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The devil was beating his wife as I crossed the Alabama state line. I was driving from Nashville, in a hurry to reach Muscle Shoals, and I had gotten to the point where I-65 snakes down from middle Tennessee’s Highland Rim. When the highway levels out again and runs straight, you’re in the cotton-growing Heart of Dixie, as Alabama has been known since the 1950s.
The windshield wipers on my rental car frantically tried to keep pace with an August downpour. Then, in a clap, the sun broke through and electrified the gloom, even as the rain continued to fall — in Southern folklore, that’s the devil beating his wife. Luminous spray trembled above the road, and sunlight bounced off wet pastures on either side. Light and mist rose together, particulate gold. On the stereo, Aretha Franklin’s voice climbed through the verses of “Mary, Don’t You Weep,” shining in glory with the sun. When the clouds closed again, I was off the interstate and on a two-lane behind a car with the license plate LUV BAMA. I passed a field of King Cotton, its leaves dark as poison ivy.
Muscle Shoals was not meant to be on my itinerary, but I was in Nashville when I heard about Aretha’s death, and decided to pay my respects at FAME Studios, where the Queen of Soul laid down tracks that would eventually become her career-defining hit record, I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You. I bought a funeral wreath and a vintage LP of Aretha’s Gold to leave as tributes and drove to FAME in a car called Soul — honest to goodness, the rental agency issued me a Kia Soul. The studio would close at five.
When I got there at 4:15, the nice man in the front office listened to my story and said the last tour of the day had already begun, but I was welcome to join it. I pushed open a door into the carpeted studio. A FAME sound engineer interrupted his tour to greet me. “Come in,” he said. “I’m telling some stories about Aretha Franklin.”
He was in the middle of a famous one: how Atlantic Records producer Jerry Wexler had brought Franklin to FAME to record with the Swampers, the house band that would go on to back the Rolling Stones, Etta James, and Paul Simon, earning the group — and FAME itself — music immortality. The session lasted just one day because of a drunken fight between Aretha’s husband and a musician. The Swampers later flew to New York to finish the album’s title track as well as “Respect,” Aretha’s first number one hit. The Queen had arrived, and her reign began on a single day in this very room, the sound engineer said.
The visitors glanced around, shook their heads, made little noises. One spoke: “It was a….” he said, before words buckled under the weight of his awe. The engineer finished the thought for him — for all of us. “It was a milestone.”
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