey Jones Home and Railroad Museum is in Jackson, Tennessee. When I got there, I went and stood outside the small home with the white picket fence where John Luther “Casey” Jones was living at the time of the accident. A sign talks about the folk song that was written about his death behind the throttle of the Old 382. I’d heard a few versions but knew him best from the song by the Grateful Dead.
From Jackson, it was still two hours to Muscle Shoals. I took the 45 south to the 224 to the 69, arriving at Muscle Shoals Sound Studios in Sheffield in the late afternoon. There are two famous studios in Muscle Shoals. Sound Studios is an offshoot of Fame Studios, which was established in the late 50s by Rick Hall. Etta James, Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, and the Rolling Stones all recorded there. In 1969, the famous group of backing musicians at Fame, the Swampers, went out on their own and set up Sound Studios.
The next tour at Sound Studios didn’t begin until 3:30, so I raced over to Fame and found they closed at six and their last tour was at 4. I hurried back to Sound Studios, just in time for the 3:30 tour. It was a tiny building, and the studio was just one room, with an isolation booth for the drums. It was where Lynrd Skynrd had done their first recordings. There was a piano that had been used on Freebird. There were also black and white pictures of Mick Jagger and Duane Allman. They played us recordings by Aretha and Paul Simon. It was incredible to think that all that music had been recorded live in one room with the same group of players.
It was late when I got out, but I still rushed back over to Fame Studios, and was able to sit in on the last tour of the day which was already underway. It was being led by the grandson of Rick Hall, the founder. He took us into the control room and played recent recordings by Steven Tyler and Kid Rock.
What a day of music it had been. I realized I had to break down and get a hotel that night. Although the rain had stopped, my feet were still wet and cold from the morning. On one strip of hotels and fast-food joints I found a Red Roof Inn which was eighty-five a night and worth about half of that. It seemed like people were living at the hotel. My room stunk like cigarette smoke. Once I turned the TV on, I couldn’t turn it off again. I managed to get the volume down, but images kept splashing across the ceiling and through my mind all night long.