The Country Music Hall of Fame is recognizing a group of players who stepped outside the traditional boundaries of Music City to produce pop and rock hits, and two of them are pioneers of the Muscle Shoals sound.
The Nashville museum opened the Nashville Cats exhibition Friday honoring 16 musicians who worked with artists as varied as Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Joan Baez, Roy Orbison, the Monkees and Linda Ronstadt.
Two of those players are Norbert Putnam and David Briggs, who were members of the first FAME Recording Studios rhythm section in Muscle Shoals.
“This is a nice thing,” said Briggs, a keyboardist. “They’re trying to show that we could go from one session in the morning with a rock and roll guy, then do an orchestra, then record Roy Orbison in the afternoon, then Elvis Presley from 10 o’clock at night until 5 in the morning.”
Both Briggs and Putnam worked extensively with Presley. Briggs was the piano player in his road band for a time, and Putnam was his studio bassist from 1970-77.
“The thing about Nashville is, you couldn’t come here unless you could play all the styles,” Putnam said. “It was the most natural thing in the world for me to play R&B and pop. What I had to learn was how to play country music.”
Briggs, Putnam and drummer Jerry Carrigan worked at FAME from 1961-65, recording early hits with Arthur Alexander, Jimmy Hughes, Tommy Roe and others. Briggs and Putnam were members of Roe’s touring band in 1964, opening for the Beatles at their first U.S. concert.
The trio moved the Nashville and quickly became in-demand session players. Carrigan also worked as Presley’s touring band drummer.
In the early 1970s, Putnam and Briggs opened Quadraphonic Recording Studios, which became the busiest studio in Nashville, where pop and rock acts predominated. They became highly successful producers and music publishers, as well.
Putnam, standing in for Kris Kristofferson, who backed out at the last minute, produced Joan Baez’s version of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” and became one of the most in-demand producers in the country. He also produced Jimmy Buffett’s “Margaritaville.”
“It was the most profitable studio in Nashville in the 1970s,” Putnam said. “We charged outrageous rates, and we had all the pop and rock acts — Michael Jackson, Neil Young, Dobie Gray.”
They sold the studio in the late 1970s after being offered $1 million for it, Briggs said.
“Quadraphonic was so busy we could hardly get in to do our work,” Briggs said. “We couldn’t experiment, or get our writers in.”
Briggs opened House of David Studio and stocked it with recording equipment from Quadraphonic as it was replaced. He kept it available for writers signed to his publishing company, and soon began recording rock acts including Joe Cocker.
The versatility they had as players had its roots in Muscle Shoals, working with FAME owner Rick Hall.
“We were just little kids, but we got a lot of experience in Muscle Shoals, and that’s what I’m grateful for,” Briggs said. “I was in college during the day, then working on sessions and playing dances.
“But I did not have enough work to earn a great living, and I had just gotten married,” he said. “I knew I had to move to Nashville. I earned more in the first week here than I did in a year there.”
Others honored in the exhibition, which runs through Dec. 31, 2016, include Ben Keith, Charlie McCoy, Fred Carter Jr., Grady Martin, Kenny Buttrey, Pete Drake, Lloyd Green, Buddy Spicher, Weldon Myrick, Hargus “Pig” Robbins, Charlie Daniels, Wayne Moss, Mac Gayden and Jerry Reed.
Many of the surviving members of the Nashville Cats were to perform Saturday night at the Country Music Hall of Fame.