Connecting With History: The "Saving Grace" Recording Sessions In Muscle Shoals & Memphis
As he approached the front door of FAME Studios in mid December, Scott Sharrard paused for a moment to feel the vibes of the legendary recordings captured within the building immortalized by the documentary film Muscle Shoals. Sharrard, the lead guitarist and musical director for the Gregg Allman Band, was fully appreciative of the journey that he and his own band had taken to record a new album at FAME.
“Welcome to church,” said Sharrard before opening the front door and entering the FAME lobby that greets visitors with wall-to-wall pictures of the patron saints from a host of musical genres.
On this day of recording for Sharrard, it was fitting that the most prominent picture visible when taking two steps into the FAME lobby was a framed poster of Duane Allman intensely playing his guitar. Later in the second day of recording for his new album, recently entitled Saving Grace, Sharrard and the team at FAME would be welcoming Duane’s 1957 Les Paul Goldtop guitar back to the studios for the first time since Duane had worked there as a session musician for FAME founder Rick Hall.
Sharrard is no stranger to Duane’s Goldtop. In fact, the famous guitar that Duane used on Wilson Pickett’s version of “Hey Jude” at FAME and the Layla recordings with Eric Clapton as well as the Allman Brothers’ first two albums essentially bookended 2016 for Sharrard. Last January, Sharrard opened the year by playing Duane’s Goldtop during a run of shows at the Grand Opera House in Macon with the Gregg Allman Band. In December, the Goldtop, which is on display at the Allman Brothers Museum in Macon, made the trek to Muscle Shoals for the recording session.
“The instrument brings something out of everyone who touches it because of its connection to Duane. And when any of us touch it, it’s like having a conversation with the instrument. I think that’s special,” expressed Sharrard, a life-long Allman Brothers fan and the guitarist in Gregg’s band for a decade. “When you play that instrument with Gregg Allman’s voice, that is a very rare opportunity. When you put that guitar in the bridge pick-up – that was sort of Duane’s sound on those first records – and when you put the glass slide on and when you start going back and forth with Gregg Allman on “Trouble No More,” that, for me, was the spine-tingling moment.”
An avid student of music history with a true appreciation of what it means to be working on the new album with a group of Muscle Shoals and Memphis studio legends, including Spooner Oldham who played on Pickett’s Mustang Sally along with countless other classics, Sharrard clearly understood the significance of having the opportunity to play the Goldtop at FAME.
“When you put that much history literally in your hands, you just have to go, ‘Who Am I?’ You can’t say I am going to do this for him (Duane), because you can’t. You can never measure yourself against that achievement,” observed Sharrard. “All you can do is say I’ve gotten this far, I’m holding this instrument and I’m here. All you can you be is who you are in the moment and embrace the moment.”
Manhattan->Muscle Shoals: An Epic Quest: Crowd-Funding An Album
Sharrard and his management team embraced the challenge of addressing the financial hurdles to fund the creative opportunity to record the new album at FAME and at Electrophonic Recording in Memphis. A series of conversations between Sharrard and his manager, Jesse Guglielmo, and Scott Bomar, co-producer on the album, planted the seeds for the approach the team would take to developing the project. Though Sharrard is a studio veteran with previous solo albums as part of his recording catalog, he has closely observed the significant changes in the business of music over the years.
“We have to embrace different avenues now because there is no patronage in the corporate record system any more. It is completely gone,” said Sharrard, noting the path he sees to clearing the hurdles for bringing albums to life for his fans. “First of all, it’s direct to fan. That’s my whole principle. We are bonded. There is no arbiter. There’s no in-between. I’m going to make it, you’re going to help and I will do my best to connect at all levels, which includes music education and different types of fan interaction that we have never seen before.”
For his album, Sharrard and Jesse chose PledgeMusic.com as their crowdfunding platform, and Jesse entitled the campaign, “Manhattan To Muscle Shoals To Memphis: An Epic Quest.” The title notes the legendary locations where the album has been recorded, which was inspired by connections that Sharrard has made over the past few years through his work with the Gregg Allman Band.
“Scott Bomar would always ask me, ‘When you are coming to Memphis to make your record?’” recalled Sharrard. “The FAME Studios thing came in also in kind of a sneaky way. A couple of years ago, I was asked to participate in the Muscle Shoals (documentary film) release party in New York City. Gregg Allman was singing and I came and played guitar. Patterson Hood, David Hood, Spooner Oldham and Jimmy Johnson were also there. Once I met those guys there, we hit it off and had a lot of fun. They were telling Gregg, ‘Man, you should come to FAME and make a record.’”
In the spring of 2016, Allman returned to FAME for the first since the 1960s with Sharrard and the other members of the Gregg Allman Band to record Southern Blood, an album that is slated for release in 2017. And while Oldham and rest of the legendary Muscle Shoals “Swampers” did not perform on Allman’s new album, they did visit the sessions and it sparked an idea for Sharrard.
“I said, ‘Man, wouldn’t it be something else if I could make a record here.’ It all came together when Scott Bomar and I got real serious about it. Jesse was helping and we were getting the whole thing together,” explained Sharrard. “I said to Bomar, ‘What do you think about doing the whole thing in Muscle Shoals and Memphis?’ He said, ‘Wow, that’s ambitious, but maybe we can pull it off.’ Without Bomar and Jesse, we wouldn’t be able to pull it together at all.”
The PledgeMusic.com drive reached its target goal in mid December for financing the production of the album as part of the direct-to-fan strategy. Sharrard and his management team have also included a small group of close friends who chose to support the project as Executive Producers for the album. In late February, Sharrard announced through PledgeMusic.com that the album would be entitled Saving Grace.
Sharrard’s album campaign, which is donating a portion of all proceeds to the Harlem Arts Festival in New York, will remain open and continue to offer exclusive fan experiences as well as inside information while the management team complete plans for the album’s release, which is slated for 2017.
“I have the deepest gratitude for everyone who has contributed. It makes a huge difference and, hopefully, we can live up to everyone’s expectations. We are doing our very best. We love making music – all of us,” said Sharrard, brimming with the excitement of having the opportunity to collaborate with music legends in both Muscle Shoals and in Memphis. “When we had our first day of tracking, I talked to my wife about it. She really understands music. She has an incredible ear. She asked what happened, and I told her that I would never be able to describe what these guys did to my songs.”
Applying The Knowledge Gained By Working With A Great Mentor
While having the privilege of serving as Gregg Allman’s lead guitarist and earning his place as the musical director for a Rock And Roll Hall of Famer, Sharrard looks to Gregg as a mentor and he remains observant of both the big and subtle things his legendary boss does.
“It’s been an incredible mentorship process that I have gone through with him. I pay attention to everything that he says, and I try to bring forward the best principles of what he does. He puts the music first – always,” explained Sharrard. “No matter what he has achieved with his rock stardom, it’s very irrelevant at the end of the day. He’s very humble in the face of his influences, and that is so inspiring to watch as someone who is of a younger generation. You know, to be able to see someone who puts on Muddy Waters and goes, ‘Man, is it ever going to get any better than this?’ He still listens to blues every day.”
As he entered the studio to lead his own band in a recording project, the lessons of Gregg as a mentor became even more valuable to Sharrard.
“I’m his lieutenant in his band, but I watch how he leads and especially how he is creative. You know, watching him interpret a song I’ve written vocally or lyrically making these little changes that make it fit his voice,” observed Sharrard of Gregg’s approach to the song development process. “There’s sort of this way of looking at writing when you find someone who is a master song writer and singer – a master interpreter of song as a vocalist. They have a way of treating a song as an elaborate puzzle. But, in the end, it comes out straight from their heart. That’s an unbelievable skill set that only wisdom and time can bring. You just have to soak it in.”
In January, Sharrard found himself reflecting on the valuable lessons he had learned from Butch Trucks following the tragic passing of the Allman Brothers’ powerhouse drummer and a founding member of the band. While Sharrard shared in the same shock and sadness expressed by fans of Trucks and the Allman Brothers, the news was much more personal to Sharrard because he had played on stage with Trucks and had spent time getting to know him.
“I had the opportunity to play with Butch quite a few times. He was an extremely passionate, huge personality. He was very intelligent and very well read. He was a really, really interesting cat. As a musician, they didn’t call him the freight train for nothing,” said Sharrard during an interview on the Sound Podcast with Ira Haberman. “The passion and intensity that Butch brought to his hang and to every stroke on the drum set and every kick – he was ferocious. Of course, you can’ t think of Butch without Jaimoe. When they played together, Jaimoe was the accent player and Butch was the fire and the meter. Butch had the strength in his personality, too.”
In recalling what Trucks brought to the Allman Brothers over the band’s 45-year run, Sharrard was quick to credit the original vision of ABB leader Duane Allman, the man who first brought together Butch and Jaimoe.
“Duane Allman really knew how to put a band together. What a bunch of amazing people for a variety of reasons,” observed Sharrard. “I think what really united that band in the early days with the original guys was just their passion. And Butch was no exception. Butch was a noisy and raucous human being, and he possessed a spiritual fire underneath all that bluster — all essential elements to being a freight train of groove.
“The loss of Butch is horrible,” he added. “We’ve lost a lot of great musicians over the past year or so. It’s just another reminder for younger generations to get their shit together and make some good music.”
Answering The Call To Carry The Music Onward
As part of his effort to carry forward the musical traditions that inspired him, Sharrard jumped at the opportunity to return to FAME Studios for the first sessions related to the Saving Grace album. Feeling at home in FAME Studios, Sharrard found himself not only being a student of history, but a participant in it with some of the greatest session musicians to have ever played.
“Working at FAME with Spooner Oldham and David Hood, there’s no school for this. You just have to soak it in,” said Sharrard, noting that, like him, Oldham and Hood use their love of music and the appreciation for all who play it well to fuel their own growth as artists. “In talking with David and Spooner, they couldn’t talk enough about other musicians – younger musicians they know now, musicians they knew back in the day. Spooner was telling us about when he was playing on ‘Mustang Sally,’ he’d heard a demo with Charles Hodges on the organ and he was trying to imitate Charles. And we got Charles to play on our new record in Memphis in the same week. How do you make that up, man? It’s just crazy. The opportunity to record this album has been a life-changing experience for me.”
Sharrard turned 40 at the end of 2016 – a year that was both rewarding and eventful. While he is grateful for the opportunities that he found in 2016, Sharrard has remained focused onward with the possibilities awaiting him on the horizon.
“2016 has been the best creative year of my whole life. I can’t believe how many sort of tributaries of influence and how many skills I’ve to bring to bear to get through last year,” observed Sharrard. “This is the second record that I have made at FAME Studios in one year. Very few people are lucky enough to say that they made two records at FAME in a year – one of them is my own and the other is with Gregg Allman.
“I’m pinching myself every day. You know, I turned 40 at the end of December. It’s not like I feel like I’m getting it too soon. I feel like I’m ready for it, but I also feel incredibly lucky that it ever happened in my lifetime,” he continued. “It’s a bigger conversation and a longer story to talk about how I got to where we are sitting right now. But I guarantee you that it’s been a hell of a beating, and I sure am glad that we are here.”