When Sonny & Cher first hit the charts in 1965, Sonny Bono was the brains of the outfit, producing their records and writing the bulk of their material. So after both the duo and Cher's solo career went into a tailspin in the late '60s, their record company proposed a little experiment -- giving Cher some new collaborators in a new surrounding. Under the guidance of producer Jerry Wexler, who had famously kick-started Aretha Franklin's career when she signed with Atlantic in 1967, Cher recorded 1969's 3614 Jackson Highway in Alabama with the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section (Jimmy Johnson on guitar, Barry Beckett on keys, David Hood on bass, and Roger Hawkins on drums), the same band that backed Aretha, Wilson Pickett, Solomon Burke, and many others on a string of classic soul hits. With ace guitarist and songwriter Eddie Hinton sitting in and Tom Dowd and Arif Mardin helping with the production (Sonny received a producer's credit, but didn't actually work on the sessions), Cher cut what was arguably the finest album of her career; it's no great surprise that the arrangements on 3614 Jackson Highway lean towards Southern soul, but the music nods politely to Cher's pop instincts as well, and the sidemen deliver the sort of straightforward but rock-solid support that was their trademark.Cher was given some weightier material than she usually handled, including no fewer than three Bob Dylan covers and some classic soul numbers, and if "I Walk on Gilded Splinters" and "For What It's Worth" don't seem like ideal choices today, she sounds mature, forceful, and authoritative on every track. And while Cher doesn't quite come off like a soul diva on these sessions, she welcomes the opportunity to dig deeper into the songs in a way she couldn't on many of her early hits, and she rises to the challenge posed by her collaborators -- she rides the slinky funk of "Lay Lady Lay" beautifully, knows just how to fill the quiet spaces of "Please Don't Tell Me," and belts out "Cry Like a Baby" with the same punch as the Memphis Horns. 3614 Jackson Highway was a commercial disappointment and it would be another two years before Sonny & Cher would return to the limelight with their television variety show, but Cher was rarely given a better showcase for her talents as a singer, and the album still sounds like a revelation four decades after it was released.