On Saturday morning, during a panel discussion titled Telling Stories in the Modern South, fashion designer Billy Reid blushed as he noted a rather surprising statistic – that Alabama has the third most members of the Council for Fashion Designers of America, ranking right after New York and Los Angeles. Speaking in a small but packed event space in downtown Florence, Alabama, just outside Muscle Shoals, Reid's statement proved quite an applause line to townspeople in the room. But such a display of local pride might be uncommon in the region. Florence native and fellow panelist John Paul White of the Civil Wars, whose band had the Number One album on Billboard earlier this month, offered a theory.
"We're taught as Southern[ers] – especially Southern men – that you don't get above your raisin'," he explained. "If you ever elevated your status where I was from, that's who got bullied."
The talk was part of Reid's fifth annual Shindig in the Shoals, a hot August weekend of events the designer hosts in his adopted hometown of Florence, to showcase the best the swampy Southern oasis has to offer in the arenas of art, music, food and fashion. It's a celebration of contemporary below-Mason-Dixon culture that draws on the region's roots for inspiration.
This year the event boasted musical performances by rockabilly revivalist J.D. McPherson, neo-trad-country duo the Secret Sisters and greasy R&B throwback ensemble St. Paul and the Broken Bones, among others, along with slow-cooked grub from a few of the region's best chefs and a sold-out, hometown screening of director Greg "Freddy" Camalier's epic documentary Muscle Shoals, which debuted at Sundance earlier this year and tells the story behind 'Bama's legendary Fame and Muscle Shoals Sound studios.
Reid related how he got started in fashion in the late Nineties. "I was making clothes that I wanted to wear but I couldn't buy them," he said during the panel discussion.
"The craftsman mentality really is a modern movement, and I think that's what's happening in the South, and certainly here," Reid told Rolling Stone, explaining the common thread between the classic American-style cuts that line the racks of his downtown storefront, the dramatic rise of rock-R&B indie rulers the Alabama Shakes (from nearby Athens) and biscuit trucks that serve farm-fresh, organic egg-and-cheese breakfast sandwiches to bohemian types in an alleyway outside a late-night rock show.
"I think a big part of things that are modern right now is things that are real, with people behind them – people with a story, or people with a purpose," he goes on. "A lot of things that are modern now are actually things that have been taken from the simplest, most basic things, and that's sort of what's happening musically here."
While the Civil Wars remain on indefinite hiatus and White has kept a low profile in recent months, he's been busy in the Muscle Shoals area. He talked briefly about Single Lock Records, an indie label he's started with Alabama Shakes keyboardist Ben Tanner and other partners, at Saturday's panel discussion, held at an unnamed event space/music venue the label will curate in conjunction with Reid.
"There's absolutely no criteria for who we want to be on this label," White said of Single Lock. "[B]ut we have to feel this sense of 'they're in it for the right reasons,' which is that they want to make music that they deeply feel in their heart is great . . . That sounds simple, but [for] nine out of 10 people, that is not the way they go after it."
Releases by St. Paul and the Broken Bones, the Bear (Tanner's genre-bending second band) and country-rockers Belle Adair are among the artists – all from the region – on the Single Lock roster. "A huge part of what this label wants to do is to put the power back in the hands of the artist, [and] put the profit back in the hands of the artist," White explained.
White is also producing a solo album by Shoals luminary and longtime Kris Kristofferson keyboardist Donnie Fritts. The Civil Wars singer initiated the project and contributed a tune called "Ran Out of Ways to Say I'm Sorry" for the album.
"I couldn't say no to this kid," Fritts tells Rolling Stone. "This kid is one of the nicest kids I've ever met in my life . . . Extremely talented."
For Reid, the boosterism behind Shindig isn't just aimed at party-ready interlopers traveling into town to soak in a sweaty, slow-paced weekend of barbeque and badass rhythm and blues. It's also for Shoals locals who've taken for granted what's in their boundless backyard.
On Friday night, Shindig revelers and North Alabama natives gathered in Florence's Wilson Park for an all-killer lineup of local up-and-comers, including the Single Lock Records bands. In between sets, on a small stage rising a foot or so off the ground and covered by a square white canopy, the Decoys performed. They're an R&B combo boasting session vets Spooner Oldham and David Hood of the Swampers, the legendary Muscle Shoals rhythm section heard on Aretha Franklin's, Wilson Pickett's, Etta James' and countless others' classic recordings.
The deep South's answer to the Funk Brothers, veritable architects of the Muscle Shoals sound copped by rockers ranging from Rod Stewart to the Black Keys, the Decoys played hits from that storied musical history with note-perfect precision as locals littered the park socializing and sitting in camping chairs, totally unfazed by a performance hoards of music fans around the world would kill to see.
"[In England] this would be at Royal Albert Hall!" said Reid. "It is a little more commonplace [here] because those guys are still active. Maybe some of that comes from the fact that they were studio musicians for so many incredible [stars]. Their demeanor had to be a certain way."
"They love blues music in London, England more than people here in Muscle Shoals care for it," said legendary Fame house producer Rick Hall, who helmed hits such as Pickett's "Mustang Sally" and Percy Sledge's "When a Man Loves a Woman." "When I go over there I'm treated like a king. But the Rolling Stones can walk into a grocery store here, spend two hours, and nobody knows who they are. Not only the Rolling Stones, but Tom Jones, the Osmonds or anybody else that recorded here. So it's tough – it's a tough audience."
In the Seventies, the Shoals-branded Southern funky sound made the rural region a tourist destination of sorts for rockers like the Stones, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Paul Simon, Traffic, Bob Seger and others. The studios the rock world classic cuts like "Wild Horses," "Kodachrome" and "Mainstreet," along with Southern rock as a genre. It's where Duane Allman got his start as a session guitarist and where "Freebird" was born.
"Being there does inspire you to do something different," says Mick Jagger in the Shoals film, telling the story behind writing and tracking Sticky Fingers favorites like "Wild Horses" and "Brown Sugar" at Muscle Shoals Sound. Big artists are still coming to the area for inspiration: the Black Keys recorded their commercial breakthrough album Brothers at Muscle Shoals Sound Studios in 2009.
"Hopefully that really will inspire more people to want to come here from all over the place, like, 'Man, I want to do what the Stones did,'" Reid said.
Before the film screening, hometown heroes the Secret Sisters played a five-song set from their upcoming sophomore record, Put Your Needle Down, produced by T Bone Burnett.
"I think a bunch of people might wonder if we still play music at all anymore," the aw-shucks-y duo's Laura Rogers joked from the Shoals Theatre stage. Midway through their short set Rogers gave a shout-out to Florence: "I really think this is the little town that everybody wishes they were from," she said.