We hope you enjoyed part 1 of the Fame Music Group article as much as we did.So now we begin with part 2 of the artcicle,Rodney Hall of Fame Music group speaks out,in this very recent candid interview.
As a company, you have a strong brand name.
Absolutely. We really have two brand names, FAME and we have Muscle Shoals. We’ve come to the conclusion that the Muscle Shoals brand is probably bigger than the FAME brand. Just because it is a bit more famous. Lynyrd Skynard didn’t say “FAME’s got the Swampers.” (in “Sweet Home Alabama.”) They said “Muscle Shoals has got the Swampers”.
How did you come to work at the studio?
When I was younger, I would come in and do odd jobs. After I graduated, I got a masters from (University of) Alabama in business, and I went to work in Huntsville (Alabama) selling computers for a corporate computer company. We sold to NASA, and The Boeing Company. The 486 computer had just come out, and it was screaming (selling well). It’s a funny story today, but I sold a 486 computer to NASA for $20,000. It had a gigabyte of hard drive, 4 Megs of RAM on the video card and, maybe, 12 or 16 Megs on the RAM. Now, you couldn’t even give that away.
I’m surprised with your business degree that your dad didn’t seek you out to work in the family business. At that point, he was busy producing country acts like Shenandoah and T.G. Sheppard.
When I got out of college, the last thing I wanted to do was go to work for my family.
Well, it’s often hard for someone to work for their father.
Especially, if he’s mine.
Those stories of your dad being pugnacious are true?
He’s definitely one of a kind. He’s got his own way of doing things. That’s the way he wants it done. Of course, a lot of that (attitude) has changed over the years.
How did you jump from selling computers back to Muscle Shoals in 1990?
I was doing well selling computers, but I wasn’t very happy doing it. I was sitting an hour away (in Huntsville) thinking, “My family has a world famous business, and that is what I want to do, if I can just put up with the whole family business thing.” One day, I just said, “I’m going to try it.” (The music business) is what my passion is. Even though I was making good money selling computers, it was not what I wanted to do the rest of my life.
Did you then have to establish ground rules of conduct with you dad?
I’m doing that now (laughing). At the time, my brother Mark was in Nashville, and he was pitching songs for us. We needed someone to come back here and take the reins. Mark didn’t want to move back to Muscle Shoals. So, I went ahead and made the plunge.
You didn’t sit down with your dad and say, “I will come if…..”?
Well, we had some of those conversations. At that time, he wasn’t in every day. He was kind of doing his own thing. He had just sold the publishing catalog to EMI, and we were rebuilding the catalog. So, it was a good time to get into it. He produced Alabama in 2000, and he did some things that never came out. He did some things with Marie Osmond on Curb that never came out. He did Vern Gosdin, Billy Joe Royal and other things. The real big act that he was working with was Shenandoah.
Muscle Shoals had once seriously challenged Memphis’ claim to be the capital of southern soul. But the glory days had gone by the time you returned.
Oh, the glory days were definitely gone. And I knew that. I knew that it was going to be up to me to rebuild (the business), and keep it going. I looked around, and everybody in Muscle Shoals was 10 or 15 years older than me, at best. Some were even older than that. There weren’t many up-and-coming talents around at that point. I think a lot of that was the fact that (our company) had gotten so big. It was a little different back in those days. It was a closed door situation. It wasn’t like you could walk over here and play someone a song.
Nashville, two hours away, had become the draw for young songwriters and musicians throughout the south.
Muscle Shoals isn’t Nashville.
Leaving (Nashville), I can’t wait to see the city limits sign in my rear-view mirror. They’ll chase their tail there (trying to come up with hits). It’s “Oh, we have to write a song for Taylor Swift.” By the time, the writers get the song written, demoed, and get it to her, she’s gone onto something else.I think the thing about Muscle Shoals is that we don’t put boundaries on people like Nashville does. A song has to have this or has to have that there. We just do what we like, and what we feel. We don’t worry about whether it’s country or rock and roll or whatever. We just make music that we like.
Memphis is the blues center; Nashville is a country center; but Muscle Shoals is part of the triangle with both soul and country.
We say that it’s “The crossroads of country rock and soul.” There’s a little bit of all of that mixed in whatever we do. No matter what we are doing, whether we are doing country or whatever, we feel that there is a thread of soul there.
George Jones recently said that new country stars have stolen country’s music’s identity. He said they should find their own genre name.
I know what George was talking about, but I think that it is also just evolution. You go look at who was considered pop in the ‘50s and ‘60s, artists like the Lettermen and Dion. All that was pop then, but what they call pop now doesn’t resemble that.I think there’s a market for a music that is not country, but has some country feel to it. Everybody throws (such acts) into the Americana (format) which is never going to work until they go to a singles’ driven market because you can’t get any kind of grip at radio or anywhere else. There’s nobody playing the same songs.
It’s a shame that Delbert McClinton, Lucinda Williams or Roseanne Cash aren’t heard more on mainstream radio when their music is so popular with a segment of the population.
It’s the same thing with soul music. People love Wilson Pickett. They love that kind of music but nobody’s making it because there’s no way to make money on it anymore.
Have you heard Rod Stewart’s “Soulbook” album? It’s quite good.
I bet it is. He’s a singing fool. Always has been. I was a huge Rod Stewart fan with “Maggie May” and all of that. I hated his “American Songbook” series. But, he sold a bunch of them.
What’s happening with the FAME label?
We will probably be doing more records, but they will likely be on Muscle Shoals Records, and not on FAME. Digital is the way to go now. If you press up any CDs, a thousand is the most you need to press, most likely, unless you are going to get into Wal-Mart, which you are not.
The radio promotion game is too expensive to play.
We tried that on the James LeBlanc record. You spend $75,000 promoting one single. You can’t do it.
Your dad sold off the catalogs of FAME Publishing and Rick Hall Music to EMI in 1989, but he didn’t sell the studio.
No. The publishing side he sold to EMI in ’89, and then we rebuilt the catalog and sold it to Billy Meshel (CEO & owner, Music & Media International) in 1999. Dad never sold the studio. I don’t know of another studio that has been owned by the same owner for 50 years and is still in business.
Look at the recording studios that closed their doors during that period, like The Record Plant.
I know. Over the past 10 years, studio owners have been gnashing their teeth, and going under. We’ve had that (tight economic) situation for 25 years. We are used to it. We branched out long ago. We still do a lot of studio work. We just hired Tom Swift, who used to work at The Record Plant, as chief engineer. We long ago realized that we had to use the studio as a tool to build our publishing and production companies up rather than trying to make a living on the studio. That’s just not a possibility anymore.
[Tom “Swifty” Swift has won two Grammy Awards and worked with Eric Clapton, Don Henley, AC/DC, Miles Davis, Pat Metheny, B.B. King, and Tania Maria. He has also worked on several soundtracks including "The Color Of Money,” "Postcards from the Edge,” and "Let's Spend the Night Together-Rolling Stones."]
Today, it’s tough to own a studio when so many producers have home studios with Pro Tools, and labels are hardly signing anymore.I know. It’s a scary time. However, we are in the process of revamping everything here, including upgrading our Pro Tools to HD. We have to hire some new people. We think that when the business is down that is the time to take advantage of opportunities. There’s a lot of talented people out there who are looking for gigs.
Over the years, have you collected much obsolete studio equipment?
I’ve got a roomful of stuff–ADATs, and DATs (recorders). We probably have every piece of studio equipment that has come along over the past 30 years. Even something like a Rhodes (electric) piano, every keyboard in the world today has a Rhodes’ sound on it, usually as good as the Rhodes. The only two things I have found that a synthesizer can’t emulate is a (Hammond) B-3 organ, and a Wurlitzer.
How many people work for the company?
On the studio side, we have three. On the publishing side, there’s five, including Steve Williams in Nashville. He was A&R head at Arista Records (Nashville) for years. We have 10 writers.
Do you have any access to the former FAME catalogs held by EMI Music?
No. I once went to them, and pitched the idea of letting us work the catalog and give us a piece of anything we got cut. They told me that they don’t do that kind of stuff. So (the publishing) sits there. It makes me sick to my stomach.
What was sold to Music & Media International in 1999?
That was the catalog that was built afterwards (1989-1999). We didn’t sell the entire catalog. We just sold what (songs that) had been recorded.
You then rebuilt the roster?
Exactly. With all new people that we signed. We basically gave them an opportunity.Very little in the way of advances. None of them had ever had a cut before or even a hold before they came here. Now, they are all doing well.
How many copyrights does the company have?
It’s a good size catalog with about 3,000 songs. The thing is that what we did in 1999 was that we sold only the songs that had generated income. So, we kept the catalogs on a lot of big writers that we had over the past 20 years.
How active are you in the day-to-day of the company’s publishing?
I am very active daily.I work with the writers.I work with the guys in Nashville.I pitch songs.I sign writers.So I am very,very active in it.I also produce and engineer (in the studio) some. But everything has changed so much that it is hard to keep up (with the technology).It is insane trying to keep up with Pro Tools, and all of the updates (on equipment).
Who are your writers?
We have James LeBlanc and his son Dylan. He’s 19-years-old, and he’s going to be a superstar. We’ve got Jason Isbell who was one of the Drive-By-Truckers for several years (2001-2007). Now, he’ a solo act (with accompanying band, The 400 Unit] who was up for Americana Music Album of the year (for “Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit”) this year. We’ve got Gary Nichols, who is a writer/artist with a James Otto cut out now (“Your Good Thing Has Gone Bad”), another cut on Bo Bice (“Ain’t Gonna Die”) and a few others. We have Angela Hacker, who won (USA Network talent show) “Nashville Star” two years ago.We’ve got Ugly Stick, which is a funk hip hop kind of a band. We also have two or three up and comers that are on their way.
You’ve recently have had some good covers.
Yeah, we had two hits this past year with James LeBlanc and Matt Warren scoring two cuts (“Learning How to Bend” and Yesterday’s Rain”) on Gary Allan’s “Living Hard” CD; and James LeBlanc and John Paul White wrote the title cut of Jason Aldean’s CD (“Relentless”). We’ve got three cuts on the Rascal Flatts’ CD (“Feels Like Today”).
Most of the songwriters you’ve worked with in the past decade, other than Canadians Victoria Banks and Bruce Miller, seem to be local writers.
Some are; some aren’t. It is probably about half and half. The LeBlancs are from Shreveport (Louisiana); Jason Isbell, Gary Nichols, and Angela Hacker are locals; and Ugly Stick are from Mobile (Alabama). For the most part, we are drawing from within the region.We had Tony Colton writing for us for awhile. He’s from the U.K. He was in Heads, Hands & Feet.They had that song “Country Boy” (by group members Colton, Albert Lee, and Ray Smith) that was not really a country song when they did it, but Ricky Skaggs covered it. Tony came over here (to the U.S.) to accept the Song of the Year Award, and never left. (Canadian) Bruce Miller had a cut (“Once You’ve Loved Somebody” with Thom McHugh) on the first Dixie Chicks’ album (“Wide Open Spaces”) that sold 15 million copies, and he had a hit single on Reba McEntire with “Fear of Being Alone” (co-written with Walt Aldridge).
At what age did you begin coming into the studio?
I was coming up here when I was a kid all of the time. Just hanging out, and playing in the baffles. We had these great baffles that were about 12 feet high. Some of them had windows, and some had doors. You could put them together and make little club houses. I was hanging out here but, at that point in time, my dad didn’t want us up here too much. There were some strange people hanging around here, like Duane Allman and other long-haired people.Probably,I was about 12 when I really started hanging around up here.I would come up here in the summer, and stuff records in envelopes and help the secretary ship them out.
You never were in the original studio?
No. It was torn down. I don’t remember seeing that building standing. Wilson Dam Highway was still standing when I was kid. Every time we would drive up my dad would say, “There’s my first studio.”
Were you aware by high school of what you dad was doing and how well known he was in the music business?
In high school? Oh, yeah, I knew. It’s a little different here probably than other places. In the ‘70s here, it was still a very small town, and we had very few hotels. A Holiday Inn and a Howard Johnson’s (hotel). So most of the (people) coming to the studio would stay at our house. I was hanging out, and listening to my dad talk to (Atlantic Records co-head) Jerry Wexler and talking to all of these guys who would come from all over the world. I had a pretty good grasp of what was going on by the time I was in my teens, simply because I got to spend a lot of time with him.I was 8 or 9 when the Osmonds came here. So that was big.
[In 1970, Curb Records’ head Mike Curb brought his new young act, the Osmonds to FAME where they recorded a string of hits including “One Bad Apple,” “Yo-Yo,” and “Down By The Lazy River.” Donny Osmond also recorded several solo albums at FAME.]
The Osmonds were regulars on Andy Williams TV show in the ‘60s. By the time they started to record at FAME, they were very popular.That was the only time we had to have a security guard at the studio. They were the Backstreet Boys of the ‘70s. I remember that Donny came over to our house once when they were taking a break. Him and my brother got on bikes and rode around the block. By the time they got back, there were girls chasing Donny. He was only 12 or 13. it was early on (in their careers).
The Osmonds have been here off and on for their entire careers. The brothers came here in the late ‘80s, and did a country record. It was kind of funny because you’d be out in the yard playing football with them, and it was funny to hear them arguing a little bit, “Dang you, Wayne.”
Marie Osmond recorded at FAME as well.
Well, I’ve known Marie pretty much my whole life. She recorded here when she was about 16. She did the album “This Is The Way That I Feel” here (in 1976). It didn’t do very well. It was when she was trying to go pop a little bit more. She’s a sweetheart. All of the Osmonds are. They are exactly what you see.
Working at the studio was a summer job for you and your brothers?
When it was raining, it was. When it wasn’t raining, our summer job was working on the ranch taking care of cattle, bush hogging (cutting pastures with a large mower attached to a tractor), mowing, and hauling hay. The ranch was about 15 minutes south from the studio.
When you are only young, 15 minutes by car anywhere is another world.
We moved out there when I was 12. it was hard. All of the sudden, I went from living right in the middle of town, literally three minutes from the studio, with all of my friends to a really isolated area. We had 1,500 acres, and we were right in the middle of it.
It was a working farm?
Oh yeah. It was a working cattle ranch. We raised our own food. The whole bit. My dad wanted us to be raised the way he was raised. He grew up very poor. His dad was a sharecropper, and a saw miller. He was a vagabond kind of guy who went from place to place, wherever he could figure out a way he could raise his kids and make some money.
You have two brothers?
Mark is in the music industry, and Rick is an attorney. I am the youngest. Mark is co-owner of our company, and he’s also a songwriter. He co-wrote a big Tim McGraw hit “I Like It, I Love It” in the ‘90s.
You being the youngest, everything fell on you?
Pretty much. They all left (home). I was still out there on the farm bush hogging and hauling hay as they went off to college having fun. But, it was a good experience for me. (Working on the farm) is something that I can never replace. I can do a lot of things that my friends can’t do. Like raising my own garden, and changing a tractor tire. We didn’t do a lot with the horses (we had). We ended up getting rid of them because we never rode ‘em. We were too much into sports to do that kind of stuff.
Were you any good in sports?
Yeah, I was a good baseball player.
What music did you listen to growing up? Were you a fan of R&B, rock, or country?
I was a little bit fan of all of it. I liked rock. I liked R&B and I even liked some dance stuff. I listened to a lot of country in my teen years. Mostly Randy Travis, Alabama, Clint Black, Hank Williams Jr. and, more importantly, demos of our great songwriters like Walt Aldridge, Robert Byrne, Dan Penn, Spooner Oldham, Tommy Brasfield, and George Jackson.
You didn’t listen to any music that made your dad crazy?
He wasn’t crazy about my Kiss collection. He figured if you had to put make-up on, you didn’t have talent. He wasn’t crazy about Judas Priest either. I was really into the Eagles, and Toto. The Doobie Brothers were my number one band when I was growing up, from the time of “Black Water” (in 1974). I went back and bought their older albums. I was a fan all of the way through until Michael McDonald left.
Did you listen much to the records your dad recorded?
I listened to a lot of his records because I got ‘em free. But I loved them too. I have my favorites that he did. My favorites are (Wilson) Pickett “Land of a Thousand Dances,” “Mustang Sally,” “Funky Broadway,” and “Hey Jude.” That (Duane Allman) guitar solo on “Hey Jude” still gives me chills. And, I liked “Fancy” by Bobby Gentry.
It was the Wild West in the music business in the ‘60s. Producers and production companies had to beg labels to pay them.
Oh yeah, I’ve got hand-written letters here from my dad begging Vee-Jay to pay him for some Jimmy Hughes releases. It was right as Vee-Jay going under. He couldn’t get them to pay. The good news is that they gave him back the masters instead of paying him.
Your dad worked with various labels. including Chess Records. Etta James recorded “Tell Mama” at FAME in 1967 with your dad as producer.
Absolutely. She recorded “Tell Mama,” “I’d Rather Go Blind,” and “Security” here. That “Tell Mama” album was done here. There are some good stories around that. Leonard Chess came down with some friends.. My dad says they all went to the Howard Johnson’s and played cards all day while (the musicians) were cutting the session. From what dad says, he had to pretty much make Etta sing “Tell Mama.” She didn’t want to sing it. It ended up being one of her biggest hits. Later on, she thanked him.
[“Tell Mama” was written by Clarence Carter and published by FAME Publishing.]
FAME wasn’t always credited for the outside production done there. Stax recordings by the Staple Singers, and Otis Redding, for instance.
You go to the Stax Museum today in Memphis, and you’d think everything was recorded over there. A bunch of their big records were cut here with our rhythm section, including (The Staple Singers’) “I’ll Take You There,” and Let’s Do It Again.”Looking back at the quantity of material that came out of Muscle Shoals, not just at this studio, but the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, Wishbone Studio (where Hank Williams Jr., the Commodores, Roy Orbison, Waylon Jennings, Charlie Daniels, Thelma Houston, the Temptations recorded) and all of them, it is pretty astonishing, especially with the technology at the time. Man, I’m still running across records from here all of the time. I didn’t know until this past year that Laura Lee’s “Dirty Man” (released by Chess Records in 1967) was cut here. It really is phenomenal the amount of material, and hit material that came out of here.
With the former FAME studio guys leaving, and opening up Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, it was pretty competitive for awhile.
Oh yeah. They had a good run for about 10 years. They did some Rod Stewart stuff. The Rolling Stones recorded there.
The Muscle Shoals Sound Studio was in Sheffield, Alabama.
Yeah, that’s always been (an issue) between all of the (studio) guys. At 65 or 70, they are still arguing, “How could the guys from Muscle Shoals be the Muscle Shoals Rhythm section if they were in Sheffield?” And Jerry Carrigan, Norbert Putnam and all of the early guys will argue, “We were the first Muscle Shoals rhythm section.”
Do Muscle Shoals’ city officials appreciate the music legacy there?
No. It’s amazing. They have no clue. They don’t get it at all. There have been some big power players from the state (government) come in and point out to them, “Hey, you’ve got this music thing that you could tie tourism to.” And, the city is starting to look at that. The Alabama Hall of Fame is here, and the W.C. Handy home is in Florence.
Will you be celebrating being in business for a half-century?
This is our 50th year in business, going back to the drug store with the publishing. In 2011, it will be our 50th year since “You Better Move On” which was the first hit. That’s when we are going to celebrate. We want to put together some shows, and have some major artists come in, and sit in with the rhythm section. That’s something, we will be working on for the next couple of years.
Larry LeBlanc who conducted this interview was the Canadian bureau chief of Billboard from 1991-2007 and Canadian editor of Record World from 1970-89. He was also a co-founder of the late Canadian music trade, The Record. He has been quoted on music industry issues in hundreds of publications including Time, Forbes, the London Times and the New York Times.
Soundbitenews looks forward to bringing you our own Exclusive one on one interviews with some of the best new talent from the Muscle Shoals,Alabama. The rich history of this area & the new rising talent has inspired us so much,that we hope to inspire you next. The duo group State Line Mob has agreed for an soundbitenews interview. Hold on to your seats.It’s gonna be a ride,literally. Yee hawww!
Credits: The ENCORE Digital Weekly Magazine , revised by soundbitenews taken from the original article posted by Larry LeBlanc.
More info: http://www.where2nowmag.com/2010/06/muscle-shoals-alabama-offers-everything-for-the-music-lover-plus-more/