JOHN PAUL WHITE/THE CIVIL WARS – Evening Standard, 19 April 2013

The Sundance Film and Music Festival may be leaving its Utah base to pay a visit to London next week but there’s only one place one of its participants is thinking about — sweet home Alabama.

John Paul White, half of the Grammy-winning acoustic duo The Civil Wars, is performing alongside Southern rock giant Gregg Allman in the O2 complex. The songs they select, including Rolling Stones classics Brown Sugar and Wild Horses, were all originally recorded in the studios of Muscle Shoals, Alabama, close to the Tennessee border and White’s home in Florence.

That Muscle Shoals sound, characterised by the raw, gritty rhythms of the Swampers backing band, is finally getting its due in a new documentary, showing in London for the first time at Sundance.

“I get teary-eyed watching it, because these are my heroes and a lot of them are my friends too,” White tells me in the molasses drawl characteristic of the area. “I have always relished the opportunity to tell people about where I’m from. The idea that the world’s now going to know about our little secret is incredibly nice. This should have happened a long time ago.”

Famous outsiders are just as enthusiastic. Big names participating in the film include Bono, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, Jimmy Cliff and Alicia Keys. Keys can be seen recording a new version of Bob Dylan’s Pressing On with local legends including guitarist Jimmy Johnson, bassist David Hood and keyboard player Spooner Oldham. Dylan first recorded it at Muscle Shoals Sound Studios in 1980.

“You’re gonna hear some of the greatest voices that ever were,” says Bono of a soundtrack that includes Wilson Pickett, Percy Sledge and Aretha Franklin.

When I visited Muscle Shoals a couple of years ago I found a remarkable time warp at producer Rick Hall’s FAME Studios, with Etta James pictures on the wall, a clocking-in machine and the

legend “Where it all started” on the outside. The quiet town wasn’t so well set up for music tourists as Nashville, the home of Country two hours north, or Clarksdale, the home of the Delta Blues three hours west. You can only visit FAME with an appointment. Muscle Shoals Sound Studios, whose stonework and address appears on the cover of Cher’s 1969 album, 3614 Jackson Highway, does not open for visitors, though it has new owners and this may change.

White says it’s this low-key approach that works for the musicians. “That’s why people came here to make a record. They could have complete anonymity. People came to disconnect and focus on nothing but the music. That was a golden age.”

Both studios still operate. White made his only solo album, The Long Goodbye, a rockier affair than his work with The Civil Wars, at FAME in 2008. The Black Keys went to Muscle Shoals Sound to make their sixth album, Brothers, in 2010. Bands still chase what White calls “that greasy, dirty, lowdown sound”, although he argues that the magic comes more from the people than the place.

“I won’t discount the rooms but I would say it was the people. Rick Hall had his finger on the pulse of what a hit was. That was a talent he was born with. And the sound, that’s just the way these guys played, it’s what came out of them.”

Seeing White’s name on a gig listing as a solo artist may strike fear into the hearts of the fans who made The Civil Wars’ debut release, Barton Hollow (another Alabama reference), a top 10 gold album in the US in 2011. White and his singing partner, the Californian former star of the Christian music scene Joy Williams, won Grammys for Best Folk Album and Best Country Duo/Group Performance last year. Adele called them “by far the best live band I have ever seen”.

The Gothic Americana of their song Poison & Wine sums up the contrast between smiley, wholesome Williams, 30, and White, a rather demonic 40-year-old with lank black hair and a pointy beard. “Oh your mouth is poison, your mouth is wine,” they sing.

Having met in 2008 when they were paired up as jobbing songwriters for a country band, the intimacy of their duets frequently made onlookers mistake them for a couple when in fact they are both married to other people. Musically at least, it looked like a case of opposites attract until last November, when they abruptly cancelled a tour and released a statement saying: “Due to internal discord and irreconcilable differences of ambition we are unable to continue as a touring entity at this time.”

I’m warned before we speak that White doesn’t want to discuss this awkward situation, and his publicist leaps in like a security man diving to take a bullet when I dare to stray onto the subject. However, he does manage to give a mixed message when I ask if he’s making new music, solo or as The Civil Wars. “I’m not recording anything at the moment. I’m working on my house,” he tells me. “I’ve been trying to do it for seven years but have been on tour the whole time. I’m relishing the opportunity to put some nails in the wall.” But then he adds: “Well, on May 1 we will have an announcement on things to do with all that. You will find out soon!”

If you can’t see them on tour, at least you can hear their music in More4’s excellent ongoing drama series, Nashville. Centred on the feud between fading country diva Connie Britton and brash young upstart Hayden Panettiere, it also features a subplot about two songwriters, innocent flower Clare Bowen and her glowering platonic partner Sam Palladio that seems to echo Williams and White’s connection. Bowen and Palladio’s smouldering duet, If I Didn’t Know Better, is an early Civil Wars song.

“I wouldn’t know anything about those characters. My four kids have ownership of the remote control in my house,” says White. “But Callie Khouri, the head writer, and T-Bone Burnett, who supervises the music, are two of the best and they’re my friends so I’m really happy it’s so successful.”

The Civil Wars album was largely recorded in Nashville, where the music scene is still so alive and is getting hipper thanks to newer residents The Black Keys and Jack White. But John Paul White thinks his Alabama home, named for the mussels once gathered in the Tennessee River, can grow muscle once more.

“Muscle Shoals has a huge undercurrent of really exciting talent right now,” he says, citing young bands The Pollies and St Paul & the Broken Bones as particular favourites. “A lot of us here are extremely proud of our forebears. They’ve all helped us out, they don’t look down on us. They want things to improve and move on and for us to have our own legacy.” So while the new film canonises the past, Alabama’s future is looking sweet too.

John Paul White performs with Gregg Allman after a screening of Muscle Shoals on April 27 at IndigO2, SE10 (0844 858 6754,