Muscle Shoals: places to see (and hear) in your own state
By Jim Hannaford
“Your diamonds are not in far distant mountains or in yonder seas; they are in your own backyard, if you but dig for them.” ― Russell Conwell
Sometimes we overlook the importance of things when they are close by, and Muscle Shoals is a shining example. This is a place that’s had a monumental, almost magical, impact on popular music for decades. It’s a fact that’s known around the world but seems to be less appreciated here at home.
Four separate small cities make up the greater community that’s collectively known as Muscle Shoals and sometimes colloquially as “the Shoals.” One of them is a municipality with the name Muscle Shoals, which coexists happily with the neighboring and picturesque towns of Sheffield, Tuscumbia, and Florence, which is just across the majestic Tennessee River.
This area among the hills of northwestern Alabama is the epicenter of a distinctive musical sound that cranked up in the early 1960s and reverberates more loudly than ever. It’s the sweet home of “the Swampers” that Lynyrd Skynyrd sang about, those somewhat anonymous studio musicians who consistently churned out greatness, time after time, behind so many diverse artists over a few decades. Just to name a few, we’re talking about legendary artists like Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Percy Sledge, the Rolling Stones, Rod Stewart, Paul Simon, Willie Nelson, and Bob Seger, and that’s barely scratching the surface. Want some more specifics? The two main studios here are responsible for such classics as “When a Man Loves a Woman,” “Mustang Sally,” and “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man” as well as “Brown Sugar,” “Love Me Like a Rock” and “Old Time Rock & Roll.” It’s almost impossible to count all the classics that sprang from here, but they also include Clarence Carter’s “Patches,” Bobbie Gentry’s “Fancy,” Mac Davis’ “Baby Don’t Get Hooked on Me,” and even The Osmonds’ “One Bad Apple.”
What could all of these recording artists possibly have in common? The answer is a tightly sewn group of adept backup musicians that weren’t out to steal the show. They excelled at the art of laying down an irresistible groove that happened to put the singer in his or her best light.
“No matter what genre it is, there’s always a certain soul element to it, or maybe it’s gospel or blues,” says musician and songwriter Mark Narmore. “It’s hard to put a finger on what it is exactly, but there’s always a tinge of it that’s identifiable as the Muscle Shoals sound.”
He should know. His cousin is the celebrated keyboardist Spooner Oldham, who played on many of the earliest hits that emerged from FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals. Narmore has studied those immortal sounds from the inside out and also worked at FAME as a staff songwriter. He happily serves as kind of an unofficial ambassador to people seeking out the secrets of the Shoals and wanting to know about all of the worthy tour stops. And there are lots of them. The two most popular destinations for music lovers are the FAME Recording Studio building, which producer Rick Hall opened in 1966, and its perhaps equally historic offshoot, Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, a few miles away in Sheffield. The city of Florence also happens to be the hometown of two other important musical figures. Composer W.C. Handy is hailed as a blues pioneer, and the groundbreaking rock ‘n’ roll producer Sam Phillips on to Memphis and gave the world Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and many others.
These famous studios in Muscle Shoals still make music, but they also accommodate a stream of visitors wanting an insider experience. At both FAME and Muscle Shoals Sound, a knowledgeable guide walks them through the studio’s history to the accompaniment of a playlist of trophy hits. Much of the vintage equipment and instruments, and even some of the comfortably worn old furniture, remains in place. Thankfully, there were often photographers on hand to capture many of the landmark recording sessions visually. Visiting these rooms takes on an extra dimension when you realize those blown-up black-and-white photographs (Mick Jagger shaking maracas or the Staple Singers sipping coffee, for instance) were taken exactly where you’re standing.
A bigger picture of Alabama’s musical legacy is on display a few minutes away in Tuscumbia. Step inside to the Alabama Music Hall of Fame and look to your left to see framed portraits of all 66 inductees. You’ll find guitars, stage wear, and all manner of other artifacts from legendary artists like Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams, Little Richard, the Commodores, Tammy Wynette, and Emmylou Harris. You can even do a walk-through of a decommissioned tour bus that was once the home on the road for the blockbuster country act Alabama.
Devoted music fans have made pilgrimages to this musical mecca for many years, but interest blossomed after a full-length documentary, Muscle Shoals, came out in 2013. “The movie was pivotal,” says the musician Narmore, who sometimes performs a Shoals-centric showcase of music for visiting groups. “Tourism had slowed, or at least wasn’t on a huge uptick. After the movie, everyone wanted to come, and they still are.”
Nearly every week a busload of visitors arrives to spend a few days seeing all the sights and soaking up our home-grown sounds. Like others involved in tourism, either directly or indirectly, Narmore knows that most of them are from foreign countries or elsewhere in the United States, with relatively few of them rolling in from other parts of Alabama. That’s a sure sign that there are many people right here in the midst of Muscle Shoals who haven’t fully discovered all of its charms.
Exploring Muscle Shoals
For dinner and quiet conversation and a full-circle view of the Tennessee River and its surrounding area, head to the top of the Marriott Shoals Hotel & Spa. The 360 Grille on the 20th floor, is aptly named because the dining room revolves slowly so you see out its windows in all directions, taking in every twist and turn of the Tennessee River. Down on the ground floor, Swampers Bar & Grille has frequent live music, and you easily spend an hour looking at photographs and memorabilia from scores of recording sessions that took place just a few miles away.
Many visitors also love whiling away some time in the quaint downtown areas of Florence and Tuscumbia. Others are drawn here by the inspiring Helen Keller. Her childhood home, Ivy Green, is in fact the community’s most visited attraction. This historic home near downtown Tuscumbia was built in 1920, just one year after Alabama became a state. The house and grounds remain much the same as when Helen grew up there, learning to overcome her loss of sight and hearing. An outdoor theater on the premises stages The Miracle Worker each June and July.
Lovers of the outdoors may also enjoy making the scenic drive to the Rattlesnake Saloon (20 minutes from Tuscumbia) for burgers and brews in an unusual setting—under a limestone ledge. In downtown Florence, a stately brick office building has been lovingly transformed into the boutique Stricklin Hotel. Guests can stroll along the town’s sidewalks to browse shops, galleries, and eateries. If you’re looking for stylish, comfortable clothing, fashion designer Billy Reid’s flagship store is just two blocks toward the river from the hotel. And just down the street from the store, visit Odette for local flavors and a bar stocked with bourbons.