Steeped in blues, country, gospel and rock and roll, southern soul music has long been linked with a handful of studios in Memphis, Tenn., and Muscle Shoals, Ala, but toss in the crack writing teams and players in Nashville along “Music Row” and you’ve got the “country-soul triangle.”
Much attention — in print and film — has been devoted over the past few years to Memphis and Muscle Shoals and the legendary recordings captured in historic sessions at a handful of studios where the most unlikely collections of musicians in house bands seemingly could do no wrong when it came to churning out chart-topping hits for a veritable who’s who of vocalists.
Taking a different thematic approach when it comes to the southern soul story, author Charles L. Hughes’ recently published Country Soul: Making Music and Making Race in the American South (UNC Press) is a refreshing, in-depth account of the birth of southern soul in the early 1960s to its international acclaim before the end of the decade.
In the spirit of Hughes’ book, the program featured nothing but material recorded at Memphis studios such as Stax, American and Royal; FAME and Muscle Shoals Sound in Alabama; and Nashville’s legendary locales such as RCA Studio B, Quadraphonic Sound and Quonset Hut which later became Columbia Studio B where the term “Nashville Sound” stemmed.
Unlike earlier accounts, Hughes, who coined the term “country-soul triangle” delves far deeper into the racial element of the burgeoning southern soul music style that was gaining in popularity in a once-staid industry that would undergo remarkable changes as the turbulent 1960s segued into the 70s.
“Both country and soul were closely identified with the era’s tumultuous racial politics,” said Hughes who is assistant professor of history at Oklahoma State University. “Soul was presented as the soundtrack of black America in the period of civil rights and black power, while country became known as the authentic voice of the white working-class.
“At the same time,” Hughes explained, “they were produced in interracial contexts, and the existence of integrated studios was heralded around the world as a sign of integration and progress. I’m fascinated by this contradiction, and I wanted to examine how the musicians helped to shape it throughout this period. Their stories demonstrate the complexity of music’s role as symbol and mechanism of political change in the 1960s and 1970s.”
Almost reflecting the social changes America was facing in the 1960s, musicians were also in seemingly uncharted waters in the south, especially when it came to mixed race session bands, to which Hughes details events often ignored or glossed over in the past.
“The musicians dealt with the complex realities of racialized sound and an interracial workplace on a day-to-day basis,” Hughes said. “The results weren’t always positive, and certainly weren’t always equitable, but they were pivotal to understanding their larger historical importance. For that reason, I found them to be the most illuminating people to anchor my discussions.”
The best-known studio studio groups when it came to southern soul have long been Booker T. & The MGs at Stax Records and the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section a.k.a. The Swampers who made their mark at FAME
Studios, but equally vital when it came to recording hits were the Memphis Boys at American Sound Studios and the Hi Rhythm Section at Royal; while the Nashville A-Team was literally an east coast Wrecking Crew.
Greasy Tracks is the longest-running soul and blues show in Connecticut.