Chapter 29: Muscle Shoals

About one hundred and twenty-five miles to the southwest of Nashville is a neighborhood of four fairly small Alabama towns straddling the wide Tennessee River. They are Florence, Sheffield, Tuscumbia, and Muscle Shoalstowns with names foreign to all but residents, travelers, musicians, and music fans.

   In Florence is the birthplace of W.C. Handy, ''The Father of the Blues.'' But more musicians probably know of the Muscle Shoals area for another musical reputation, built in the sixties and seventies. While nearby Nashville laid claim to the title of Music City, USA, Muscle Shoals started developing its own clientele of musicians in rock, soul, and country music. The city-limits sign still proudly proclaims: ''Welcome to Muscle Shoals, Hit Recording Capital of the World.''

   Indeed, for a period of several years there was always something in the national Top Ten charts that was recorded there. The list of artists who recorded in that remote corner of Alabama included, among others, Clarence Carter, Aretha Franklin, Candi Staton, Paul Simon, Rod Stewart, Willie Nelson, Cat Stevens, and Art Garfunkel.

   The communities became a haven in those years for recording artists and studio musicians. Tucked away from the hustle and bustle of the Nashville scene and Los Angeles or New York studios, it was an attractive retreat for musicians to come and do their thing. In many cases, their ''thing'' included the extensive use and abuse of drugs, from marijuana to cocaine.

    Quickly Muscle Shoals residents began to stereotype the entire music community there as no more than some sort of front for orgiastic debauchery. Even the churches took a hands-off stance.

   In 1980, after a slowdown in the music business, the Muscle Shoals area once again hit the trade news when Bob Dylan went

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there shortly after his widely reported conversion to record his Slow Train Coming album at Muscle Shoals Sound.

   One of the musicians who played on the Dylan sessions was Ronnie Eades, a saxophonist member of the famed Muscle Shoals Horns. Eades had been in the area since 1968, and had worked his way virtually to the top, including a three and a half month tour with Elton John in 1974. But even after that, and even as he blew the sax for Dylan, his life was skidding toward the bottom. His major problem was alcohola case of beer a dayplus more than his share of drugs. He had the reputation in music circles as the ''town drunk.''

   ''I was the life of the party,'' he said, looking back in 1984 with cleared vision, ''always cuttin' up and everything. I never let anybody know whether I had problems or not. Deep down inside, when I got by myself, I knew that there was a problem. I'd try to drink those problems away, but it didn't work. I'd be miserable, then I'd go outside with some people. We'd start drinkin', cuttin' up, carryin' on. It was okay for awhile. Then after I got back to myself again, there it was. It wouldn't go away.''

   For recording engineer Jerry Masters, the tremendous success the Muscle Shoals music business had with hit records and plentiful times helped to cover up a serious state of affairs in his own life. ''I was always the first one to roll a joint, always the first one to mix up the mushrooms. I did an entire Rod Stewart album one time on mushrooms. I would do anything that would desensitize me. I got so good at engineering that I'd get blasted away and still cut hit records. It didn't matter anymore.''

   Meanwhile, Eades was lovingly but continually witnessed to by his daughter, a new Christian. ''She tried to get me to go to church,'' he recounted later. ''I thought it was a joke.''

   Eades was playing in clubs around the Muscle Shoals area for a living. He recalls the line of reasoning he took in order to turn down his daughter's invitation. He thought, ''The way I've met most of those Christians that I know was in these clubs. I don't want to have anything to do with this. I'm just as good as they are. What do I need with this? What do I need with God?''

   For nearly six years several people had been praying for Eades. Finally his wife to be and his daughter got him to the church. ''I'm gonna go once to get you off my back,'' he told them. ''Then I don't wanna hear anything else about it.''

   ''So I went to this full-gospel church and there was something different about it,'' Eades recalls. ''It wasn't so bad. Something snapped inside of me. I acted like I didn't want to go back, but I went for about eight Sundays following. I still stayed in the clubs. As I

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went to church, conviction, truth, everything started comin' on. I knew that's what I needed! But a lot of pride and everything else was still in the way.

   ''After about eight weeks I couldn't stand it any longer. I still played the club that Saturday night, but I went down to the altar the next morning. I believe I got saved in that club. My eyes started to open. From drinking a case of beer a day, I had one beer that Saturday night, and I couldn't keep that down!

   ''I was very confused. I said, 'What is this?' Even when I was sick, I could drink beer! But I know it was the Spirit of the Lord coming inside me, and that mess just couldn't stay, couldn't live.

   ''That Sunday night, that was it. I said, 'Here's my life, Lord; as big a mess as it's in, you got it.''

   The memorable date for Eades was in 1981. He was thirty-nine years old when he made the decision. Eades and forty-one-year-old engineer Jerry Masters didn't know each other at the time, but they were later to become best of Christian friends.

   Masters had attempted to run from his own problems by going to Florida, on his way to the Keys to get a job on a fishing boat. But he stopped over in Miami with some friends, who got him a job working at the famous Criteria Studios, where top hits like those by the Bee Gees were to be recorded.

   ''Everything I did was a hit,'' he recalls. But he also recalls spending three-quarters of his money on cocaine, ''trying to fill the void in me.''

   ''While in Miami I started reaching out to God,'' he continues. ''I'd go out on the sunroof  of the studio everyday and pray. But I didn't know what I was praying to. To me, God was some giant guy in the sky with a big stick and a white beard. I prayed and asked him to send me a wife. He did, and she was saved. So I started getting the Word, whether I wanted it or not.''

   Masters ultimately moved back to Birmingham, about three hours drive south of Muscle Shoals. The binges continued. ''I was drinkin' real heavy, and it was killing me, and I knew it. I'd go on cocaine binges for three or four days at a time and do nothing but take cocaine and drink Scotch. I would get so strung out, I'd take about ten Valium to try and come down. A couple of times I think I came close to dyin'just layin' there in my bed, by myself, in my apartment.''

   Jerry's wife filled a void in his life, but he says not the void that was killing him. Following his move to Birmingham, he spent a year on retainer for a studio where he did virtually no work. ''They paid me, but rarely worked me,'' he recalls. ''I sat around, rolled joints,

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played video games. That ran out, so I came back to Muscle Shoals, checking unemployment. My life had been so good; now it was nose-diving.''

   Masters went out to a ranch owned by one of the successful studio owners. ''There was a Bible sitting on the table there,'' he remembers, ''left there by the studio owner's wife. I'd been drinking vodka straight.

   ''I just opened the Bible. I looked down at this Scripture, Deuteronomy 28:5. It says, 'You will take a new wife, and for a period of one year you will not go to work, you will not go to war, you will do nothing but stay home and take care of your wife.'

   ''That's exactly what had just happened to me! I'd been given a year with my new wife, who I'd prayed for, to enjoy her and all that. I looked back and I started thinkin' about all the times I'd used to get drunk and take speed and smoke grass and ride motorcycles fearlessly, and I realized God had his hand on me all those years. I started cryin', and I cried for about two days. And I couldn't figure out why I was cryin'!

   ''I called my wife, Edie, and I said, 'What in the world's goin' on? She said her church down there in Birmingham had been prayin' for me.''

   Next a pastor told Jerry to phone Ronnie Eades. ''He didn't know Ronnie; he just knew of him from another musician who was a Christian, Randy Cutlip. I called Ronnie and said, 'Can you pray for me? I'm havin a real rough time.'

   ''He said, 'Sure. I'll be glad to.' I hung up the phone and went to the studio, and he was sittin' there waitin' for me.

   ''Ronnie started sharing what God had done in his life. He'd been saved a year and two days. Boy, the tears started coming, and inside I was screaming, 'I wanna be saved! I wanna be saved! I wanna be saved!' But I didn't say anything. Ronnie left, and I went and had a meeting with the studio owner. I got back in my car and headed back to Birmingham. Somewhere between here and there I got saved! By the time I got home I was a different person.

   ''I noticed I only drank one glass of wine that night. I didn't think anything about it. I usually got up and started drinkin' as I got out of bed, and drank all day. But the next day I got up and I felt so good! I didn't want anything to bring that down. So I waited until that night, and I drank one beer. Then I drank another glass of wine, and said, 'Man, this stuff doesn't feel right.'

   ''For six years I had never gone to bed without taking a Valium. I couldn't! I had to stagger to bed to go to sleep. Also, I had smoked grass for thirty years. In the last ten years, I had smoked at least three

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joints a day. So I had to be under those three influences to even think of layin' down and tryin' to go to sleep.

   ''The Spirit of God spoke to me that day, though, and said, 'I want you to go back there and lay down and close your eyes.' I went back and laid down and closed my eyes, and that's the last thing I remember. I woke up the next morning totally delivered from alcohol, Valium, marijuana, and cocaine. None of it can enter my body now. God had delivered me supernaturally overnight of all that junk. If I'd have gone to the hospital, it wouldn't taken me six months to a year to dry out. That was May 2, 1982.''

   The conversions of Eades and Masters were just two instances of what would become an almost steady stream of changed lives in those mid-sized Alabama towns. The roll was being added to down yonder in a revival which would sweep through the music industry in an area with no less than seven recording studios.

   Lenny LeBlanc, who was successful with a pop hit, ''Falling,'' by LeBlanc and Carr, became a Christian in 1981. When contemporary Christian singer Michele Pillar came to the area to record her first solo album, she met Lenny ''by providential 'chance.' '' The result was a duet on her first album. Lenny later signed with Heartland Records in Florida to do his own Christian albums.

   Cindy Richardson, who toured extensively with Crystal Gayle as backup singer, became a Christian after attending Ronnie Eades' Bible study. When Ava Aldridge, a songwriter and publisher who had co-written the pop hit song, ''Spendin' the Night Together,'' was invited to sing at church with Lenny LeBlanc, she was born again.

   Added to the list were Joey Holder and Steve Herbert. Jerry Wallace, a producer and songwriter (''Even the Nights Are Better,'' by Air Supply) was also won to the Lord.

   Guitarist Will McFarlane, one of the first of the Muscle Shoals musicians to become a Christian, also became one of the most vocal and engaging spokesmen of the revival going on there.

   But ask any of these Muscle Shoals musicians and they'll readily tell you of the hopes and aspirations they have for their studio cities to become a center for Christian recording activity. And the way things were going by late 1984, they were right on target. The number of contemporary Christian albums coming out of Muscle Shoals had greatly increased, including two by Michele Pillar, two by Will McFarlane, two by Lenny LeBlanc, and one each by Robyn Pope, Cindy Richardson, and others.

   ''Muscle Shoals is just another town as far as location goes,'' said Jon Phelps, president of Heartland Records, who recorded several projects there in mid-1984. ''But there is a pouring out of the

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Holy Spirit and an anointing from God on the people of this town. It has spread from one person to the next. It's so obvious. I've seen it mostly in the music community.

   ''This town doesn't look like it's going to lose its vision. If it did, it would repeat what people have done over and over again. I just believe their hearts are square on the nose.''

   ''Muscle Shoals is pregnant,'' says Eades. ''Something is fixin' to be birthed here that's big. He told us we're going to be a part of it, and the Lord's gonna put us doin' exactly what He wants us to be doin.' ''

   ''I think by the time your book's out, it'll be exactly what it was here fifteen years ago,'' adds Jerry Masters, ''except it'll be for the Lord. I think it'll be a center for cutting records for Jesus.''

   Watching the Muscle Shoals musicians build each other up is very reminiscent of the Jesus movement of some fifteen years ago. Masters was referring to the rock and country industry which thrived there in the sixties and seventies, but it was during that same time that musicians were first creating contemporary Christian music some two thousand miles away on the West Coast, such as in the Calvary Chapel community. Talking to Eades, McFarlane, Masters, and the others is like witnessing an enthusiasm and unity of purpose unequaled in much of Jesus music since those early days. Just as there was always guidance and support offered by the Calvary Chapels for their musical missionaries, there is a group spirit and support for the Muscle Shoals musicians in several churches.

   ''There are three or four churches that are really going out of their way to open their doors to us, to support us in ministry when we do go out of town, or just out on the streets of our own community,'' says Will McFarlane. ''It was the Lord who impressed upon us that we didn't have the right or the unction to go into somebody else's town and tell them how we think they ought to live their lives if we weren't being recognized, raised up, or submitted to eldership in our own local fellowships. If nobody recognized or laid hands on me, to send me out from my own local body or from a fellowshipbe it a home fellowship or a church buildingor at least some accountability as we submit ourselves one to another, then I shouldn't be going out.

   ''The gospel is a corporate Word. It is together with all the saints that you grasp the width and height and depth of the love of Christ. None of us feel it's an individualistic thing.''

   There is another interesting thing to note about the musicians in Muscle Shoals. They're older, more mature, rock-generation musicians whom the Lord blessed at a much later age than most of the

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Jesus musicians of the Jesus movement. While countless Christian musicians still eye the climb to success and stardom in order, they say, to use their stardom as a witness, Masters and the others have come directly from there. And while some of the more derisive of their fellow-musicians may view them as has-beens, Masters replies, ''We've been at the top, and we know what it's like. We chose to be where we are now.''

   Choosing to be more selective in the music they record now means that their work is usually not as lucrative as it used to be. Some of the musicians have humbled themselves to the point of digging ditches to make the money they could be making playing on stoned-out sessions and hanging around with certain famous musicians. ''I don't mind doing construction work and all that,'' says saxophonist Eades. ''The Lord's just teachin' us patience, to persevere and depend on him for our needs.''

   Eades, for one, has chosen to stay away from the secular sessions. ''The one thing I play on now is contemporary Christian music, which down here in this area at this particular time is not enough to make a living by. The budgets for Christian music are cut short. You might make one hundred or two hundred dollars on an album, whereas we used to make one thousand, sometimes two thousand dollars a week.

   ''It's gone from a whole lot to nothing. But the meaning of life has changed for me now. I want to help other people. I want to help other musicians who are in the same place that we've been, and these kids that think, 'Hey man, if I was like that, I'd be okay.'

   ''The Lord's leading us into schools and prisons to say, 'Hey, you wouldn't. We've been there, man, and there ain't nothing there. The bottom line is: You've gotta have Jesus to survive. That's the only way.' ''

   Coming to surface in Muscle Shoals were the Paul/Timothy relationships referred to much earlier in this history. The musicians of the area are anxious to make it a center for Christian recording projects, working with Christian songwriters and performers whether they be trained or novice. Recording there, they say, is more than just an in-studio experience.

   ''It's such a small place that our lives are an open book to one another,'' adds Will McFarlane. ''Fellowship keeps us close and pressing on. If I step out of line in this town, every youth group will find out within a few hours. We're accountable for our actions here.

   ''People can come in and know that churches are going to be praying for their record while we're making it here. They know that people are going to be able to come into the studio and break bread

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with them and pray before each song is cut. In many other places, you'd get lost in the studios and never get that. Here, it's a family matter.

   ''You record in Muscle Shoals, and all of a sudden people are showin' up in the studio with food for you, because they know you're hungry. They see the Kingdom actually expressed here. And that expresses life to the folks who aren't Christians who are actually playing on the dates. Many times all the musicians on the dates are not believers, and they're seeing something different too.''

   ''I think the Lord,'' adds Jerry Masters, ''had decided there's so much talent in this town, and he's tired of it being used for the enemy, and he's takin' over this town!''

Chapter Thirty  ||  Table of Contents