BRATTLEBORO--Muscle Shoals, Ala., was a place where Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, the Staple Singers and many other musicians recorded songs that influenced artists for generations to come.

The music produced there, musician Will McFarlane said, had such a great feel to it.

"They listened to the song and didn't try to prove anything. They weren't trying to be amazingly notey," he added. "They made each song sound exactly like the artist wanted and let the song express itself. They weren't trying to overproduce it. It was more about feel many times than it was about overproduction."

McFarlane moved to Alabama in 1980 and became part of the Muscle Shoals Sound Rhythm Section, also known as the Swampers. The sound that resulted from this group of session musicians began at Rick Hall's FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals. Those musicians later opened the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio.

Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama" makes reference to the group when the band sang the lyrics: "Muscle Shoals has got the Swampers."

"They recorded so many great hits and they used different lead guitar players. I was one of them. I played with them for 20 years," said McFarlane, who started playing the instrument in 1964 after he saw the Beatles perform on the Ed Sullivan Show.

Before that, he had taken piano lessons and decided he wanted to be a musician.

"As a kid I felt like if I didn't do music, something would be broken," McFarlane said.


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The documentary "Muscle Shoals" will be shown at the Latchis Theater in Brattleboro on Saturday at 4:15 p.m. followed by a question and answer session with McFarlane. Afterwards, there will be a concert starting around 7 p.m. at the River Garden.

"You're going to hear the greatest voices that ever were," says U2 singer Bono in the beginning of the film.

Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards as well as musicians Steve Winwood and Jimmy Cliff also give testimony on the music created in the Alabama town during the film.

Songs recorded in the Muscle Shoals studios include Aretha Franklin's "Respect," the Rolling Stones' "Brown Sugar," the Staple Singers' "I'll Take You There," Bob Seger's "Night Moves" and Bob Dylan's "Gotta Serve Somebody." Etta James and Paul Simon also recorded there. Most recently, the Black Keys recorded the album "Brothers" at the historic studio.

On Sunday, McFarlane will play and speak again at the Whestone Church at 10 a.m. He will then perform at 7 p.m. at the Latchis Theater. Also performing there, will be the band Royal Royal. Doors open at 6:30 p.m.

McFarlane will field questions about the Muscle Shoals recordings and also perform with his wife Janet during the events. He continues to live in Alabama but a chance to play in Brattleboro presented itself when he was booked for the Kingdom Bound Festival in Buffalo, N.Y. His brother-in-law Jim Strysko, a local pastor, jumped at the opportunity and began organizing the event.

Strysko recently saw Royal Royal perform in Bennington and said he thought the indie rock group was honest, fresh and powerful. He called the group's agency in Nashville, Tenn., and was told they could perform.

"I thought it would be a great intergenerational mix," he said. "They both have the same spiritual moorings as well."

According to Strysko, the music produced at the Muscle Shoals studio was "all real" and the focus was not so much on the self or ego.

"They don't rely a lot on synthesizers and so forth. I think people, even young people today, are moving towards that," he said. "You're starting to see more people interested in the dynamic aspects of vinyl rather than digital. That's experiencing quite a comeback. Just a quality sound. It's always good to go back and look at where everything came from."

One of Strysko's sister Janet's best friends, Donna Jean Godchaux, who had sung with Elvis then musicians of Muscle Shoals, still lives in Alabama. She also sang with the Grateful Dead.

"She talks about how all these people were young once and had this great experience of music. Now, by God's grace, they're older," Strysko said. "Donna Jean is a strong Christian and so is Will. Both would probably say, ‘If it wasn't for God, I'd be dead.' That's my story as well."

In the "Muscle Shoals" documentary, there are references to the spirituality of that region and the music produced there.

Chris Mays can be reached at 802-254-2311, ext. 273, or cmays@ reformer.com. Follow Chris on Twitter @CMaysReformer.