making magic

The guitar symbolized the entire day. A four string Fender electric bass resembling those currently popular among rock star wannabees and Hipsters. You pay a few hundred extra and the manufacturers ‘distress’ it. Makes the instrument appear well-worn, as if the owner has played every day for decades. Like Willie Nelson’s old acoustic, minus the bungee strap.

I asked Owen if that was how it happened. He smiled a little then got a wistful look in his ancient eyes.

“Yeah, it’s been distressed. The first bass I ever got.”

Owen Brown owns the grounds where Birdland Studio sits. The place looks like a movie set from True Detectives. A fifteen foot, rusted chain link fence, overgrown with shrubs and weeds, protects the property. An old iron gate, distressed its own self, is hardly wide enough for a modern vehicle to enter.

The house, built in 1818 as a log cabin, has been filled in with concrete, plaster, and electronic recording equipment over the years. A replica building next door and brick lined, moss-enhanced garden areas give the property the outward look of a faded, eccentric plantation.

Jeff Simpson serves as Owen’s partner in crime. These two have been recording songs for a long time. Birdland Studios is in Town Creek, Alabama. Close enough to Muscle Shoals to download a sufficient amount of ambiance but far enough away to stand alone as a music destination.

My friend Richard and I traveled there to experience Tommy Stuart recording his latest creation. Richard was born three days before me but we’ve become much closer in the decades since.

Tommy played sax in the best local band of our youth and was never able to kick the habit. After leaving the Rubber Band Tommy solved the problem so many musicians have; clashing personalities. He went solo.

Spending a lifetime working for a regular living gives him musical freedom. Everything he touches is a labor of love and creativity. Not an ounce of bandmates’ pressure or sacrificed creativity to break even on a particular record is involved.

After a few trial runs the process begins. Jeff and Tommy retire to other rooms to contribute drums and piano. Owen stays in the control room with his distressed bass. I’m distracted by his hands. Their dexterity gives the impression of a much younger player. A shift in vision reveals a face from a reality TV show from rural Kentucky. After the foundation is satisfactory, Tommy takes over. He adds vocals, keyboard, and a saxophone break in successive layers.

The real magic of the two technicians, and the place itself, begins in earnest right after lunch. Hunched over switches, knobs, and meters, Owen and Jeff work miracle after miracle as the song, “She’s Gone”, plays repeatedly.

Each subsequent version sounds a tiny bit different and better, somehow. Not sure what Jeff and Owen were doing hunched over the wall of equipment, whispering advice to each other between quips with others in the room. Like fog lifting, the musical quality of Tommy’s song, a story about losing one’s love for good, slowly appears. Her momma said it was, “that ain’t coming back kind of gone.”

We drove home slowly as the setting sun eventually turned into night. A battered two lane road through dying towns and ancient memories; and Bankhead National Forest. I can’t remember specific conversations but it was about music and magic.

Music is only background noise to most people. Something to shout over and occasionally sing a verse before tuning out again. The lucky among us consider songs to be the soundtrack of our lives; as big a part as the people we’ve met; the breaths we’ve taken.

I’ve heard millions of songs in my lifetime. I’ve been on both sides of the microphone and felt almost every emotion well up inside me, induced by someone’s talent. I’ve even written a few, sang a few, and recorded a couple.

But sometimes things just align themselves perfectly and it takes your breath and you are surprised; perhaps because you thought you’d experienced all the magic one person is allotted.

And you were wrong.

Images: All of the photos are from
Mike Cox

Mike Cox

Mike Cox currently writes a weekly column in South Carolina for the Columbia Star called "It's Not a Criticism, It's an Observation." He is trying to grow old as gracefully as possible without condemning the current generation in charge to doom. Each day this task gets harder as the overwhelming evidence mounts. He currently has two published books; Finding Daddy Cox, and October Saturdays. His columns have won three South Carolina Press Association awards since 2003. Mike has three sons and two grandchildren and lives in Irmo, Sc, just outside of Columbia.

  1. Trevor Stone Irvin

    Nice setup – nice mixing board. My kids would kill for that setup. Playing music makes the rest of life worth the effort.

  2. Thank you for the wonderfully written article about our recording studio. We enjoyed having you sit in with us while we recorded Tommy Stuart’s “Ain’t Coming Back Kind of Gone”. Please consider yourself welcome anytime.
    Best Wishes,
    Jeff Simpson
    Birdland Recording Studio

  3. You would have to go there, sit there, record there, and play there to truly appreciate the place. Grounds are wonderful. People are fantastic. Studio is well equipped and sounds great. It is basically like another world. A world where the song, the playing, and the recording are second to nothing. I really like the dogs too.

  4. Great story, Mike. As an amateur sax player, I especially enjoyed your description of Tommy. Wish I could have been there. cheers

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