Muscle Shoals is internationally renowned for its vast musical history. Legends such as Elvis Presley, the Rolling Stones, Aretha Franklin and the Black Keys have all recorded hit songs in the studios there. 2013 brought a new chapter to that history with the birth of one of Alabama hottest up-and-coming labels, Single Lock Records.
Friends Ben Tanner, Will Trapp and Grammy winner and Civil Wars founder John Paul White formed Single Lock when the three were trying to establish a vibrant new recording space in the area.
“The idea of starting a studio evolved in parallel with wanting to start a label and then became one bigger idea,” Tanner says. ”I’ve had different recording studio situations for a while going on for the past five or six years. So, Will and I began talking about the studio idea in late 2012.”
Serendipitously, White had acquired a space that he was considering turning into a studio at that time. Tanner contacted White about using the studio to record a few acts they had become interested in.
“I told J.P. that we were thinking about doing some sort of record label,” Tanner continues, “and that he was welcome to be as involved or uninvolved as he wanted, but he wanted in. There’s not a lot of separation between the studio and the Single Lock label. The label exists to facilitate the making of records, and hopefully help make better records than artists could make on their own.”
Naming themselves after the single-lock Wilson Dam on the Tennessee River and inspired by the rich sounds and studio successes that the Shoals was already known for, Tanner, Trapp and White began seeking out and recording their favorite acts from around the area, including the Alabama Shakes and St. Paul and the Broken Bones.
“I’m a big fan of the music that has been made here, but more than that, I’m inspired by the work ethic and professionalism,” Tanner says. “The folks that made Muscle Shoals famous worked extremely hard at their craft, whether they were musicians, singers, songwriters or producers.”
“Muscle Shoals has a real soul to it,” says Jesse Phillips, bassist and founding member of St. Paul and the Broken Bones. “I know a lot of that has to do with places like FAME Studios and all the people that have recorded there. But the whole area just feels soulful. And the Single Lock guys really embody that spirit: no egos, no big money. It’s all about the music.”
Tanner wasn’t actually planning on staying in the Shoals for long, given how much the area, as well the music industry itself, has changed since its heyday in the ‘60s and ‘70s, but decided to stay when he found that the music scene was alive and well.
“I moved back to the Shoals in 2006 to work at FAME, expecting to maybe stay two or three years and move on, but I found a really strong community of musicians around my age that was growing and continues to grow. It’s a really special place right now, full of diverse talent and collaboration. I think it’s as vibrant now as it’s ever been, and I’ve heard some of the “old guard” musicians say there’s more talent here now than ever. And that generation is extremely supportive, and many of them are still thriving players, too, so it makes for a great creative situation.”
It’s this bridging of old and new that has been the key to much of Single Lock’s success thus far. Utilizing classic spaces like FAME and the NuttHouse, Single Lock manages to obtain a vintage sound with both classic and modern equipment through sheer passion. They still press most of their releases onto vinyl records with reverence to the recording industry of yesteryear.
“I personally like vinyl a lot,” Tanner says. ”I like having a physical artifact, and I think lots of other music fans do, too. Technology has allowed nearly infinite portability of music, which is convenient, but some people still want a tangible experience with what they’re listening to. I don’t think that will ever go away completely – at least I hope not. And for Single Lock, it’s just really cool to have a warm-sounding vinyl record in your hands as tangible evidence of what you’ve done.”
With their goals set more on tradition and sonic purity rather than getting rich, Single Lock Records thrives not off of profitability, but by keeping the music community alive and jamming.
“We’ve seen a lot of support from bands and fans alike, which I hope will only grow as we release more records,” Tanner says.
The future is looking bright for the label with the breakout success of St. Paul and the Broken Bones’ debut Half the City, as well as their ever-growing artist base. Belle Adair was featured on Spin.com last year and acts like the Pollies and Dan Dyer are starting to gain real traction on the college radio airwaves.
“The next Single Lock release will be from the Nashville-based instrumental band Steelism in September,” Tanner says. “The record’s really cool, and they’re awesome live. But as far as the label is concerned, for better and worse, we’re making up a lot as we go.”