Soulsville U.S.A.

The house that Jim, Estelle, and Al built

Soulsville U.S.A.

I know I'm a little late in writing about this, but I am just one man, and I don't (yet) have enough paying subscribers to make this site a full-time gig, so please bear with me if you've already watched all four excellent episodes of the Stax: Soulsville U.S.A. docuseries. If you haven't tuned in yet, please consider this your enthusiastic recommendation to do so.

I never know what to say when people ask me to name my favorite musical genres or artists; I make a point of trying to listen to new stuff every day, and whatever corner of the genre spectrum it happens to occupy is usually very much driven by my mood at the time. But if I had to pick, I'd probably pick the Stax catalog. Motown is fine, Muscle Shoals is great, but I don't think anyone ever captured the joy, grit, and sweaty heat of Southern soul as effectively as the artists on the Stax roster (including its at-times semi-bewildering array of satellite imprints). It's just good shit that bears the added distinction of being music that's very much of its moment while also being essentially timeless. Whatever mood you're in, Stax is right for the occasion.

When people think of the label today, they probably think of Otis Redding first, followed by Isaac Hayes and Booker T & the M.G.'s., or maybe Sam & Dave. But Stax is a hell of a lot more than that; in fact, for much of its existence, it was basically a firehose of music, flooding the marketplace with a steady rush of records from an array of brilliant artists. Stax: Soulsville U.S.A. does a good job of getting this across, tracing the label's evolution from tiny indie joint to major player while introducing a number of the key people involved, including co-founders/siblings Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton (hence Stax) and diehard evangelist/eventual owner Al Bell; there are also some terrific clips of interviews with Booker T. Jones, Steve Cropper, Terry Manning, and many others.

Basically, if the docuseries' chief purpose is to make an argument for Stax as a crucial component of American music history — and make you want to binge the catalog when you're done watching — then it does its job effectively, albeit in extremely straightforward fashion. And there's absolutely nothing wrong with this; for fuck's sake, if Jimmy Iovine and Dr. Dre rate a four-part series about their partnership, then Stax deserves at least that much. And it deserves extra points for allowing the story of Stax — or at least the portion it tells — to end on a down note, as its masters are seized by a bank as part of a deeply scurrilous imposed bankruptcy. The standard happy ending that these things always aim for is reduced to a feeble "the legacy lives on" postscript that's supposed to make you feel good because now there's a museum where the studio once stood (and was later senselessly razed to rubble).

Overall, I enjoyed the docuseries, and I even learned a few things about music that's dear to my heart along the way. What really struck me, though, was the way it intentionally evades everything that happened after bankruptcy was imposed on Stax — the way the catalog has been basically sold for parts and trotted out as a sort of cultural bauble that gets shined up every few years for some anniversary or other, but is otherwise left to mine nostalgia for dollars. I suppose it isn't entirely fair to criticize the Stax stewards for reducing the label to a logo and some good vibes, since that's basically the chief function of every label anyone could name in 2024, but it's also disingenuous to tell viewers that "the legacy lives on" after spending four hours talking about how integral Stax was to the civil rights movement. That music was vital, timely stuff, and consigning it to a museum is antithetical to that spirit; equally importantly, it's deeply disingenuous to leave out the fact that Stax's assets are now controlled by a "music group" backed by an asset management firm with hundreds of billions of dollars in assets.

Let me put it another way: The story of Stax is one of a successful upstart that eventually grew big and successful enough to be crushed by a label system that was even bigger, and now its bones are connected to strings being pulled by the same sort of soulless fuckers who put the company in the grave nearly 50 years ago. Stax: Soulsville U.S.A. has half the guts required to tell the whole story, but (presumably) because some C-suite feelings would be hurt if the rest of it were told, it waves away half a century of history and sends you out wanting to stream the hits.

The hits deserve to be streamed. So does everything else in the Stax catalog. But the label's relationship with corporate America, and the way its current management is reflective of ghoulish late-stage capitalism, deserves to be highlighted as well.

Again, I enjoyed it, and I think everyone should watch it! But after you're done, just spend some time thinking more deeply than the docuseries wants you to about why Stax was murdered and what happened next. And also please feel free to spend some time with this absolutely incredible 26-hour playlist of Stax tracks, which has been keeping me company for the last couple of weeks.