Building on What You’ve Got

Rick Hall built an unlikely music industry in the town of Muscle Shoals, Alabama. It’s a textbook case of assets-based development.

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EDITOR’S NOTE: Most folks will know Rick Hall (who died this week at age 85) as the legendary record producer who spun some of the most important popular songs of the 20th century with artists like Aretha Franklin, Wilson Picket, Etta James, and a host of others famous and not so famous. 

But for Daily Yonder readers, there’s another title that applies to this rural-raised hitmaker: asset-based community developer.

In a region where folks didn’t have a lot, Hall built on the area’s musical strengths to create an internationally renowned recording studio and music publishing business. His work spawned an entire industry in the Muscle Shoals area that established careers for countless numbers of musicians, writers, producers, and technicians. And it was built on the strengths of an economically challenged region and the ambition of a rural entrepreneur. 

Rick Hall’s story is fundamentally rural. In this excerpt from his 2015 memoir, Hall describes in loving detail the North Alabama upbringing that underpinned his career.

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My father, Herman Hall, was a Southern saw miller during those dark, distant days that history now is calling the Great Depression. Most of his early life was spent within the deep, sprawling, isolated woods that connected the rural regions of northwest Alabama and Mississippi.

That remote, untamed section of timber country was known in local lore as Freedom Hills. The word “freedom” was taken literally all across that wild region, where the closest gas station or country store was 20 miles away. The land was all free range, which means that for miles and miles nobody had fences, and all cattle and livestock ran free. The whole countryside was made up of steep hills, towering bluffs, and massive caves surrounded by clear, mountain streams and waterfalls. The cool, flowing spring water fed into a system of small creeks and branches that were lined with mountain laurel, wild honeysuckle, huckleberry bushes, ginseng, and star root. We lived among all kinds of wildlife – wild goats, deer, wild boar, and turkeys. My dad often hunted this free-roaming game to put food on our table. You could sit on the back porch of our simple little sawmill shack, look down into the steep hollow below and see red fox squirrels jumping through the trees by the dozens after a heavy rain. Dad would often shoot these squirrels for meat with a .22 rifle, which was good eating, especially with hot biscuits and sawmill gray, but it took two or three squirrels to make a decent meal for four people and squirrels are small targets. Today, I doubt that you could find one single red-fox squirrel within 10 miles because of the heavy logging equipment that has demolished all of the beautiful forest and wildlife in a region that once seemed so peacefully removed from civilization.

In looks and character, my father always seemed to personify the rough, rugged, individual spirit of Freedom Hill. He was a coal-black-haired man with an olive complexion and dark-brown, deep-set eyes. Dad was tall, slim, and wiry and never weighed more than 160 pounds in his life, but physically and mentally he was an extremely tough man. He could size people up as soon as he laid eyes on them, and his instincts were almost always accurate. He was the kind of man you never wanted to tangle with. He sensed when people were sincere and knew when they were lying, and was dangerously quick to tell them so. He was a quiet man and a loner who didn’t spend a lot of time with anyone except his kids, his brothers, sisters and their kids, and a few select friends. The friends he picked he totally trusted, loved and relied on.

My dad only had a seventh-grade education, and his limited schooling was centered around a little community school called Pogo, which was located on the banks of Cedar Creek in the heart of Freedom Hills. Dad grew up, went to school and played with his buddies on that rich bottomland known as the Cedar Creek Bottoms. My dad’s family settled in a little crossroads community called Bloody Springs, which got its name from a large spring where wounded Civil War soldiers crawled to drink their last soothing sips of cool water. The spring became red with blood of causalities and hence got its name. Franklin County, Alabama, which was a large part of the Freedom Hills, was made up of tiny backwoods towns like Pogo, Tick Hill, Pleasant Site, and Bloody Springs. During the Depression, when times were so unbearably tough, the people who lived in these little dirt-poor, down-and-out country towns never lost their faith in God or country.

From The Man from Muscle Shoals: My Journey from Shame to Fame. 2015. Heritage Builders Publishing.

Rick Hall and other musical pioneers of Muscle Shoals are featured in the 2013 documentary “Muscle Shoals.”

 

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