When it comes to Carol Dweck’s concepts of mindset, northwestern Alabama might not be the first region that leaps into your mind. And yet sitting on the north bank of the Tennessee River is an unlikely success story, almost a perfect illustration of just how much can go right when growth-minded attitudes are in place.
Growth mindset, of course, is the attitude that skill and intelligence can always be improved with effort. It frames challenges as opportunities, failures as lessons to be learned, and success as a result of pushing oneself. On the other hand, fixed mindset holds talent as something inborn and innate. The prospect of failure is a terrifying specter lurking over every risk, threatening to show you were never that great after all.
Even if you're familiar with these ideas, the story of Muscle Shoals, Alabama is a beautiful illustration of the importance of attitude.
In 1965, songwriter and musician Rick Hall opened up a recording studio in sleepy Muscle Shoals called FAME Studios. Hall grew up in abject poverty and was driven to make a name for himself. Armed with more determination than money, he recruited young unknown local players as his studio musicians, most likely because they were available and—more importantly—because he could afford them.
Ultimately, Hall’s lineup featured Roger Hawkins on the drums, guitarist Jimmy Johnson, Barry Beckett on piano, and bassist David Hood. Desperate for success, Hall set his early expectations high. Some, like producer Jerry Wexler, would later characterize him as overbearing and tyrannical, but he did get results. The Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, or “Swampers” as they came to be known, worked hard and put in long hours.
FAME’s first big break came in 1966, with Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman.” A bunch of local boys had scored their first big hit, but instead of letting themselves get overwhelmed or complacent, the Swampers vowed to bring their very best to the next session.
The Swampers were young and inexperienced. They recognized just how much they didn’t know. At the studios of Memphis, Nashville, Chicago, and New York, the industry standard was for musicians to work off of pre-written arrangements. Not all of the Swampers could even read music; they looked at chord charts and went by feel.
Dweck points out that people with a growth mindset are much more likely to assess their talent accurately. It’s far easier to make an honest judgement when your ego and very sense of self-worth aren’t tied up in the answer. This understanding is crucial; you need to see where you’re at before you can plan the steps that will take you where you want to go. And the Swampers were ready to take those steps.
Working off chord charts and instinct left plenty of room for improvising and experimenting, and that flexibility was part of the key to their success. The Swampers were constantly growing as musicians. Whenever a recording artist arrived in the studio, it was a new challenge: how could they best serve the song? What playing style would make the singer shine? They became the ultimate chameleons, mastering an incredible array of genres.
Eventually, the Swampers would leave FAME and open up their own recording venture, Muscle Shoals Sound Studio. To their new location, a converted blinds factory at 3614 Jackson Highway, they brought the same dogged determination and tailor-made approach to their backings.
Their first album, Cher’s aptly-titled 3614 Jackson Highway, was a critical success but a commercial disappointment, peaking at only 160 on the charts. But the Swampers didn’t despair. Worrying that you could lose “the gift” is, of course, a hallmark of a fixed mindset.
The Swampers left their mark on music history. Look back through the iconic hits of the 1960‘s and 1970‘s and the Swampers are everywhere, playing with Aretha Franklin (“Respect”, “Chain of Fools”, “I Never Loved a Man”), The Rolling Stones (“Brown Sugar”), Wilson Pickett (“Mustang Sally”), Etta James (“Tell Mama”), Paul Simon (“Kodachrome”, “Loves Me Like a Rock”), The Staple Singers (“I’ll Take You There”), Bob Seger (“Old Time Rock and Roll”), and Lynyrd Skynyrd (“Free Bird”), and many more.
The risk of striking out on their own definitely paid off, sometimes in new and exciting ways. “They were able to get a lot more writing credits, and production credits,” notes Carla Jean Whitely, author of Muscle Shoals Sound Studio. “The Swampers really wanted to move into producing. Well, by virtue of owning the studio and being the guys who had to make it work, they stumbled into more producing opportunities.” When the Rolling Stones came to town, Jimmy Johnson found “they just sort of assumed he would step into that role. So he did.” The result was the classic "Wild Horses", among others.
The Swampers made such an impression on Lynyrd Skynyrd, they famously earned a shout-out on 1974’s “Sweet Home Alabama”:
“Now Muscle Shoals has got the Swampers;
And they’ve been known to pick a song or two.
Lord they get me off so much.
They pick me up when I’m feeling blue”
Whether or not you are yourself a fan of Lynyrd Skynyrd, one thing is clear: growth mindset rocks.