Singer-songwriter and Muscle Shoals music producer Walt Aldridge is the mind behind many popular hits, including Conway Twitty's "She's Got a Single Thing in Mind" (1989) and "Modern Day Bonnie and Clyde" (2000) by Travis Tritt.
Aldridge worked at the legendary FAME Studios, one of the most recognized studios in the Shoals. FAME was founded in the 1950s by Rick Hall and is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
In the late 80s, Aldridge headed a band known as The Shooters that produced two albums in 1987 and 1989 and four singles, which have been included on an album "Going Against the Wind." The band charted multiple times on the Billboard country charts.
Other popular songs written by Aldridge include "There's No Gettin' Over Me" (1981) by Ronnie Milsap, "Till You're Gone" (1982) by Barbara Mandrell, "Holding Her and Loving You" by Earl Thomas Conley (1982) and "I Loved Her First" (2006) by Heartland.
'Never the kind of thing I was groomed for'
"Like a lot of people, I grew up wanting to make pop music," Aldridge said. "I wanted to play guitar and write songs."
Aldridge grew up in Florence. He said there was no overwhelming musical influence from his family.
"My mom could play piano, and [she] could sing some, but it wasn't like we gathered around the piano and sang songs," Aldridge said.
Aldridge said he remembered seeing musical performances on TV as a kid, which inspired him to ask for a guitar for Christmas.
"It came easy to me," Aldridge said. "I was just instantly able to make musical sounds on it. From that point on, I just really took to that and really focused on that. It was never the kind of thing that I was groomed for, [or had] in my DNA."
Aldridge said though he's never favored playing in bands, he was always drawn to listening to them from the start. He enjoyed English bands like Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones and the Beatles and American bands that were similar, but the music he really liked to play was more similar to singer-songwriter types like James Taylor and Neil Young.
Aldridge said he later came to be influenced by artists such as Randy Newman, John Prine and John Waite.
Tuscaloosa and back again
Aldridge joined a bluegrass band called the Mud Road String Band when he was in high school.
"We would go to these festivals and places on the weekends and jam and meet other pickers," Aldridge said. "...Other than that, it was kind of just sitting around writing songs."
Aldridge said his parents held education in high regard and didn't make it an option for him not to go to college. He spent almost three years in Tuscaloosa at the University of Alabama.
Throughout this time, Aldridge remained in the Mud Road String Band but struggled to find his place academically.
"I was just bouncing around from one thing to another," Aldridge said. "The truth is, I was miserable. I wasn't doing what I wanted to do. At that time, there weren't programs teaching people how to get involved in the music industry."
After a stint in the business school at Alabama, Aldridge returned to Florence to finish his degree in business management and got another degree at the University of North Alabama (UNA). His second degree was a new program at UNA at the time called commercial music.
"Most people, when you talk about Muscle Shoals music, immediately kind of think of that golden era … Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding and [what they called] soul music then," Aldridge said.
However, Aldridge said that growing up in North Alabama at the time, people really didn't think of Muscle Shoals as a music hub.
"The truth of the matter is there was cool music being made everywhere in the 60s," Aldridge said. "... You had people making cool music in Memphis and Macon and Detroit, and as well as Nashville and LA and New York … Just pretty much anywhere where there were microphones, people were cutting hits. It was crazy."
Aldridge said the studios didn't like to advertise when they had a big star coming in to prevent disturbances from fans.
When many small towns in the South with studios stopped producing music, Muscle Shoals kept going.
When Alridge arrived at FAME in 1978, the "glory days" seemed to be over.
"It was pretty drab," Aldridge said. "It was the disco era."
Aldridge said FAME welcomed acts like Wild Cherry and Billy Ocean but that they were disco hits.
The first big act Aldridge remembered was Mack Davis, who, at the time, had his own TV show.
"It was the first time I think my friends and family thought, 'This is legit," Aldridge said. "'This guy, he's a big act. He's not just a dance-crazed pop artist.'"
At FAME, Aldridge took an entry-level position.
"Just a go-fer," Aldridge said. "Go-fer cigarettes. Go-fer hamburgers. Go-fer whatever was needed."
Aldridge was allowed to observe some of the lower-level sessions and observe what it was like to be a studio session player and an engineer.
"Frankly, I didn't know," Aldridge said. "I didn't know what a producer did. I hadn't drawn those lines."
After he started working at FAME, Aldridge quit the Mud Road String Band because he didn't have the time, but his time there presented him with ample opportunities to advance his career.
A serious songwriter
The first song Aldridge sold was in college. He sold a song to the Hager brothers, who, at the time, were regulars on the popular show "Hee Haw."
"My paycheck was probably about $17 bucks on it," Aldridge said. "It wasn't a huge commercial success, but it was enough to whet my appetite and sort of validate a little bit."
At the studio, Aldridge would work during the day and write songs at night. He said he was trying to write songs to get them recorded.
The first song he ever participated in was a Wilson Pickett album. They needed a guitarist, and he was the only one there, so he got thrown in the studio.
"That's pretty much a baptism of fire when you get thrown in on something that funky," Aldridge said.
Aldridge said that after a few years at FAME, there was a "county music craze," and they started producing more country records.
"Nashville was only a couple hours north of us," Aldridge said. "At some point, you've got to make a living. I started looking for things that I related to … but I began to find things that were really good. There were a lot of people who had those same influences who were coming around about that time."
Aldridge said that artists such as Vince Gill had the same kind of experience playing bluegrass music before getting into country.
In 1981, Aldridge wrote his first hit, "There Ain't No Getting Over Me." It went to #1 on the country charts and top 5 on the pop charts.
"It made me the first real money I've made," Aldridge said.
Aldridge said he doesn't know if he picked writing music or if writing music picked him.
"It just happened to me," Aldridge said. "Songwriting sort of raised its hand and said, 'Here's what you need to focus on.'"
"I always enjoyed playing on records and producing records and recording records," Aldridge said.
At first, Aldridge was given a deal to be a solo artist but figured he could spread the workload out if he had a band behind him. So, instead, he became the frontman for The Shooters.
Aldridge produced and wrote most of the band's material. He had to do all this while on the road away from his family and friends.
"You have that 30 minutes maybe a day when you're up there on stage opening the show for somebody, and then the rest of the day, you're grinding down the road, or you're trying to write songs in the back of the bus, or you're eating out of [your] lap … It's a lot harder job than people realize. I think people only see the glamorous part of it."
Aldridge said he liked the concept of a band, but it just wasn't for him. The Shooters were together for four years before they disbanded in 1989.
"[Being in the band] was a great education," Aldridge said. "… I figured out who the boss was, and the boss is the people that buy your music."
Aldridge said throughout his time in the band, he never quit writing songs, but he was burdened by the fact that he couldn't write more songs than the band could actually use.
After leaving the band, Aldridge returned to Muscle Shoals to help other artists produce records.
'Johnny Cash didn't shoot a man in Reno'
Aldridge said that though pieces of himself sometimes sneak into one of his songs, most of them aren't about his own life.
"You're trying to imagine what it would be like to experience [what the song is about]," Aldridge said. "Sometimes there are glimpses, and even old songs that have a lot of me in them … Generally, they're made up … You don't have to be a murderer to write a murder mystery. You just have to have an imagination… Johnny Cash didn't shoot a man in Reno just to watch him die."
Aldridge said he was once approached by a trucker about a line in "Modern Day Bonnie and Clyde": "We met at a truck stop in Johnson City, Tennessee." The trucker told him there was never a truck stop in Johnson City.
"You see something, you hear something … something will trigger a thought, and you think, 'Wow, that could be a good song,'" Aldridge said.
Aldridge said he tries to read a lot, which gives him ideas.
"You hear the different ways people use the language and the words, and it makes you think about something in a different way," Aldridge said.
Passing down to the next generation
Aldridge said he doesn't write songs nearly as much as he used to. He does it mainly when someone asks him for help with a record or if there's a particular reason he feels like he needs to write one.
"I do it with more intent these days when I do it," Aldridge said.
Aldridge's career as a songwriter slowed down around ten years ago when he received a call from UNA asking if he would teach for a semester as an artist in residency.
"I kind of wanted a change of scenery," Aldridge said.
Aldridge said he liked teaching so much that he stayed for the next eight or nine years.
Aldridge said, "I started finding that I was really enjoying watching other people learn how to write and improve and experience for the first time their first song being recorded or their first hit or whatever, so I just sort of gradually [wrote my own music] less and less and focused on other things musically.
"... I've been very blessed to have been successful at [songwriting]. There was never a point where I've been like, 'I'm done with this. I've had it.'… As far as just sitting down and banging out another song, it just doesn't sound fun to me. It just sounds like work."
Now, Aldridge has passed the musical reins onto his daughter, Hannah, who plays folk music. She'll be traveling to the Netherlands in September to go on tour.
Though Aldridge's voice cannot be found on Spotify or Apple music, you can find his words on many albums on both platforms. There are also a handful of Aldridge's performances on YouTube.
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