MUSCLE SHOALS, Ala., Jan. 9, 2018 — Armed with their instruments, soldiers with Army Materiel Command’s unit band entered what many in the music industry consider hallowed ground.
Script lettering over a wood-paneled doorway reads: “Through these doors walk the finest musicians, songwriters, artists and producers in the world.”
The decor is dated and sparse, but plaques commemorating hit records and framed photos of renowned recording artists welcome visitors to Fame Studios. Within these walls, the legendary Muscle Shoals sound reverberates.
‘The History Here is Just Incredible’
“The history here is just incredible,” AMC Band Commander Army Chief Warrant Officer 4 James Bettencourt said. “All of us as musicians had a hero or somebody we grew up listening to, and it’s almost guaranteed they recorded somewhere here in this town. Every musician has their own story — and I think before each of our soldiers settles in to do their craft, they stop for a second to take it all in and appreciate where we are and what we’re actually doing.”
Bettencourt is the third warrant officer to lead the band since it came to its Redstone Arsenal home, and he will also be its last. The band is among several across the service slated for inactivation next fiscal year.
Dwarfed by the photos of his own musical heroes, Bettencourt stepped inside Fame’s Studio A, where his soldiers were ready to stake their own place in musical history. The AMC Band was capturing its sound and marking its legacy with several recordings in Muscle Shoals. The musical collection, which will be available to the public, will be the lasting testament to the band’s time in the Tennessee Valley.
The band came to Redstone Arsenal in 2011, moving with the Army Materiel Command headquarters as a result of the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure. While the headquarters moved from Fort Belvoir, Virginia, the band transferred from Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland.
Since the band arrived in Huntsville, it has integrated with the community and has made a tradition of connecting with local talent. Playing upward of 300 performances a year, it is common to see members of the community, university musicians and other local groups performing alongside the uniformed band members at public performances.
Building on the band’s tradition of community involvement, Bettencourt reached out to both fellow musicians and the legendary Muscle Shoals music community to pitch in on a project that will live on, long after the band is gone.
Over the period of several months, the band collaborated with top talent, including the Army Field Band’s acoustic group, the Six String Soldiers; Oakwood University’s famed Aeolian choir; and country and bluegrass legend Ricky Skaggs. The final result will be recordings engineered at Muscle Shoal Sound, Wishbone and Fame Recording Studios.
On a September day, when the Six String Soldiers were in town to lay down tracks for a cover version of “Country Roads,” engineers at Fame Recording Studios quietly acknowledged the abnormality of the situation.
“This is the day the Army invaded Fame Studios,” said singer, songwriter and producer Michael Curtis.
Skilled soldiers riffed on guitars, plucked a bass and strummed banjos and mandolins as they took in the surreal setting.
Overlooking the studio from behind the soundproof glass of the elevated control room, sat Jimmy Johnson — an original member of The Swampers. A black baseball cap that says “Muscle Shoals” covered his gray hair, and reading glasses settled loosely in his T-shirt pocket.
To his knowledge, Johnson said this is the first time an Army band has recorded in Fame. And for him, the time communing with the soldiers brings back his own military memories.
“I was in the Army in the ‘60s,” Johnson said. He went to basic training and spent six months in the National Guard. “That was enough for me. I was a 120-day wonder.”
Johnson spent much of that decade playing guitar with the likes of Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett and engineering tracks for groups like the Rolling Stones. After more than a half-century of success in the music business, Johnson credits his short stint in the Army for teaching him discipline.
“I still fold my socks the same way,” he said.
The respect and admiration the soldiers expressed during their time in Muscle Shoals, Johnson said, is mutual. Assisting the AMC Band form its lasting legacy is a point of pride for the producer.
“They say they’re honored to be here,” Johnson said. “That definitely goes both ways.”