It might not be immediately obvious to first-time listeners, but the members of Belle Adair have a deep reverence for Muscle Shoals music history. It's an easy thing to overlook: with their 2018 album Tuscumbia, the Alabama foursome frequently nod to the Byrds and Big Star with bright, jangling guitars and shimmering vocal harmonies instead of the combination of swampy and earthy sounds one usually associates with the area.
But the band, led by singer-songwriter Matt Green, laid the tracks for Tuscumbia – named for a town that neighbors Muscle Shoals – at Rick Hall's Fame Studios, the same place where iconic records by Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett were cut decades earlier. It was released via Single Lock records, the Florence, Alabama-based boutique imprint co-founded by songwriter John Paul White – with whom Belle Adair's members have supported as a backing band – and Alabama Shakes member Ben Tanner, who has toured with Belle Adair. Ranging from the gorgeous 12-string guitar work and sighing harmonies of "Long Fade Out" to the dreamy melancholy of album closer "Rest Easy," the album radiates a feeling of serenity even as it wrestles with more disquieting matters.
This week Belle Adair plays a pair of shows (including a Single Lock-sponsored event on March 14th) during South by Southwest, before taking a short break from the road. Rolling Stone Country spoke with leader Matthew Green on a phone call from Philadelphia (where he spends a big chunk of his time while his wife is in graduate school) and touched on Muscle Shoals history and feeling the band coalesce into something permanent.
With the rise of Single Lock Records, it seems like musicians from the Muscle Shoals area are saying, "Hey, we never stopped making great music here."
I was born in '82, so the Eighties to Nineties I don't really know what all was going on in town just because I was so young. But since the early 2000s, there's definitely been more stuff slowly percolating there and it is different in a lot of ways from what came before in the Fifties and Sixties and Seventies, but it's also in a lot of ways completely dependent upon that past success. The difference now is that it's more people or artists creating original music themselves, going out and touring, whereas before it was more about the studios and the session musicians and bringing artists in to make records. There was still tons of originality within what they were doing. They made amazing records, but they didn't really tour.
Your sound doesn't have a lot of the country, soul or Americana hallmarks we usually associate with the Shoals. Where do you see Belle Adair fitting into that lineage?
I definitely don't consider us to fall under that Americana-country umbrella. Our first record is a little bit folkier maybe. I think that's mostly a result of me writing those songs without a band on an acoustic guitar before I'd ever put the project together, you know, as a full band. I think that was a natural inclination that I had then in terms of songwriting. I feel like we fall more into some sort of a pop realm and not in terms of "popular."
Do you think when Big Star was making power pop out of Memphis, that maybe they were defining that sound as part of the Memphis tradition as well?
I think so. The thing about a band like Big Star is, they're Southern. You can hear that even though Alex Chilton sings with a fake British accent sometimes. You can hear the groove in a lot of that stuff, which to me is what probably defines it as "Southern." The British Invasion was built on all that stuff too. The underpinnings of what the music is, it's definitely guys who grew up in the South who were listening to music that was made in the South that was groove-oriented – a lot of it is. With our stuff, I hope that we can actually swing sometimes. There's so many bands that I love and listen to but they don't necessarily swing like that. So I hope that's something we can incorporate. We're definitely not trying to be not of the place we're from. We take the Shoals area, the history of it, very seriously in what we do. That's why we made the record at Fame, because we wanted to make it the way that they always made records there. That was a big deal to us.
And you named it Tuscumbia, for crying out loud.
That too. We're very much of a place and of a particular time in everything that's going on right now. There's other bands in town too that don't really fall under a really strict Americana umbrella. There's bands like the Pollies. They have some of that, but they're different. It's a little noisier rock stuff.
With the previous album, you had written a lot of those songs on an acoustic guitar. How were things different with Tuscumbia?
It was more having a stable lineup, a stable band ... and learning the strengths of the band from playing with them over time and thinking about how to incorporate more songs with vocal harmonies, because Adam the guitarist is a good vocal harmony singer. He also has a 12-string guitar, let's figure out ways to incorporate that into songs. Mostly with songwriting it's me alone in a room, but I think the difference between the first and the second record is that with the second one, there was more clarity about what the band was or was gonna be and how to write songs based on what we were. Whereas with the first record, there wasn't a band at all and there wasn't a thought of like, I'm gonna write these songs and put a band together and make a record.
You originally recorded Tuscumbia three years ago. What took it so long to see the light of day?
It was pretty much done in May of 2015. We even had that artwork pretty early on, too, not too long after that. It was a series of events that led to it being shelved for so long. Some of those reasons were personal to me. My wife is in grad school – she started in the fall of 2016 and she was in Rome, so I was overseas a lot and this all coincided with us starting to play with John [Paul White]. He put a record out in August of 2016, but we started touring with him before that, so we were pretty heavy and busy with him throughout 2016 and most of 2017 and my time off from that was mostly spent overseas for like a year.
Now I'm doing the same thing in Philadelphia. There were a lot of personal issues, and also the professional things – starting to play with John, and I had toured with Dylan Leblanc some before that, so that took up a decent amount of my time. There were just a lot of moving parts and just trying to find the right opening to put out the record where we could actually devote our time to it, just took awhile to see where that hole was going to open up, and it finally did.