In the stories we tell about music and the South during the 1960s and 1970s, a common theme is that music was the place where race didn’t count, where white and black musicians could play together on an equal basis, be friends, have a few drinks, and craft some of the greatest music the United States has ever produced in the face of the massive racial animosity happening outside the studio. Memphis and Muscle Shoals were the centers of this music making. Patterson Hood has of course talked about how his father David Hood, who was a key member of the Muscle Shoals session players, recorded with everyone from Aretha Franklin to the Rolling Stones during these times. And although everyone knows that Sam Phillips turned his back on black musicians the moment he found Elvis Presley, the general narrative of racial harmony in the music studios of the region remains strong.
Charles Hughes pushes back against this narrative convincingly. He dates this to Peter Guralnick’s Sweet Soul Music, who claimed that in the 60s, the southern studios were highlights of integration until the assassination of Martin Luther King and the rise of Black Power destroyed the spirit of cooperation. This southern soul helped redeem the South from its racist past by helping young white southerners like Steve Cropper, Dan Penn, and Duck Dunn turn their back on the racist past of their people.
The problem is that these stories almost always privilege white heroes and leave the black musicians in the background, if they are really in the story at all. Hughes notes that a 1999 panel at the University of North Alabama about Muscle Shoals music history had only white panelists–Rich Hall, Buddy Killen, Sam Phillips, and Jerry Wexler. They all talked about how important R&B was for them and for music history. There was not a single black perspective on this. For Hughes, this sort of myth-making with white heroes obscures more than it reveals. From the beginning of the Memphis and Muscle Shoals studios, the whites involved promoted them as representing integration but that construction actually said that the music’s real value was liberating white people from both their racism and their sound. Thus Janis Joplin at the 1968 Stax Christmas show claimed “being black for awhile will make me a better white” and the Memphis studios based their big commercial investments on artists like Dusty Springfield recording in “black styles.”
Thinking about the recording studio as a workplace, he lauds and contextualizes the professionalism of the musicians in the studios with the reality that the country and soul produced in Memphis, Nashville, and Muscle Shoals was not only not a respite from the racial inequalities of the United States but helped produce them as white musicians found ways to profit and capitalize off black music while leaving those black musicians behind. This labor approach is quite valuable for it shifts us away from myth-making and to the actual conditions of work in the music industry. White musicians simply had more power than black musicians. That’s not to mention that nearly all the producers and executives were white, at least until Stax explicitly defined itself as the label of Black Power after 1968. White musicians could borrow from black styles and play in black bands but the same simply was never true for the opposite arrangement. The single large exception to this is the country musician Charley Pride, but Pride explicitly avoided anything remotely controversial or that would offend his audience. He was hardly the only black musician who loved country music, as Hughes shows again and again, but he’s the single crossover exception who could make it.
A number of figures come off looking not great here. Steve Cropper, the famed guitarist for Booker T & the MGs, was often described as perhaps a bit racist by black musicians and he openly complained about soul becoming the music of Black Power. Hughes notes how frequently Cropper, Dan Penn, and others basically used segregationist language like “outside agitators” who were “brainwashing” the good quiet black people happy with the way things were in response to the rise of Black Power in the studios after 1968. Of course, they were wrong about that, but if Cropper and Penn might have seen the studio as a place where race didn’t matter, black musicians saw and felt these things very differently. White musicians benefited from white privilege they did not recognize in themselves. Again, these musicians were professionals and played together as such. But there was no racial paradise in the studios. At times there was enormous tension, as when Aretha Franklin came to Muscle Shoals and her husband got into a racially charged fight with some of the white musicians in the session. Today, the white studio musicians of these movements remain much better known than the black musicians.
Even when country became the voice of white racial backlash by 1970 (I was unaware of Merle Haggard’s wretched and racist “I’m a White Boy” but it’s notable that he recorded this not long after the anti-racist “Irma Jackson,” suggesting that Haggard, like most musicians, primarily wanted to make money) and soul became the voice of Black Power, the two genres were still exchanging musicians and songs all the time. For as right-wing as country music became in the 1970s, it was borrowing more from black music than ever. Even the Osmond Brothers had their big hit with “One Bad Apple” that was a perfection of the soul style, so much so that black critics claimed whites were once again stealing black cultural resources. Soul studios at the height of Black Power still used white musicians while country singers still borrowed soul styles and songs. But not soul musicians, who were again left behind. By the late 1970s, soul music had lots its relevancy, with the new northern-based disco becoming the predominant form of African-American music, followed by another northern genre, hip-hop while country found itself easily adopting disco styles with soul’s decline. Country was able to transform its sound by adopting the new black styles while also changing its demographic from rural to suburban while soul music became the voice of nostalgia, not cutting edge innovation. The white musicians of the Nashville-Memphis-Muscle Shoals had little trouble continuing to work. The black musicians on the other hand, struggled.
I could say much more about Country Soul, which I highly recommend to anyone interested in the intersection of music and race in American society.