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Muscle Shoals Music Foundation: Establishing an Iconic Music Museum in Sheffield, Albama | Andrew Kelly

Establishing an Iconic Music Museum | Muscle Shoals Music Foundation

In 1969, a former coffin show room located at 3614 Jackson Highway in Sheffield, Albama was converted into the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio.

Huge names in music like the Rolling Stones, Cher, Bob Seger, Lynrd Skynrd and many more recorded songs and albums within its walls.

Only a decade later, in 1979, the studio would close.

Following a documentary titled Muscle Schoals in 2013, interest was peaked in restoring the forgotten building. 

Today, on Small Business War Stories, we talk to Andrew Kelly of the Muscle Shoals Music Foundation about how they helped restore this building to help establish an iconic music museum.

Listen to the podcast:

The Soul of America Tour

This episode is part of the Soul of America tour sponsored by Tecovas Boots, Badger Maps, and Impact Dog Crates. During April 2017, I drove with my six month-old puppy Muddy Waggers, my guitar, and my podcasting equipment with the goal of recording podcast episodes with small business owners throughout the heart of America.

Show Notes

A summary of our interview with Andrew Kelly of the Muscle Shoals Music Foundation is below.

You can use the links below to jump to your interests.

Tell me a little bit more about MSMF. How did you get involved with this? How did this get started?

Andrew Kelly: I got involved through the tourism office. I did a lot of interning with them while I was in college at the University of North Alabama, and that just kind of created an organic way to move things along. A woman by the name of Georgia Turner, she actually got the position opened up for me and contacted the director at the time. And here I am.

Can you help me parse out the difference between FAME studios and MSMF?

Andrew Kelly: FAME is its own entity. FAME started in 1959, actually, over in Florence, Alabama. That’s what “FAME” actually stands for, is, “Florence Alabama Music Enterprises.” And so they moved locations to Muscle Shoals in 1961, and from there the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section was created. Now, they brought the Muscle Shoals sound over here.

We’re actually not in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. We’re in Sheffield, Alabama. So there’s a lot of confusion. Nobody really knows where the hell they are when they come here. But they brought the Muscle Shoals sound from FAME over to this studio.

Makes sense. But this is the actual studio where Keith Richards and Mick Jagger, and the Rolling Stones recorded, right?

Andrew Kelly: Yes. December, 1969, they recorded three songs off of Sticky Fingers, which were, “You Gotta Move”, “Wild Horses”, and “Brown Sugar”.

“You Gotta Move” is a really blusy Lightnin’ Hopkins song. That’s where their influence came from. You know, before they really found their bluesy rock sound, a lot of them said that they were emulating the Beatles. And then they finally broke away from that, and blew everybody out of the water with the sound that they created.

Keith Richards finished out the lyrics to “Wild Horses” while sitting in the toilet, over just a few feet from me, in the bathroom. He went in there and got inspired in some way or another, you know. So, he was in there for quite some time, and then they came out with the last bit of “Wild Horses”.

Who are some of the other famous recording artists who came through here?

Andrew Kelly: Oh, man, the list is just so extensive. But, I mean, just off the top of my head, Paul Simon, Bob Seger, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Linda Ronstadt, The Staple Singers, Wilson Pickett, Levon Helm, Leon Russell.

Did Aretha Franklin record here?

Andrew Kelly: No. Actually she did one to two songs over at FAME studios. She’s actually kind of the reason that this whole studio even got started, because Rick Hall from FAME and Aretha’s husband, at the time, Ted, got into an altercation at the fourth story of a local hotel, just across the water. They almost threw each other off the building. Jerry Wexler had enough. And of course, he was with Atlantic Records. So he pulled out of working at FAME.

Jerry brought the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section up to New York to finish Aretha’s album, and then when they came back, Rick had already struck a deal with Capitol Records, and wanted them to sign a deal exclusively recording their music here at FAME Studios. They didn’t want to be exclusive to FAME, so that’s why they broke away and started Muscle Shoals sound.

This whole building is dripping with history. Tell me a little bit more …there were some years between then and now when this place was not music-focused, right?

Andrew Kelly: Well, they were in this facility from 1969 to 1978, and then they moved to a much larger facility. After 1978, this actually became an audio store. They sold audio equipment out of it. Also repaired audio equipment. We have an engineer that works here and does a lot of work here who actually got started at Big Bear Audio, which was what it was, then. His name is Greg. He comes in, and he does a lot of stuff here.

They would bring gear back here to have it repaired, and to work on it, and that kind of thing. But after this facility, they moved to a 31,000 square foot facility right on the Tennessee River. And so, that actually had two studios in it, a bar, a lounge, all kinds of shit. It was loaded up. And that building’s got a lot of history, in itself.

But the vibe definitely is more saturated, here. A lot more stuff happened in here. And, you know, you’re in here with me. You can see how small it is in here. This was a much more intimate setting. It was them getting together, jamming, and making this music with these incredible artists.

You hear Keith Richards talk about what it was like to record here. You kind of talked about it in the tour, too. There’s not a hell of a lot else to do, here. And then, also, having the river, and the woods. It’s got this a little bit slower, swampy, but soulful feel to it. Do you think that comes through in the music?

Andrew Kelly: It comes out in the music, for sure. And it’s not even just the water. A lot was happening back then. You had Motown up in the North, in Detroit. But they’re a lot more upbeat, peppy, that kind of thing. The music that came out of here really was because of oppression. I mean, there was a lot of stuff going on.

I mean, it was the Deep South in the 60s. None of that reflected in the studio, by any means. There was no color in the studio. But when Wilson Pickett came here to record over at FAME, before he actually started recording over here, he was driven past all the cotton fields. FAME was surrounded by cotton fields back then. And they were still picking cotton.

I mean, so, people were poor. They didn’t have much to do. So you’d see them sitting on the porch. They weren’t in the river, swimming. They were either sitting on their porch picking and playing music, and singing to each other, or going to church. And that’s really where that sound came from. A lot of gospel. A lot of soul came from the feeling of oppression.

Percy Sledge got started in a little town just about 15 miles over here, and he would sing in the cotton fields. And then he became an orderly, and sang to his patients. It just kind of moved things along. Vibed real well with the others.

Walk me through some of the history here… So this became a music equipment store, stopped being a music studio for a while. Now, today, it’s a fully functioning music studio. And, you guys opened it as a historic museum touring facility. The place has a similar vibe to Sun Studios in Memphis in terms of both the feel of the tour and the fact that they’re both active studios. So how did this go back to being a full-fledged recording facility again?

Andrew Kelly: It kind of happens naturally. Everybody wants to record here. They want the history. They want the sound that it was created here. Now, Sun was started by Sam Phillips. Jerry Phillips is Sam’s son. He was born over in Florence.

That’s where Sun has their roots, here. And his son Jerry, who owns a radio station, actually still lives in the area. And so they run a radio station here. So, you had W.C. Handy starting it off. There’s just so much influence that’s gathered from that.

Now, as far as we’re concerned, Dan Auerbach, of the Black Keys, came in and he wanted to record here. He actually recorded here back in 2009. This was a shell of a building. They did not have the equipment that we have now. A different guy owned the building, then, and was kind of parading around as Muscle Shoals Sound Studios, even though it wasn’t his. The building was, but Muscle Shoals Sound was never his. And he locked him into a two-week deal. And so they couldn’t pull out of it. They went back to Nashville, got a lot of equipment, and brought it here. This is where they recorded “Brothers”, which became a Grammy-winning album.

They had to bring a lot of their music equipment. They had to get some of the recording stuff. He had a different setup, and I’m not exactly sure what he had. What we’ve got now is a 24-track custom API board. It was actually made for Chet Atkins, and came out of RCA Studio B in Nashville. So we record analog, but we convert it to digital. We have an Apogee converter. So, very high dollar converter, so you don’t lose that sound quality. You can have high end equipment, record through a shitty converter, and you lose a lot of that sound quality. But these Apogee systems are really good.

Okay, so, now, Dan Auerbach and the Black Keys come record “Brothers” here. Basically renting out the room and turning it into their own custom studio, if I understand that correctly. And then what happens?

Andrew Kelly: Dan and Patrick of The Black Keys weren’t exactly happy with their experience here in the Shoals back then. Of course, to hell with that, they won a Grammy out of that experience.

But we did definitely want to improve things. Dan came here, and he recorded his own stuff, and he used David Hood and Jimmy Johnson of The Swampers. He also used Gene Chrisman, of course out of Memphis. So, a lot of these older session guys.

They tracked 17 songs in four days. So, he’s quite the workhorse. A beast, really, in the studio. He gets the most bang out of his buck, for sure. But we wanted him to have a great experience when he came here again.

A few weeks ago he actually rented the studio for four full days. He got here at 9:00 AM, sometimes didn’t leave until 1:30 in the morning. Because of his experience here several years ago, we wanted to make sure that he enjoyed his time here. And he certainly did. And he got a lot of stuff done. Still, Dan brought a lot of his own equipment to record.

Now, with the recording session that we’ve got going on right now, the setup is a lot lighter. As you can see, everything’s pretty much still in place. We are set up for a session. But they’re coming in here at 4:00 in the afternoon and tracking until 11:00 or 12:00 so they don’t interrupt the tours. Which is great. Because that’s what our main focus is, is the history, the tours, the experience. And then, the recording stuff is almost more of a side project. But it’s something that promotes us very well, and is a good promotional tool.

So, as a business, you guys are more focused on the historical preservation museum aspect than on the recording aspect?

Andrew Kelly: Correct. But now we’re finding that it goes hand in hand, really. And really, to promote yourself, and for us to promote the studio, it’s great to have people coming back in. I can’t tell you who’s on the session today, but I can tell you that he was affiliated with it back in the 70s, and actually recorded here back in 1972. So, for him, it’s great for us to have that. Because he’s coming back, and he’s shedding more light on our story.

Who took the initiative to turn this into a museum, and turn it back into a studio?

Andrew Kelly: All right, you’re going to have to stay with me, because I got a lot of time that I got to fill right here, and I’ll tell you about it. So, basically, you start off with the Netflix documentary called “Muscle Shoals” coming out. So, Stephen Badger created the documentary.

Really, I think it should have been called “The Rick Hall Story”, because, really, what touched on this, and what happened here, is almost more of a montage inside the documentary.

Rick Hall was the gentleman who started FAME; he had a very tragic life. And it was an interesting story. Now, what shed light on this, the Muscle Shoals Music Foundation, which was started up by several people that are related to the music in this area. Judy Hood being one of those. She’s the chairperson of the board. Rodney Hall, the son of Rick Hall, who runs FAME now. Stephen Badger’s on that board. We’ve got the mayor, in this town, is on that board.

They purchased the building from the gentleman I told you about earlier. And so, they purchased the building with the hopes of doing tours, and the hopes of bringing it back to its former glory. And they’re a nonprofit organization that brought all this together. They didn’t know how they were going to be able to bring this back to what it was. This building was in derelict condition, just terrible shape. And it had just fallen through the cracks, and the cracks had fallen through more cracks. So, they got together, formed the Foundation, bought the building.

And then they were approached by Jimmy Iovine and Dr. Dre of Beats Electronics. Beats by Dre, which eventually sold to Apple. Now, they wrote a grant to be able to restore this building back to what it was in ’69, and actually, then some. So we’ve actually gone through and sound-proofed the roof, put in these super thick doors, made it more studio-quality than it ever was back then. And then, so, from there, we bought the equipment, and started to just fill in the space. And had a wonderful interior decorator go through. Everything in this studio is time-period specific. So it’s all straight out of the late 60s, early 70s, including a few pieces that were here in the studio’s heyday.

Now, the piano, the baby grand that we have here is a Yamaha. Now, it was purchased in early 1970. So it’s been on countless albums. Countless albums. It’s done a lot of Bob Seger. It’s credited with the discovery of Billy Powell of Lynyrd Skynyrd. He came back from lunch one day, and here he is belting out the intro to “Free Bird”. And so they put that on the album. Skynyrd did their very first album here in 1971. Jimmy Johnson refers to this piano as the “Kodachrome” Piano. Paul Simon’s “Kodachrome” was cut and recorded on that. So. Very cool. A lot of history. A lot of famous fingers’ve been jazzing that thing up.

This whole place just kind of feels thick with vibe and history…

Andrew Kelly: It’s a certain vibe, and we get that a lot. We get that expression a lot. Devon Allman came through. He performed a show over at Warehouse 414, which is a little venue down the road. And I got him to come into the studio. He loved it. He walks in, and he’s like, “Oh, shit. Motherfucking shit. Right, yeah, this is fucking awesome.” Verbatim, that’s what he said. And so he picked up on it immediately. You can actually hear, the floor becomes its own musical instrument, because you’re sitting on top of the basement, with pine wood that goes all the way across.

How long was it from the first time that the grant was written and the nonprofit decided to do this, to the moment that it opened in January 2017?

Andrew Kelly: Well, everything started right after the documentary came out, so around 2013. And then, like I said, we were open for tours in here, but we weren’t doing extensive tours. We didn’t have the basement available. And, actually, it was probably a hazard, before we got the grant money. So we didn’t know how we were going to be able to bring this back up.

Then we were approached by Beats. We didn’t even find them. They found us. With that money, we were able to start restorations, which lasted a couple of years. We actually sold merchandise out of a trailer that sits out in the front yard, there. It’s an old Airstream. And so we sold merch while the gift shop was being redone.

It was about a two and a half year restoration project in itself. Because you had everything from the ground up, the entire basement was redone. Even the roof was redone, and soundproofed, and all that. Back in the day, when it was a recording studio originally, this had a flat metal roof. And so, you actually had to stop recording when it would rain, because they could hear it on the playback. So we fixed that problem.

There must have been times when there were setbacks, right? Was there a time during those four years where things really went sideways, and there was doubt that this was going to happen. And how did that get solved?

Andrew Kelly: I think that one of the biggest things was actually acquiring the building itself. Like I said, the person who owned it before wasn’t exactly as music minded as we are. But after all that was settled, it was kind of smooth sailing. We really didn’t have a lot of issues from the reconstruction. And with the Beats money, obviously, you’ve just got to document everything. You’ve got to show them wher the dollars were spent. And the Foundation, the board, they’re all very like-minded with what they wanted it to represent. Because they wanted it to be what it was 40 years ago. And they really achieved that.

Now, we’ve had some issues since then. When Dan Auerbach came through, we had a plumbing issue. We found out that instead of doing the ground up, we should’ve gone even further, and done the below-ground up. Because we had a plumbing issue, and so they actually had to dig down six to eight feet in a spot out in the parking lot. And as you probably saw when you came in, there’s this crater that’s out there now. And that’s because they packed all the dirt down. Well, it rained the very next day. And so it washed a lot of that stuff out of there. And so, yeah, we should’ve looked underground. But it’s just not something you think about. The pipes were rusted out and in terrible shape. We couldn’t flush. Dan had to use porta-potties during that recording session. So, a minor inconvenience, but, I mean, it is what it is.

Is this place financially self-sustaining at this point?

Andrew Kelly: We are. We are a nonprofit organization. So when you come in and you pay for a tour, 12 bucks. And then $10 if you’ve got a group of 20 or more. So, that goes directly back into the Foundation. That, along with the merchandise sales. I mean, hell, you can pay $6.50 for a t-shirt, and then we turn around and we sell it for $25 or $30, because it goes back into the Foundation. Everything’s available on our website, too, so anything that you spend, like I said, goes directly back into the Foundation and helps us do this kind of stuff.

We’re seeing a lot of tours, and getting a lot of tours from all over the world. Just earlier today, in the same group, I had Canadians, I had people from London, and I had somebody from Australia. And then somebody from Birmingham, Alabama.

What would you say is the number one lesson that you’ve learned along the way?

Andrew Kelly: I really think that, and I think this applies to my life in general, but you really got to be versatile. You got to be able to do a little bit of everything. And you can’t be afraid to get your hands dirty. You can’t be afraid to jump in head first. You have to adapt. I mean, there are so many things you do on a daily basis that you don’t even realize that you’re doing that improve everything that you’re about.

Where do you want this place to go in the next ten years? What’s the vision?

Andrew Kelly: We’ve got some plans drawn up. We really want the entire landscape here to be updated. We’re building a parking lot, pretty soon. We want to make sure that we keep this part open for tours, and then maybe even eventually get the gift shop out of here into its own separate building. We’d like to have an artist grotto, so that way they could actually come in and sit out next to the studio. Write music. We’ve got a big thing planned. Fenced-in. The trailer outside that we use for merchandise, we’d love to see that turned into a food truck. And really just make this a destination.

Where can people find you?

Andrew Kelly: We are active on Instagram. And you can go through our website and click on the link. We’re on Facebook as well. Muscle Shoals Sound Studios. That’s where we release a lot of stuff, because it gets out there a little easier. So check out the website, and then from there you’ll click on anything. And then, of course, come visit us. You know where we are. 3614 Jackson Highway.

If you have any questions or comments about today’s episode, please leave them below.


Pablo Fuentes

Pablo Fuentes was the Founder and CEO of Proven. He was also the host and producer of the Small Business War Stories podcast. Pablo is currently the Founder of makepath, a spatial analysis firm. He is a graduate of the Stanford Graduate School of Business and UCLA. He loves dogs, film photography, and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. He is also a blues guitar player and builder.

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