If you put talented people in a room, give them a clear vision statement, and let them create—you will get a solid product. If you take those same talented people in a room and give them a detailed script that they cannot deviate from—you might get a mediocre product at best. People need space to create, and overly controlling the process with a strict system tends to stifle creative minds.

There are a hundred ways to make a widget. In the military (especially the Army) there are some very detailed processes towards creating a feasible plan to achieve a mission. One of them is called the Military Decision-Making Process or MDMP. It is detailed and rigid so that you don’t miss any important tasks that could lead to mission failure. MDMP has caused more American allies to run in fear from us than the M1A1 tank with an A-10 flying above it.

I was talking to an Afghan friend who said the number one complaint from young Afghan leaders was that every class from American instructors started with MDMP—and they hated it. To them it was a painful process that guided them to the most obvious course of action—it sapped their creativity and initiative. I’m not here to bash the MDMP—it is a solid time-tested technique for providing commanders a solid selection of options that can achieve the mission. I just wanted to paint a picture of how painful this process is for those outside the Army and outside the US government. Let’s go down to Northern Alabama and look at another technique for accomplishing the mission.

Muscle Shoals

Along the banks of the Tennessee River is an area called Muscle Shoals. While most Americans couldn’t find it on a map today, in the 1960s two little recording studios in that region were known to all the big musicians from New York and Chicago, to Memphis, and even England. The Rolling Stones and the Beatles both wanted to duplicate that sound. They wanted to make an album using the Muscle Shoals method. They wanted that “black sound” as the Brits were calling it, although they had no idea who was behind the instruments. In Muscle Shoals, they were not overthinking the process—they were creating music as it came out of different musicians. They weren’t working from a written plan; they were allowing everyone to the take their own initiative and taking the best ideas forward.

What made the Muscle Shoals method work?

Let’s look at a few examples of the process and then look at a military/civilian organization in a warzone that used the Muscle Shoals technique to great success. The FAME (Florence Alabama Music Enterprises) Studio and Publishing Company was founded by a poor white man who grew up with no toilet, running water, or electricity. After an accident killed his little brother, Rick Hall’s mother went off to become a prostitute, leaving him to be raised by his father. In his own words, he described being raised like an animal in the backwoods near the Shoals. He later built a music studio, and he recruited a studio house band for his rhythm section from the Caucasian men that were playing in various early rock and roll bands in the area. Together they produced a sound that people who had heard, but never seen them, called greasy and soulful.

Rick Hall helped launch a few careers with big hits out of his studio starting in 1961, but the best explanation of the Muscle Shoals method comes from the Queen of Soul herself. Aretha Franklin was struggling in her Colombia record contract before she was dropped. Her music was overly planned and produced. It wasn’t her sound. It was someone else’s vision that her voice seemed just a part of, and it wasn’t selling records.

When Aretha walked into the FAME studio, she, like most, probably noticed that the studio band, that had already helped launch Wilson Pickett’s giant hits Land of 1,000 Dances and Mustang Sally, didn’t look like she had expected based on the sound they have been putting out. Undeterred by the surprising setting, Aretha sat at a piano with only a set of lyrics and no music, and just began playing. The rhythm section had no sheet music and just listened and then each started to add to what they were hearing. Aretha called this a “head session” style. Everyone was talented, and they worked off of each other’s sounds until they crafted a song. The connection was so strong between the band and her, that Aretha would use the band to cut her smash hit Respect later that year. But that first song that Aretha and the men worked out together, in their short one-day session, called I Never Loved a Man became a No. 9 hit on Billboard’s Hot 100. It was also Aretha’s first No. 1 R&B hit.

For Aretha, the Muscle Shoals method unleashed her creativity and her sound. The lack of a plan led to experimentation and collaboration until they met her vision—a great song that could climb the charts.

The technique continued after the rhythm section (called The Swampers for you Skynyrd fans) moved on to work on other acts outside of the FAME studio, and a new house band was recruited. The musicians would play without written music until everyone realized they heard the right sound. It was that simple. They worked off the vision of making great music and making new sounds. No one was worried about pedigree or ancestry during a time where the governor of the state of Alabama was trying to retain racial segregation in a changing era of equality.

The Muscle Shoals Method in Kabul

In 2009, a small team was assembled to help the Afghan government shift the international policy position on how the war in Afghanistan would end. To shift from a policy of military victory through kinetic means, towards a political solution that focused on diplomatic efforts. The team started with one young officer at the NATO ISAF headquarters, and two weeks later, it was enlarged to two with the arrival of a retiring British general officer. They didn’t recognize it at the time, but they employed the Muscle Shoals method to create an international policy shift.

The first man spent two weeks studying the issue. He talked to everyone in Kabul willing to give him and hour to discover everything that had occurred previously related to the topic of diplomacy and political overtures with the Taliban. He relayed those findings to his future boss via email. They didn’t employ any military planning method; they certainly didn’t launch an MDMP session.

Once they were both in Kabul they went into a studio of sorts. It was a 14×14 foot room with whiteboards on 2 walls and plenty of markers. They started drafting ideas. They riffed-off each other’s words and concepts. Once something made sense, they put it into a document on the computer.

Next, they brought in other talented thinkers from across the city to discuss the concepts, and they modified the original ideas. Then, they reached out beyond Kabul to the rest of Afghanistan, and later back to Europe and the US. They took those riffs and sounds (ideas and critiques) and added them to the plan.

They built out the sound by a process of drafting and critiquing. Along the way, they brought in new team-mates and enlarged the band as the requirements to get more creative built-up. They didn’t go into this process with a written planning method. They didn’t try to overly produce rough ideas before floating them to others for critiques and revision. They just kept the vision in mind and kept their minds open to new ideas and flaws in the concept. They kept things loose and informal. That was the tone of the band—no one got overly-concerned about success, they just knew it would come. As the general liked to say, “its hard to roll up your sleeves when you are wringing your hands.”

Eventually the Afghan-NATO team took their policy idea to the President of Afghanistan, the NATO leadership, the UK leadership, and the US leadership in both the White House and Congress. The policy was approved for final draft by all; and then presented to the Afghan people in a national gathering for discussion, modification, and approval. That all happened in less than 11 months. Some albums take longer than that to produce. The creative, loose, and iterative method that the Muscle Shoals teams proved could make better music, had just made international policy shift in a dramatic way.

But is this kind of planning a one-off?

You might ask yourself, “Why would I deviate from lengthy, formal, and precise planning techniques to take a chance on the creative spirit of my people?” Great question. This is risky. If you don’t have a talented team with the right mix of diverse minds—it might blow up in your face. But if you recruit a solid team that believes in your vision, you ought to let them try to rock you instead making them want to beat their heads on a rock.

Did the Muscle Shoals technique continue to work? It still exists today, and it helped to produce and improve some of the biggest names in music from R&B, soul, country, rock and roll, and pop genres. The Swampers would even open a competing studio across town to work with their own stable of talent like Rod Stewart, Willie Nelson, Bob Segar, Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, Joe Cocker, Glenn Frey, Santana, and Jimmy Buffett.

One key moment for the Swampers in their new studio was when The Rolling Stones popped in for two days and their producer didn’t show up. One of the Alabama men stepped in to produce, and Keith Richards recalled it was an amazing creative space that he always wanted to recreate. They would cut four tracks in those two days; one of them being their huge smash Brown Sugar. It was the method that Muscle Shoals was known for, showing up with some ideas and then just jamming creatively until you got it right.

The Swampers were smart enough to bring in a penniless band called Lynyrd Skynyrd to record in their studio, Muscle Shoals Sound. The method of building-off the ideas of the whole team and just running with the best idea is best exemplified in one of their recording sessions. A roadie for Skynyrd was in the studio while the others were at lunch and he started to play the piano. When the guys got back from lunch, they heard this concert pianist sound in the studio. Turns out the roadie didn’t think the guys would like his sound so he never told them of his skill. The band immediately cut a song around the piano sounds and within weeks brought the roadie into the band. No Skynyrd concert is ever complete without that song—Free Bird!

Every time the Swampers studio started to drift from their creative method, someone would bring them back. They kept learning from their artists. That was the case when they decided to bring Americans the first reggae sounds before Bob Marley, with a man called Jimmy Cliff. It was also the case when Steve Winwood brought in his band Traffic and made the producers record the bad sessions too, so they could find the music they wanted in their creative moments. Winwood even persuaded the Swampers to go on tour with them after they recorded in the studio together. Traffic had taught them how to enjoy jam sessions again. The Swampers changed their studio motto to ensure they could be the studio and band the artist needed them to be to make their sound.

FAME continued to enjoy creating and letting others find their sound. Although Rick Hall was a perfectionist, he knew that he had to keep learning and not get stuck in the process. One day the future Allman brother’s guitarist was playing in the FAME studio house-band with Wilson Pickett. While the others went to lunch the long-haired Duane Allman stayed with Wilson as both were still not comfortable in public in Alabama. Allman convinced Pickett to cover The Beatles song “Hey Jude.” No one thought it was a good idea after they returned from lunch until they heard Pickett sing and Allman play. Everyone there witnessed the birth of Southern Rock music in that moment of experimentation. Allman would form the Allman Brothers Band from nearby musicians.

These creative house studio bands and studios (there were at least three distinct bands over the years) were part of over 500 song recordings and at least 75 gold and platinum selling records from the 1960s through the 1980s. Rick Hall and the FAME studio method in Muscle Shoals Alabama created a shift in music making in America that extended to the United Kingdom and beyond. The 2nd and 3rd FAME studio bands have been inducted into the Musicians Hall of Fame. Muscle Shoals sounds and methods changed music; and like moths to a flame, musicians would pour into the sleepy town to find some Alabama magic. If you have listened to any American music between 1960 and 2000, you heard the influence of this method on every radio station. If you want to hear more about Rick Hall the founder of the Muscle Shoals sound and method just listen to Clarence Carter’s song “Patches.” It was actually Rick Hall’s family story.


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Jason spent 23 years in USG service conducting defense, diplomacy, intelligence, and education missions globally. Now he teaches, writes, podcasts, and speaks publicly about Islam, foreign affairs, and national security. He is a member of the Military Writers Guild, works with numerous non-profits and aids conflict resolution in Afghanistan.