Interview with Alabama musicians Scott Ward and Jeff Ford - keeping the inheritance of Muscle Shoals

"Music is a gift from God and it lifts the spirit- that one thing that keeps us all sane in a word of insanity."

Scott Ward Band: Muscle Shoals Down Through Decatur

The Scott Ward Band was formed in North Alabama in 2010. It's members were Scott Ward on bass and lead vocals, Jeff Ford on guitar, and Ken Beasley on drums. Scott and Ken had been in Gadsden State's Showband, led by legendary Alabama Band Director Rip Reagan, together. Scott and Jeff had been playing music together since the late '80s also. In 2011 they recorded an album at 48 West Studios in Cullman, Al called "Muscle Shoals Down Through Decatur" which featured their friend, Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Spooner Oldham on keyboards. The CD was basically a tribute to the session musicians of Muscle Shoals- Spooner, Dan Penn, Walt Aldridge, Earl "Peanutt" Montgomery, Johnny Wyker, Patterson Hood, and others. Tommy York played a lot of guitar and several different instruments on the project, and after release, it received critical acclaim, and considerable airplay, especially among college radio stations.

The CD was distributed to FYE music stores in the Southeast and gave Scott the opportunity to produce the compilation, "A Heaping Helping- Songs For the Breast Cancer Research Foundation of Alabama" that featured songs by Spooner and other Muscle Shoals legends such as Donnie Fritts, Mark Narmore, David Hood and The Decoys, Johnny Wyker and Sailcat, as well as Christine Ohlman of the Saturday Night Live Band, Shelby Lynne, Bekka Bramlett, Greg Martin of the Kentucky Headhunters, The Oak Ridge Boys and many other great artists. Scott's mother is a breast cancer survivor. Scott's band also had the good fortune of backing Alabama Soul/R&B legend Ralph "Soul" Jackson at several shows. Ralph recorded for Atlantic Records at FAME Studios in the late '60s with Spooner producing. Ralph's records from the '60s and '70s are highly sought after by collectors. In 2013 with the help of Tonya and Kelvin Holly at Cypress Moon Studios, engineer and guitarist Grant Walden, and Hall of Fame country songwriter Mark Narmore, Scott started recording a new album which features Grant, Kelvin, and Mark on guitars, Spooner on keys, "Swamper" David Hood on bass, Chad Gamble of Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit and legendary Muscle Shoals drummer Jim "Bebop" Evans on guitar. The album consists mainly of new songs written by Spooner, Mark, and Carl Holder., Mike Cooley, and Hall of Fame session guitarist and songwriter Ken Bell. The album will be released by June of this year.

Interview by Michael Limnios

How do you describe Scott Ward Band sound and what characterize band’s philosophy?

Scott: To me the Scott Ward Band's sound is a blend of Rock, Country, Blues, Blue-eyed Soul, and R&B. Our philosophy is to play songs that we are passionate about and to try and be the tightest band we can.

What experiences in your life have triggered your ideas for songs most frequently?

Scott: I grew up in Northeast Alabama, my parents divorced when I was 9 and my dad dies when I was 9. I was always pretty miserable through high school and I think music may have been the only thing that kept me hanging on at times. I had no idea that artists such as Bob Dylan, Bob Seger, and Lynyrd Skynyrd were recording hit records just up Highway 278 and 157, When I write songs they tend to be kind of dark and probably a hint of a deep sadness. I have always heard that the only way you can sing the blues is to live them.

Why did you think that the Muscle Shoals music continues to generate such a devoted following?

Scott: I think the main reason that Muscle Shoals music still remains relevant and still has a devoted following is because the music is real and the people are real- singers and writers like Patterson Hood, Mike Cooley, John Paul White, and Jason Isbell write about real people, places and real life experiences. They also dedicate themselves to being the best musicians they can- when you play a gig in Muscle Shoals you always have to be prepared- you never know what legendary musician might be listening- it might be Spooner Oldhmam, David Hood, Earl "Peanutt" Montgomery, of "Funky Donnie Fritts- you don't want to mess up in front of those guys.

Jeff: The folks that grew up in and live in the Shoals may give you a different answer, but for someone like me that wasn't raised there, I think it's because of the quality of music that's been recorded there. You literally cannot turn on Rock n' Roll radio and listen for 20 minutes without hearing music that was recorded there or that has Shoals musicians playing on it. The place always has and continues to churn out great music and awesome musicians. That includes the new acts that are being out there today: The Alabama Shakes, Drive-by Truckers, Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, St. Paul and the Broken Bones, and on and on. But, to answer your question, it's simply the quality of the music.

"If I had a time machine and I could go back into the past for one day, I would like to go back to the session at Muscle Shoals Sound in 1972 when the Staples Singers recorded I'll Take You There - such a great song with a wonderful message." Photo by Andy Keenum

What’s the best jam you ever played in? What are some of the most memorable gigs you've had?

Scott: As far as memorable gigs, we have backed R&B/Soul legend Ralph "Soul" Jackson, who recorded for Atlantic Records in the late '60s with Spooner Oldham producing. Ralph is still a dynamic performer and is also a great musician and bandleader. A couple of years ago we played the Annual Jam For Duane (Duane Allman) just outside of Birmingham, Al- we did a song Duane did at Muscle Shoals Sound called "Happily Married Man" which Eddie Hinton produced and featured my friend Johnny Sandlin on drums. We also did "Baby Ruth", written by my friend and mentor Johnny Wyker- Delbert McClinton and John Prine also recorded that one. Sadly, Johnny passed away last December- I miss him every day. Just the other night I had the chance to sit in with my friend John Blumer's band which also featured my friends, legendary guitarists Kelvin Holly (Little Richard, The Amazing Rhythm Aces, The Decoys, Pegi Young and the Survivors) and Will McFarlane, who played guitar with Bonnie Raitt for many years and also played lead guitar with the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section on albums by Levon Helm. Etta James, Little Milton, and Bobby "Blue" Bland. That was a special night for me.

Jeff: I'm 45 now, so there have been a lot of memorable jams. Many were in my rehearsal room at home in my high school days with a band I was in called AEON. I would occasionally have other players over to jam. We had one drummer from my town, Piedmont, Alabama, that really "made it", if you want to say it that way. He later became the drummer for the Bama-based band Brother Cane. We had some fun jams. But I guess the one that sticks out the most in recent years happened December 26, 2011. Scott Ward and I were invited to Decatur, Alabama, by John Wyker, just to hang out and jam that afternoon. It wasn't so much of a jam as it was listening to Wyker's endless stream of music biz stories about Duane and Gregg Allman, Joe Cocker and so many more. When we did all pick up our guitars, it was an amazing jam. After losing him recently, it makes that day so much sweeter.

There’s not any one particular gig that stands out, but a period of time of approximately 3.5 years from 2004-2007. I played in our praise team at our church at the time. For most Sundays, it consisted of 2 guitars, electric keys, piano, bass, drums and 6 great vocalists. What I liked about it was the fact that we played the entire spectrum of genres. Some were Blues-based songs, Southern Gospel songs, and a lot of it was as Rock n Roll as it gets. You never knew what was coming. My style and tone had to change on a minutes notice. We rehearsed most weeks before Sunday, but occasionally on Sunday, we were given the music that morning and maybe got to run through half of it before the service. But the variety and spontaneity of it is what was really nice.

"I think the main reason that Muscle Shoals music still remains relevant and still has a devoted following is because the music is real and the people are real- singers and writers like Patterson Hood, Mike Cooley, John Paul White, and Jason Isbell write about real people, places and real life experiences."

Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you? What is the best advice ever given you?

Scott: In 1990, the band I was in opened for The Desert Rose Band in Panama City, Florida. I had been a fan of theirs for a couple of years as well as a fab of the Byrds. I was in "Seventh Heaven" Chris Hillman and John Jorgenson were really cool top me. I got to see all of John's guitars up close and those 2 have helped me tremendously over the last 24 years. John let me record one of his songs from his 1999 album "Emotional Savant" back in December with David Hood and Chad Gamble of Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit. David Hood, Spooner Oldham, Mark Narmore, Peanutt Montgomery have also been great friends and mentors to me and i will always be grateful to them. I met Steve Cropper in Nashville in 1995- he is one of my heroes and has been a lot of help to me over the past couple of years.

Jeff: I’d have to say that knowing Scott Ward has to be the most important meeting music-wise. I married into his family long ago and really got to know him there before we ever picked up any instruments and played together. But, our conversations were always about music. In the mid 90's, Scott and I lived next door to each other and there were many nights I’d wake up at 2 a.m., hear his bass thumping, see his lights on and get up and head out back until the Sun came up. I guess you could but these times up in the “memorable jams” response.

But knowing Scott has put me in direct contact with a lot of the Shoals legendary musicians, songwriters and producers. It still hasn’t registered that I’ve actually recorded with Scott, Spooner and these other great musicians. Recording in Tommy York’s 48 West Studio was a great experience. The atmosphere was laid back and very calm. Having Tommy sing on some of the tunes made for some great recordings. One particular Friday, I went up to 48 West to lay down the solos and fills for “Katydid”. It’s a great song written by Tommy and I felt honored that he asked us to record it after he’d already recorded a great cut of his own. I settled in to the studio and played around with some fills while he played the track a few times. I remember going through the entire song one time and Tommy just said, “Go through one more time and we’ll cut it”. I went through it that one more time. When it faded out, Tommy stood up in the booth and shouted, “You got it”. I immediately said “I hope you mean you cut that one”. I knew it was the cut. It’s the background, solos and fills you hear on the record. Good times!!

But again, my most important meeting or musical relationship has to be Scott Ward. He got me in the studio and introduced me to the Shoals scene. When you go to the Shoals with Scott, you’re immediately treated like an insider.

Pretty simple. Practice constantly...even though you’ve been playing for over 30 years. Write some lyrics everyday. No matter how bad they might seem to you , keep your brain working. I really need to take that advice to heart and get busy. I let other things get in the way, even when I time to devote to music.

"I think what connects the Blues and Soul to today's Country and Americana is that everything comes from 2 basic sources- the Blues, and Gospel music." (Photo: Scott and David Hood with Grant Walden and Mark Narmore at Muscle Shoals Sound Studios)

Are there any memories from recording time with Spooner Oldham and David Hood which you’d like to share with us?

Scott: It has really been great recording with David Hood in the studio that was the last location of Muscle Shoals Sound on the Tennessee River- we all ask him questions about recording with Bob Seger, Delbert McClinton, and all the rest. We also asked him where all of the Swampers set up to play when they were making hit records. It's also a treat to record with Spooner in the studio where he played keys with Bob Dylan on the "Saved" album. Barry Beckett played keys on the "Slow Train Coming" album, as well as producing it with Jerry Wexler, and he did a remarkable job. Spooner and Terry Young both toured with Bob on both of those tours. It's great to hear Spooner tell stories about recording with Gram Parsons, Neil Young and about how he and Dan Penn wrote "Cry Like A Baby" and how Reggie Young picking up a Coral electric sitar gave all the session players a huge boost and energized the session. That electric sitar part is an essential part of that recording.

Spooner also told us a lot about Tom Dowd and the recording of Wilson Pickett's "Mustang Sally" in Muscle Shoals. He said when he played the organ part he was trying to get the sound of a motorcycle as if it had burst through the door into the studio.

Jeff: I’ve not recorded with David, but being on record with Spooner has really helped boost my confidence. I have a hard time believing I’m worthy of being associated with most of these musicians and songwriters. Spooner made me feel I did belong. Spooner came to 48 West to add his tracks after I’d finished mine, so I wasn’t in the studio with him. A few weeks later, after the final mix was done and Spooner heard it, he sent me a message saying that he really liked the music I’d played on those songs, especially on the songs he’d written. At our first face to face meeting after the sessions, he told the same thing. That meant to the world to me.

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of music?        Photo: Scott & Spooner Oldham

Scott: I think that a lot of today's new music has no soul. I miss a lot of the country records that featured the pedal steel and the fiddle. Also, there are very few bands with any kind of longevity or staying power these days. Our attention spans are so short these days that we are always in a mad dash to move on to the "next big thing. That being said, I am excited about a lot of the music that is being made these days- bands such as my friends Alabama Shakes, who have that classic Stax/Muscle Shoals Sound and my pals St Paul and The Broken Bones- they have that refreshing sound and energy of James Brown, Wilson Pickett, and Otis Redding, complete with a killer horn section. 

Jeff: I would have to say I miss the honesty in what you hear from today’s music. Everything is too perfect. It’s auto-tuned and punched in until you don’t actually hear what was played. I watched an old video of Sinatra recording THE cut of “It Was a Very Good Year”, in ‘65, I believe. He warmed up his voice some, went through some lines, and then they cut it. He was in the same room with the orchestra. The orchestra played it live and he sang it live. One take and it was done. He was notorious for getting it one or two takes.

I really hope the current Shoals revival continues. The music is honest. You pretty much hear live what has been recorded. Just go see Jason Isbell and St. Paul. Prepare to be blown away. I really hope that honesty spreads throughout America. I hope other musicians see that their talent can actually be what the people hear.

As far as fears for the future, I’d have to say I agree with most musicians when they say that it’s going to be harder and harder to make a living when one person pays less that a dollar to download their song and sends it to 10 people that pay nothing. But, I have more hope than fear when I see that band’s like those from the Shoals area are catching on and people are taking note.

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Blues with Soul and continue to Country and Americana music?

Scott: I think what connects the Blues and Soul to today's Country and Americana is that everything comes from 2 basic sources- the Blues, and Gospel music. We all have our burdens to bear and this life is not easy. We all have kids to feed and bills to pay and many have to work jobs they detest just to keep their families fed. Music is a gift from God and it lifts the spirit- that one thing that keeps us all sane in a word of insanity.

Jeff: I’m not really a country player and don’t listen to any of it outside of Hank, Hank Jr., Waylon, Willie and Merle, so I don’t think I’m qualified to speak on that. But as far as Blues being the basis of what we hear today, it’s family tree branches out to Soul, R&B and Rock n Roll. Just trace back the influences of most of the American players of the last 25 years, and they lead back to the blues. Even the British players and singers like Roger Daltrey, Robert Plant, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page and others state their primary influence as being American Blues. Blues is the great, great grandfather, and most everything else leads back to there.

"I really hope the current Shoals revival continues. The music is honest. You pretty much hear live what has been recorded."

What has made you laugh lately and touched (emotionally) you from the music circuits?

Jeff: Recently, I went with Scott Ward to a songwriter’s workshop featuring Spooner. My daughter, 14 at the time, went with us. She’s an aspiring musician/songwriter herself, coming along nicely on guitar. I’d told her how connected Scott was to the Shoals scene. I wouldn’t say that she doubted me, but I think she was surprised when we stepped out of the car at Cypress Moon Studios and two voices, from the dark, both said “Hey Scott”. It just happened to be Spooner Oldham and Kelvin Holly. It’s gets a good laugh when we relive that moment. The rest of the evening was spent with her hanging out with and receiving advice from Spooner, Kelvin, Donnie Fritts and David Hood.

I can point to just a few “WOW” moments over the years that I think might qualify as emotional. One was seeing SRV at the Fox in Atlanta in ‘85. After he finished his opening song, “Scuttle Buttin’”, the way I looked at the guitar was forever changed. The next came years later, when I saw The Derek Trucks Band open for Santana in Birmingham. I’d listened to Derek before, but seeing him live, simply warming up after walking on stage, I was almost overwhelmed with his tone and perfect slide work...and that was just warming up. Recently, I got that same feeling as Paul Janeway grabbed the mic when I saw St. Paul and the Broken Bones playing on a sidewalk in Anniston, Alabama on a warm February Sunday afternoon. A month later, they were on CBS This Morning. Personally, with my own playing, I still get an emotional feeling when I get it right. Even after 30+ years, it still gives me goose bumps when it hits and I can say, “That’s it”. The best feeling in the world.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go for a whole day..?

Scott: If I had a time machine and I could go back into the past for one day, I would like to go back to the session at Muscle Shoals Sound in 1972 when the Staples Singers recorded "I'll Take You There"- such a great song with a wonderful message. David Hood played perhaps his most influential bassline, and Eddie Hinton played the guitar solo. Eddie was so talented, and yet so troubled. "I know a place- I'll take you there....".

Jeff: You could take me back to the London music scene in the mid 60's. I’d love to see and hear The Who, The Stones, The Yardbirds, Zeppelin and all the other in their beginning. I’d love to follow how most of these players wound up playing with these other bands. It seems like it was a glorious time.

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