Muscle Shoals, Alabama. The very mention of that little town in the southern United States always catches the attention of a true music fan. It is a place of historical significance, a true melting pot of musical genres that had led to some of the greatest recorded music in history. Artists like Aretha Franklin, The Rolling Stones, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Bob Seger, The Staple Singers, Paul Simon, Art Garfunkel and Willie Nelson are just a few of the legends that have created some of their best work in those hallowed studios. Indeed, when artists record at the FAME and Muscle Shoals Sound Studios, magic happens. How could it not? The artists, from the lead singer, to the producers, to the musicians, all push themselves just that little bit more.
Such is the case with The Muscle Shoals Sessions (Rueben), the latest release from Amy Black. For this project, Amy takes her music in a completely different direction, fusing soul, country and blues. This move from her comfort zone pays off handsomely, as this record is one of the most underrated albums of 2015. It's a stellar piece of work that is unique to the Americana landscape today.
The album kicks off appropriately with a sultry version of Sam Cooke's "Bring It On Home", starting with a simple guitar and Black's powerful vocals. This introduction gives way to a purely funky version of this classic, and it sets the bar high for the rest of the album. Black re-introduces us to the spoken word concept in a portion of the Spooner Oldham/Dan Penn written "Uptight, Good Man", a performance that perfectly captures the message for women to not settle for anything less than the good man they desire.
"Watch Dog" perfectly captures the everything that you would expect from an album paying hommage to the history of the music of Muscle Shoals. Originally a hit for Etta James, Ms. Black breathes new life in to this soul classic with her powerful vocals and backed by a piercing horn section and outstanding background vocals by Ann and Regina McCrary (of McCrary Sisters fame). From this great funky number that's built for dancing, the album moves to one of its real highlights. "Starting All Over Again" is a beautifully written song about the painful realization one feels when they realize they must dial the relationship back a step or two. She captures the emotions perferctly, detailing the tough task ahead with the hope that the relationship will move forward and prosper with this step backward. It's an adult song for an adult subject.
While there are some brilliant selections that have been covered on this record, this is more than a cover album. Not to rest on her laurels, Ms. Black makes valuable contributions to this album with her own songwriting. She takes us to the back rooms and the back waters with the swampy-sounding groove of "Get To Me." "Woman On Fire" kicks things back up a notch with a pounding back beat that helps capture the sultry feel of the song, which once again highlights Ms. Black's vocal prowess and showcases what the McCrary's can bring to a song with their backing vocals. "Please Don't Give Up On Me" is a beautiful song of regret and apology, it is one of the finest songs on the album. If the goal for Amy Black was to contribute songs that stand with the spirit that is the music from Muscle Shoals, than we can conclusively say, mission accomplished.
This is a finely crafted album that pays hommage to one of the truly great music centers in the world. It's an authentic and pure tribute to Amy's roots and the sound that has defined music for generations. She's got the soul, she's got the funk and she captures it all on this record. With "The Muscle Shoals Sessions", Amy Black moves to the front of the class among Americana's finest and most diverse singer-songwriters.