116 Mobile Street
For an area internationally renowned for its musicians, the Shoals has never had a lot of places for them to play in public.
After all, those legendary studio sessions at FAME and Muscle Shoals Sound all took place behind closed doors. And despite all the local music history, there’s not an iconic venue equivalent to the Ryman Auditorium - or even CBGB - to be found.
The three men behind the new Florence music label Single Lock Records (The Bear, Belle Adair, and St. Paul and the Broken Bones are the first bands on their roster) grew up directly affected by this dearth, cutting their musical baby teeth attending and performing cover shows at local dives, and gigging in pretty much any space in any town that would take them. They learned the musical lay of the land pretty early.
The spare topography didn’t keep Single Lock partners Ben Tanner and John Paul White from pursuing music professionally: Ben is the keyboardist for the Alabama Shakes and is a popular indie producer, while John Paul has a couple of Grammys under his belt and a respected solo career. Will Trapp didn’t shoot for a career in music, but he’s always had a passion for it, especially seeing good live shows
Collectively, the three Single Lock partners have played or attended shows in hundreds of venues, large and small, around the world, which gives them a pretty good handle on what makes a space a winner. All this to say, few folks are better qualified to open a club in downtown Florence, which is home to the 1,800-square-foot shotgun building at 116 Mobile Street that Single Lock is running in tandem with Billy Reid.
Last week, Will, Ben, John Paul, and Billy Reid’s artist liaison Shelly Colvin, who will be booking visiting artists and events there on the company’s behalf (the company now has office space on the second floor), got together to chat about the potential for Mobile Street, which was christened last weekend with memorable shows by JD McPherson and Tift Merritt during Billy Reid’s fifth annual Shindig celebration.
The Journal: All of you guys grew up here – and Shelly is from Huntsville, which is an hour away. Talk about the history of the local music scene in terms of the venues you grew up with, like La Fonda’s.
Ben Tanner: La Fonda’s was a Mexican restaurant, and not terribly good one… nor a terribly clean one.
Will Trapp: They did have a really good cheese dip, though.
BT: They did have that. And in the back room, they had a stage set up and would have music on the weekend. They closed last year, but in my era, they’d have guys like Barry Billings, a local guitar player and one of those dudes who know how to play every song ever written. People would just show up and play. A lot of guys in Jason (Isbell’s) band, when they were home, would stop by.
John Paul White: One night Jason would Tweet, you know, a picture from backstage at Letterman, and then the next day he’d (Tweet) “Playing at La Fonda’s tonight!”
BT: Or eight old session players would show up and something really magical would happen. I’ve been in there with people from out of town who could not believe what was happening in front of them. La Fonda’s was just smoky, dirty…
Shelly Colvin: …cinder blocks…
BT: … but it was indicative of what’s here. There are places in Florence that have live music – where you can see three-hour cover sets - but there’s nowhere that’s doing just the original live music thing. There used to be a dive bar in Sheffield called Old Town Tavern where bands played. Great stuff happened there, too, but it wasn’t a place where music sounded really good, or where both my parents and I would be comfortable seeing a show.
J: It seems like that’s the goal for the new venture – as well as creating a place that really caters to visiting bands.
SC: Bands don’t try to route their tours through here, ever.
BT: Considering our geography, they could. It’s always been Memphis, Nashville, Birmingham, Atlanta - and we’re right in the middle. There’s a bit of mystique around this area, so I think if people knew there was a decent, cool venue in Florence, (bands would say) “Yeah, I’ll go play there. Why not?”
JPW: Having the space won’t be enough, though. The culture here has gotten to the point where people don’t think about staying in town on the weekends to see a band. Being close to a college (University of Northern Alabama), and being downtown – the recipe for this place is right. But it’s going to be a little bit of a learning process for a lot of people.
J: How does this happen? What’s your plan of action for, say, making a show on Mobile Street seem like an attractive way to spend a Saturday night?
BT:I’m not afraid to say we’re kind of making it up as we go. The emphasis is going to be on quality over quantity, to make whatever happens in there be special, and to build a good reputation.
SC: I just played Bottletree in Birmingham with The Weeks. It’s one of my favorite places to play because they really pay attention to detail and want to make the experience special and comfortable for the artists. They really do it right. We want our venue to have that kind of vibe, to feel special and like a retreat from the norm. It’s tough out there on the road, and it’s nice to be shown some southern hospitality.
The same thing applies to the crowd: you want them to feel good about where they are. Making them welcome is as important as having great sound or a good lineup. We want to be known as a place for both.
JPW: Eddie’s Attic (in Decatur, Georgia) is a place that’s a big part of my past. I know a lot of people who saw me play there early on only came because they trusted (that the venue would book) someone they’d like. They didn’t know who was playing; they just paid for the ticket, walked in and sat down. It takes a lot of work to build that kind of reputation.
The sad truth is that most people who open venues prioritize making money instead of working on all the areas that make a venue successful. You’ve got to be a little stupid to this. All that to say none of us are in this because we think it’s going to be a big moneymaker.
BT: Wait, what? [Laughter.]
WT: But most of the interesting things you do in life you don’t do because you want to make money. You do them because you’re passionate about them. We talk a lot about sustainability, not about making money. Like, let’s do this in a way that works for a long time. We don’t want to rush in, do a bunch of stuff that’s kind of interesting, and then fizzle out in a year. We’re really slow-playing a lot of these decisions, and want to see what it feels like once we get in the room and hear the music.
JPW: That speaks to what made this town famous. It wasn’t those (Muscle Shoals recording) rooms, it wasn’t those buildings - it was the people in them, and the music that was being made that was special. It was the sounds. I hope that’s what this is.
SC: We are friends with so many great artists who want to come play in our stores. It’s fun for them to play there, of course, but I’m excited to have a great space where we can really host them in the right way. It’s going to be so nice to have it here in Florence, and to do it together. We’ve been friends with the Single Lock guys for a long time, and we’ve all worked together before. Each side trusts the other.
WT: There seem to be windows in time where things open up and a lot of creative people converge, and they either work together to make things happen or fragment and go away. It feels like this is a great way for us to co-exist. We appreciate what (Billy Reid) has done for Florence over the last five or six years, and we want to do some things together to help that along.
BT: I feel like there are a handful of people in the community right now who are coming of age and realizing that they have a stake in this town, and that they can change things. Once a few people start being proactive, it really steamrolls.
JPW: In terms of the space and what it can offer, the thing you can tie back to anybody who makes music (professionally) from here is that they had somewhere to hone their craft. The only way to learn how to make music is to make music. If you don’t ever get the chance to stand in front of people and get booed and get cheered, you are never going to get it figured out. You can’t skip that step; there have been those who have and they get found out. And if they can’t do it here, they go somewhere else. There have been a few and far between who have been able to do it from here, and that’s a shame. It doesn’t have to be that way. And I think we’ve learned with the Tavern and with La Fonda’s is that musicians around here are talented and hard working and they’re just looking for somewhere to show off what they can do and to get better at it. I sleep really well at night knowing I’m helping improve the state of music around here and giving somebody a voice.
WT: We want to create a balance between bringing in really quality bands and having some of the local groups that we might not put in the space by themselves quite yet open for them. We’d be giving them a chance to play and to open for somebody bigger. Because you know, sometimes you think you’re good at something, and then you see somebody who really is and you’re like (cringing sound). Then you gather yourself back together and you work at it again.
JPW: You know, people talk ad naseum about digital pirating, but the one thing that no one can ever steal from you is the experience of seeing music live. To have the experience, you’ve got to get out of your house and make the performance the focus, which is how it should be.
WT: There’s a renaissance happening. With the world being so technical, I think experiences where you can drop everything and settle in and just listen are vital.
JPW: It’s why vinyl is such a big thing again. People say, “Oh, it just sounds so much better,” but really it’s because you’re forced to sit down and focus on what you’re listening to.
WT: And after five songs, you have to get up and walk over and flip that thing.
SC: There’s a ceremony to it.
JPW: It sounds ridiculous, but it’s actually become old school to pick up your damn guitar and stand in front of people and risk somebody throwing something at you.