Noise-making In The Buckle Of The Bible Belt: A Look Into The Biggest Little Record Label Around
Bodies are everywhere. Limbs glisten with sweat. Sopping shirts cling to torsos while drunken twentysomethings glide off of one another as if slathered in fresh cooking grease. A tsunami of weight from the rear of the crowd forces us forward toward the stage and I struggle to keep my large body upright. My bandmate is on my shoulders, furiously pumping her petite fists heavenward. There is a menacing, slightly overweight man onstage in a negligee. Beneath it he wears a corset and women’s underwear and appears to be melting as makeup runs down his face. His hands, gloved in black leather, thrust over the crowd as glowing Pentagrams give the stage a furious Crimson hum. The band is Satan’s Youth Ministers. The backdrop is the tiny, revival church-like venue 116 E Mobile. The town is Florence, Alabama. And for a second we forget that we are deep in the rural south, that we are in the heart of the Bible Belt.
One quarter of the famed Shoals region of northwestern Alabama — with Tuscumbia, Sheffield and of course the hallowed musical mecca of Muscle Shoals comprising the rest — Florence sits quietly on the northern edge of the the purportedly haunted Tennessee River. It’s a sleepy area, true South, as minor local highways are dotted with low slung fast food chains, decaying AutoZones and dusty used car lots. The denizens sometimes greet each other with the ubiquitous “Roll Tide,” which is Alabama’s equivalent “aloha,” though rather than good tidings, it refers to the area’s most deep rooted and unshakable passion: The University Of Alabama Crimson Tide, most especially their football team.
Downtown Florence is as quaint as a fucking Rockwell painting.
Local businesses line the small “city” streets, buildings a century old and rising no more than a few stories stand above the almost always empty sidewalks and you can easily imagine wholesome Founders’ Day picnics or Fourth Of July celebrations filling the town square. Giant trees hang over many of the narrow avenues, providing natural respite from the often stifling southern heat and an historic district sits at the edge of downtown with a stately mix of Victorian and colonial houses neatly rowed, their lawns almost always perfectly manicured.
Tucked down a quiet side street at the edge of downtown Florence is an unassuming house on an unassuming lot. It doesn’t look like much from the outside. You might think a small business’s office is housed inside or perhaps it’s home to a respectably middle class family. But inside, the building is a cathedral of recorded sound.
When I last popped into the foyer, a vintage Hammond B3 and classic Leslie speaker cabinet (the kind with the revolving speaker) prevented a full opening of the door. Each room is dedicated to one musical discipline and wires, cables and plugs connect them all to one another. The main living area, packed with vintage tape machines, tube amps, compressors and mixing consoles acts at the house’s nerve center; the mixing room, where the all-important “record” button lives. In one bedroom sits a variety of organs, pianos, keyboards. In another are racks of classic drum shells. And in the final are rows upon rows of beautifully worn, battle-hardened vintage guitars and a panoply of effects pedals. Headphones and recording notes litter the house. The shades are down and each room is draped in thick noise-deadening curtains. The house’s dining room wall boasts a collage of several dozen Polaroid portraits of some of the members of an extended and ever-growing family of musicians, producers, singers and songwriters.
This the homebase of Single Lock Records: Sun Drop Sound Studios, named in reference to a local-ish brand of soda.
One part record label, one part recording studio, one part arts collective, Single Lock is helmed by Ben Tanner, who looks more geology PhD candidate than globetrotting member of one of the planet’s biggest bands (he’s held his day job as Alabama Shakes’ main organ player since the band hit nuclear around the release of their debut Boys & Girls), Grammy winning singer-songwriter John Paul White, who could very easily be Johnny Depp and Chris Cornell’s less handsome but still absurdly good looking younger brother, and financial guru and Shoals-native Will Trapp and they’re figuring it out as they go. Eager and willing compatriots are they who are more adept at following their muse than they are the marketing trends that come and go faster than Donald Trump’s furious Tweet storms.
Both Tanner and White carry a genteel nature, exuding the calm and ease that comes with growing up in the rural South and approach record making with an old school blue collar sense and while they have had some surprise runaway successes (St. Paul and the Broken Bones, namely) Single Lock’s sweet spot lives at the center of a Venn Diagram made up of critical cache, serious chops and a semblance of marketability. IE: If they can move 5,000 units they’re very, very happy.
They seem less interested in selling records than they are in making them and the more they grow, the more they learn and evolve, the more intertwined they become with the re-blossoming Muscle Shoals scene. It is because of this that I prefer to think of Single Lock as a southern-bred, Americana cousin of Dischord Records, the venerable DC institution that only put out records by DC bands and basically wrote the gospel of DIY record labels. That’s not to say that Single Lock won’t look past the Shoals region for talent (current signees Penny & Sparrow are from Austin, psychedelic country troubadour The Kernal resides in Jackson, Tennessee and one of the members of pedal steel-based instrumentalists Steelism is British) but as area natives they recognize just how fertile their hometown is and just how many world class musicians, performers and songwriters call the tiny hamlet in a remote corner of Northwest Alabama home.
Often Tanner and White will act as producers and/or engineers on label acts’ albums and cross pollination is as inherent to their music as a well-placed organ solo. For example, members of one of Single Lock’s longest tenured bands Belle Adair at once work as Single Lock label staff (drummer Reed Watson is Single Lock’s label manager, keyboardist Jonathan Oliphant is marketing and sales staff), tour with Single Lock artist and legendary sideman Donnie Fritts, and play with John Paul White as his backing band, in addition to performing studio work with a variety of other bands. Dylan LeBlanc, the young Shreveport singer-songwriter with a voice that is singularly stunning and unfathomably beyond his years, counts members of roots rockers The Pollies (another early Single Lock band) as his touring outfit. Meanwhile the label’s go-to stringsmith and arranger, violinist Kimi Samson has played on and helped write string parts on no less than five Single Lock releases.
This familial vibe is central to Single Lock’s ethos and if the label is a club, than 116 E Mobile is their clubhouse. Situated in the heart of downtown Florence, 116, as the venue is colloquially known, has an unassuming, easily passable facade of dark wood that lacks a garish marquee like its neighbor, the venerable Shoals Theater. Inside the ancient wood floors and candle lit windowsills give the room an inviting historic glow. And while it often plays host to local shows, national touring bands, film premieres and closed-door video shoots, sometimes acts a rehearsal studio and occasionally opens as Single Lock’s direct-to-fan pop up shop, most nights find it dark, quiet and empty.
The beauty of operating a business in such inexpensive environs is the freedom to book shows and events because you want to, because you believe in them, rather than needing the income to keep your doors open.
As Tanner once told me years ago, “We only book the shows that we want to book. And they’re only shows that we want to see ourselves.”
An integral part of Downtown Florence’s recent-ish neo-urban revival, 116 shares an alleyway with the stunning Odette, an ultra-hip restaurant that could easily thrive in New York or London — which Tanner’s wife manages — and world renowned fashion designer Billy Reid’s flagship store, who counts local musician and partner of Single Lock’s aforementioned resident-violinist as their web model.
So intertwined are the tales of Florence that the person who serves your coffee in the morning is potentially the one who is letting you crash on her couch and playing on your new album. Which is exactly what happened when I spent a week in town last November tracking my solo debut.
Single Lock and 116 are cultivating the Florence scene in the truest sense of the idea. They believe in what they believe in resolutely, with abandon and genuine — though subdued and very, very Southern — passion. Their faith in their home is unshakable and the products they are creating are remarkable and, when viewed in the massive scope of the world at large, one is left to wonder how something so special could happen in a place so remote and so relatively insignificant.
Is it possible that town of only forty thousand people just happens to be stocked so full with world-class talent? Or is it more likely that White, Tanner, Trapp and their compatriots are using what tools they have at their disposal to grow something special in their quiet corner of Northwestern Alabama?
When searching for a name for their new label White, Tanner and Trapp aimed for something that had local significance while avoiding any overly on-the-nose references to the Shoals or the “singing river.”
Eventually, Single Lock stuck.
Borne from the idea that Florence was home of the once-largest single lock river dam on the planet, the name was adopted initially for no other reason than it was the one the trio hated the least.
But as the label began to evolve it grew into its name. Just as a river’s lock helps ships navigate from rough, fast moving and often confusing river waters to quiet lakes full of gentle purpose, Single Lock shepherds its artists to their next level, helping them pilot the murky and violent waters that are the ever-changing record business.
A small dam, just like a small label, has limited capacity and is thus forced to focus on one charge at a time, devoting all available attention and resources to a singular purpose.
And of course Florence’s local Wilson Dam, being at one time the biggest of its kind on Earth lent a metaphorical meaning to the label as time went on: “It’s the largest of the smallest kind,” as Tanner once told me. “And that seemed appropriate.”
If Single Lock could be summed up in a thought, it is some iteration of this idea. Keep your costs low, your friends close, your gaze focused and make something huge exist in a place that is very, very small.