“I heard you play guitar,” said the voice on the other end of the phone. It’s not something you typically hear when you’re fielding a phone call from a public relations representative from General Motors. I got a “Save the date” email for May 5, but it came with a caveat. You had to play some kind of any instrument.
Weird. Intriguing, though.
I knew exactly three things about the trip:
- I’d be starting in Nashville, Tennessee
- I’d be driving all-new Chevrolet Malibu Hybrid, a car that’s fighting an uphill battle in the mid-size hybrid class that Toyota and Hyundai are working to dominate
- I’d end my trip in Muscle Shoals, Alabama
Regarding the first item: you’d have to be completely culturally ignorant to not know that there’s a lot of music in Nashville, but what isn’t readily apparent is that it’s a music INDUSTRY town. Music gets churned out of here like shirt collars used to get churned out of Troy, New York.
Music Row isn’t about country music. It’s a factory town with a plant producing music on three shifts every single day, like Flint, Michigan minus the poison water. RCA’s Studio B alone has recorded Elvis, the Everly Brothers, Al Hirt and the Strokes. In the same neighborhood, the two music rights giants ASCAP and BMI stare across the road at each other like the UAW and the AFL-CIO.
Addressing second known on the list: The Chevrolet Malibu underwent a complete redesign for the 2016 model year. Also redesigned is Chevrolet’s attitude toward producing a midsize hybrid. The previous generation Malibu hybrid was about as earth-friendly as the old Silverado hybrid, putting down numbers that a half-way economical car with an internal combustion engine alone could deliver. The all new Malibu has startling numbers, though, especially when you consider its size. In combined traffic, it’s capable of 47 miles per gallon (48 city, 45 highway).
The final known on this trip was the destination: Muscle Shoals, Alabama. My second realization was that I’d probably have a chance to try out that electric-only mode on the lovely Natchez Trace Parkway. First and foremost, though, if Nashville was a music factory, Muscle Shoals was its blast furnace.
At this point, anyone who’s interested in music at all as probably seen Muscle Shoals, Greg Camalier’s gorgeous tribute, but if you haven’t, stop reading this and go watch it.
Muscle Shoals is one of four municipalities that make up Quad Cities, also including Florence, Sheffield and Tuscumbia. The sheer number of names that exerted world-dominating influence on the music industry is incredible. W.C. Handy, the “Father of the Blues,” who pushed blues out of the Delta and spread it nationwide, was born in Florence.
So was Sam Phillips, the man who “invented rock and roll,” according to the title of biographer Peter Guralnick in his 2016 chronicle. Phillips first recorded Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins.
Then there was the incredible Arthur Alexander, a name not many people know now, but who inspired bands like the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Johnny Kidd and the Pirates with the original versions of songs they made famous, like “Solider of Love,” “You Better Move On,” and “Shot of Rhythm and Blues.” Alexander was a country-soul pioneer who put this region on the map.
The first night in Nashville, we met a guy named Frank Rogers. We talked a bit and he mentioned he was a music producer in town. I clumsily asked, “Have you produced anything we might have heard of.” He ticked off a few of his minor accomplishments:
- His publishing company produced over 650 songs and 40 Billboard Number One Hits
- While he was a VP at EMI Nashville, he signed Brad Paisley
- On his own, he’s produced records for Paisley, Darius Rucker, Scott McCreery and Trace Atkins
- He cowrote this song with Brad Paisley that appeared in the Disney movie Cars
So yes, dimwit, unless you were incapacitated from the 1990s to the present, Frank Rogers has produced something you might have heard.
After dinner, Rogers brought out a few guitars and gave us an assignment. That night, we were going to write a song. A room full of journalists, most of whom had never met each other, were going to write music together. It seemed impossible.
Immediately, though, we locked in on a theme: The worst stories we’d all heard about automotive journalists, all wrapped into one persona. He complains about the food. He stole the TV from his hotel room. He made moves on the public relations representative.
It’s all wrapped up in a fictional character named “Frank Bacon,” and by the end of the night, we felt pretty proud of our work. None of us had ever written a song before, and here we are, a few hours later, with something that actually felt pretty good.
The next morning, we got a full presentation on the Malibu Hybrid.
Let’s roll back a minute to the introduction of the original Chevrolet Volt in 2010. Take a second and do a Google search for “Chevrolet Volt Failure.” You’ll come up with results like this:
“Chevrolet’s Electric Volt: Is Failure Within Its Range?” — Investor’s Business Daily
“The 2015 Chevy Volt: Why This Car is Struggling to Sell” — The Cheat Sheet
The problem with all of these articles is that the Volt was never meant to be some high sales volume cash cow. It’s like saying the Apollo mission was a failure because we didn’t get any advertising money out of it. It was a rather grand experiment in technology that hadn’t been attempted on that scale before. Plus we got Velcro and Tang.
The point of the Volt was to see if (A) a major American car company could build an electric car that eliminated range anxiety, (B) do it before, and better than a Japanese manufacturers and (C) get some people to buy it. If you’ve never driven a Volt and you’re a commuter, you’re missing out. It’s a fantastic car, despite the once-kooky pricing.
The other side benefit is that — like a racing program, for example — a lot of technology filters down into other, less spotlight-grabbing product. The Malibu is one beneficiary. The Malibu utilizes a slightly larger 122-hp 1.8-liter four-cylinder instead of the Volt’s 101-hp 1.5-liter four cylinder. The battery pack in the Malibu Hybrid is much, much smaller, because it relies on the gas engine often for primary power, rather than just electricity-generation like the Volt.
The Malibu Hybrid has just a 1.5-kWh battery of batteries in the trunk, versus the much larger 18.4-kWh battery pack in the Volt. It still cuts the trunk volume a bit, but only by a little more than 4 cubic feet. The battery pack does increase the weight of the Malibu Hybrid, though, by some 370 pounds.
What’s unique about the Malibu Hybrid is the drive modes, or more importantly, the lack thereof. There’s no button to press to tell the car that you’re interested in experiencing the most power available, or that you want to loaf along on battery power alone. The Malibu Hybrid is — in theory — smart enough to judge your inputs and adjust accordingly.
On that protected, cherished ribbon of 40 MPH asphalt known as the Natchez Trace Parkway, just how well that self-assessment works is clear. At speeds under 55 miles per hour, and with a feather touch on the throttle, the Malibu Hybrid will cruise on nothing but battery power until such point that the batteries need a charge. It’s a new sensation in a car of this size, and it makes you realize just how much buzzing and rumbling an internal combustion engine does, even under the best of circumstances. It gives the Malibu Hybrid a much more luxury feel at that speed.
From a dead stop, and with a foot placed firmly to the floor, the Malibu Hybrid takes off, thanks to 277-lb.ft. of torque from the electric motor. The gas engine engages quickly and seamlessly as highway speed approaches. Along with the P-R-N-D “gears” (it’s a CVT) on the transmission shifter, there are two other modes: L1 and L2. Somewhat confusingly, these aren’t “low gears,” that you’d find on a conventional car. They both increase the amount of regenerative braking. We recently sampled the Hyundai Sonata Hybrid and while it’s a nice car, the regenerative braking is abrupt and takes some getting used to. In standard D mode, you’ll hardly notice it working at all.
After a three hour jaunt, I showed up at our hotel in Muscle Shoals with an hour to clean up before we headed out again. We boarded a bus and zig-zagged through some of Muscle Shoals’s quietest neighborhoods before we made a quick turn and stopped at 3614 Jackson Highway.
It’s a tiny building that could easily be a tattoo shop now, but circa 1970, it stole the mantle of what would become known as the Muscle Shoals Sound. Four musicians — Barry Beckett, Roger Hawkins, Jimmy Johnson and David Hood — had been working across town at FAME — Florida Alabama Music Enterprises — Studios as the Muscle Shoals Sound Rhythm Section. They were the backbone of studio musicians that played behind people Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin and the shamefully underappreciated Joe Tex.
Beckett, Hood, Hawkins and Johnson eventually split from Rick Hall’s FAME Studios and branched out on their own, eventually settling on this building at 3614 Jackson Highway in 1969.
The first artist to take a chance on the new studio was Cher, who recorded her sixth solo album here with the four musicians behind her, known informally as “the Swampers.” The album was essentially a package of covers, and commercially, it didn’t perform all that well. Critically, though, it was considered Cher’s best record, and a much more ambitious project that the pop she’d been performing up to that point. The cover of the album shows Cher and the musicians who played on the record, in front of the studio that our bus parked behind.
Over the years, half the music you listened to on pop radio in the 1980s was recorded here. Bob Seger recorded “Katmandu,” “Night Moves,” “Main Street” and “Old Time Rock and Roll” within those four walls. The Rolling Stones cut “Wild Horses” here in December of 1969, while Keith Richards did his best to get arrested for everything from guns to fireworks to weed.
Ironically, Lynyrd Skynyrd only cut two records here, and neither contain the song that made the musicians at 3614 Jackson Highway a household name. The song “Sweet Home Alabama,” an answer to Neil Young’s “Southern Man,” contains the line:
Muscle Shoals has got the Swampers
They been known to pick a song or two
Anybody with more than a passing interest in music has gone the extra step to figure out what that meant, and who Gary Rossington and Ronnie Van Zant were talking about.
Being in front of the building is a bit of a letdown. For all the music that’s come out of here, it’s an empty shell now, that had a roof that let in as much water as it kept out. You can stand here an imagine what it must’ve been like to roll up in front of this place with a Cadillac full of long-haired musicians, but there’s no looking inside.
For that, you need to cross town to FAME Studios, and that’s where we headed.
The documentary Muscle Shoals spends a lot of time in the studios here, but what isn’t immediately apparent is that FAME hasn’t been touched since the 1960s. The waiting room up front has the decor of a trailer sales office. It’s a time capsule in wood paneling. Just thinking about who walked through the doors and sat of that overstuffed couch and poured gallons of coffee in a booze-full gut is enough to give you chills.
We got a quick tour of the offices and the two studios. The lure of touching all those fantastic instruments was almost too much to bear. Just as we figured we were about to leave, a surprise guest walked out of the back room: Frank Rogers, the hotshot producer we wrote a song with the night before. The payoff: We were going to record that very song right here in this studio.
It took a few minutes for the nerves and excitement to wear off, but once they did, we started making some pretty good music together, and the final result is something we were all pretty proud of. You can listen to it here:
The next morning, I packed up early and hit the road at 5:30 a.m. to catch a flight to Boston out of Nashville. It was a chance to spend another three hours in the Malibu Hybrid, this time on a flat-out highway trip. Am I going to try to convince you that this trip was better in this car than it would’ve been in a Camaro? Of course not. But at 47 miles per gallon, and with a starting price of just $28,645, it sure feels like a fantastic bet for a daily commuter.
About the only thing I argued with was the OnStar navigation system, which seemed to have some issues finding the airport I wanted. Other than that, it was a perfect travel companion, especially with a Pandora playlist of some of the greatest songs ever recorded at both FAME and Muscle Shoals Sound Studio.
It’s great to see an American brand deliver a car that plays as effectively in this wildly competitive segment, hybrid or not. But the Malibu Hybrid ups everyone’s game in the midsize hybrid segment.
Looking for a new or used Malibu Hybrid? Check out BestRide’s local search here.