Tough Talk: Muscle Shoals Has Got the Swampers

Posted on Wednesday, April 19, 2017

By: Kevin Biller

Not long ago, the great people of our great country underwent one of the most fractious elections in my lifetime. Most political “experts” were fooled as to who all their polls and comprehensive studies had predicted to win. The campaigns were unequivocally divisive and bitter, pitting urban dwellers against country folk, coastal enclaves against “fly-over” states, and family members against each other.

New words entered our daily lexicon. Novel terminology like “fake news,” “dog whistles” and “alternate facts” became part of our vocabulary. Moreover, the pervasive and unrelenting barrage waged on social media left us angry, passionate and, more often than not, perplexed. I must admit that I unfriended numerous contacts from my Facebook account, including family, friends and professional colleagues. And when your misguided, but zealous Uncle George didn’t make your blood boil with his political views, the apathy of a wide swath of the younger generation did as they abandoned the privilege to cast a vote because they couldn’t support any candidate.

I’m passionate about my personal beliefs and the current state of our country, the world and our collective future. But as I peer beyond our differences, I still see kind-hearted people dedicated to the common goal of promoting the best that America has to offer our industry. I recall individuals with whom I clashed politically yet have worked with tirelessly to solve a frantic customer’s production line disaster. I recognize some of these individuals as colleagues who I have stood shoulder to shoulder with to establish and launch the modest humanitarian goal of the PCI Scholarship. Indeed, some of those who I will never see eye to eye with politically were the first to step up when I needed a donation for a not-for-profit manufacturing enterprise in Africa.

When we step back, take a deep breath and look at the needs of our country and our industry, we have to stand united to advance quality, efficiency and innovation. We cannot allow our personal views to poison our professional relationships and stymie this progress.

To be honest, it has taken me a while to reset my mindset and look beyond our differences to focus on industry goals. Recently I learned a very valuable lesson from an unexpected source. Late one Friday evening as I was nestled with my sweetheart and a refreshing adult beverage, I channelsurfed my way to a spellbinding documentary regarding the early days of the Rock ’n Roll industry. This movie, modestly entitled “Muscle Shoals,” told the story of a fledgling recording studio located in the middle of nowhere in northwest Alabama. Much of the story was narrated by Tom Hill, the mastermind behind the studio that changed the sound and face of contemporary music from the 1960s through 1980s.

Besides Mr. Hill’s relentless quest for perfection in musical quality, the backbone of this small studio was a rhythm section of unassuming local musicians called the Swampers. They were a group of about a half dozen white fellas with a surprising funky, soulful approach to music. My unwitting connection with these guys sprang from the immortal line in Lynyrd Skynyrd’s 1974 hit, “Sweet Home Alabama,” which is, “...now Muscle Shoals has got the Swampers.”

What struck me as I absorbed the unfolding story was how these people from vastly divergent backgrounds created some of the most iconic music of the 20th century. They backed up artists as varied as Aretha Franklin (“Respect” and “I Never Loved a Man”), The Rolling Stones (“Brown Sugar” and “Wild Horses”), Wilson Pickett (“Mustang Sally”), Bob Seger (“Mainstreet” and “Night Moves”), Etta James (“Tell Mama”), and Paul Simon (“Kodachrome”).

The players mused about how their craft transcended political, racial and gender lines during this tumultuous era. After sessions, they would encounter stares of disapproval when they grabbed a bite to eat at a local diner with musicians. Undeterred, they shouldered on to create some of the most imaginative and soulful songs of their generation.

The story of the Swampers and their historic accomplishments compels me to recast my gaze upon our fair industry and the fine people who have made it what it is today. We will succeed as an industry and as a country if we cast away our differing points of view and focus on common goals and our innate decency.

Kevin Biller is technical editor of Powder Coated Tough magazine and president of The Powder Coating Research Group. He can be reached via email at kevinbiller@yahoo.com.