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Muscle Shoals, Alabama: Offers Everything for the Music Lover, Plus More

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Story and photos by Bobby L. Hickman

Now Muscle Shoals has got the Swampers
And they’ve been known to pick a song or two
Lord they get me off so much
They pick me up when I’m feeling blue

Now how about you?

—“Sweet Home Alabama” by Lynyrd Skynyrd

When the Euchee Indians dwelled in northwest Alabama, they called the portion of the Tennessee River now known as Muscle Shoals “Nunnuhsae,” which means “the Singing River.”

That name has proved to be prophetic. For more than 100 years, the Shoals area has played a major role in the development of American music – from the earlier days of the blues and jazz through chart-topping pop, soul, R&B and country hits of the last 40 years – and of course, Southern rockers like Lynyrd Skynyrd. If you enjoy musical pilgrimages, this is your Holy Grail.

The Shoals area – the four adjacent cities of Florence, Muscle Shoals, Tuscumbia and Sheffield – form the base of a triangle that extends northwest to Memphis and due north to Nashville, Tennessee. The flow of musicians, songwriters and singers between the three music meccas originated decades ago and continues today.

The W.C. Handy Museum.The W.C. Handy Museum.

That odyssey began with W.C. Handy, a Florence native generally acknowledged as the “Father of the Blues.” Handy formed a band in Alabama and moved to Memphis, where his growing fame eventually brought him national attention and success in New York City. Such Handy compositions as “Memphis Blues”, “St. Louis Blues” and “Beale Street Blues” became standards not only in the emerging blues style but in the newly-formed jazz area as well. Handy’s birthplace in Florence is now a museum tracing his career and legacy.

Guitar commemorating Sam Phillips and 50th anniversary of Sun Records; shown at Sam Phillips Suites, Marriott Shoals Resort & Spa. Guitar commemorating Sam Phillips and 50th anniversary of Sun Records; shown at the Sam Phillips Suite, Marriott Shoals Resort & Spa.

Another Florence native whose move to Memphis brought international success was Sam Phillips, founder of Sun Records and a driving force in the early years of rock ‘n roll. Phillips brought such talents as Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Roy Orbison national attention – and made Phillips one of the first inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Phillips’ family still owns several radio stations in Florence and produces the live “Muscle Shoals to Music Row” singer/songwriter concert series that originates from the Marriott Shoals hotel. (The Marriott also has a “Sam Phillips Suite” with memorabilia from his career and is the site of a historic marker in his honor.)

While Muscle Shoals has shared its talent with Memphis and Nashville, it was best known in the 1960s as the home of FAME Studios and as the “Hit Recording Capital of the World.” FAME turned out an incredible string of top hits, including “I Never Loved a Man” (Aretha Franklin), “When a Man Loves a Woman” (Percy Sledge ), “Mustang Sally” (Wilson Picket), “Baby Don’t Get Hooked on Me” (Mac Davis), and “I’ll Take You There” (Staple Singers.)

Rodney Hall, son of FAME Studio founder Rick Hall, conducts a tour of the historical recording facility.Rodney Hall, son of FAME Studio founder Rick Hall, conducts a tour of the historical recording facility.

“When the hits started coming, people started flocking here,” recalled Rodney Hall, son of FAME founder Rick Hall, who counts Donny and Marie Osmond among his childhood playmates (between their recording sessions). Tours are available at FAME, where you can sit in the recording studio where Gregg Allman worked as a session musician while holding auditions for what would become the Allman Brothers Band.

Sign inside the museum leading to the exhibits. Sign inside FAME Studios leading to the exhibits.
MSSS, now Crystal Moon Studios, shot through front door; Tennessee River in background, where Bob Dylan and Julian Lennon, among others, relaxed between recording sessions.MSSS, now Crystal Moon Studios, shot through front door; Tennessee River in background, where Bob Dylan and Julian Lennon, among others, relaxed between recording sessions.

FAME was also the initial home of the “Swampers”, a group of studio musicians more formally known as the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section. In 1969, the group left FAME to start their own studio, the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, which overlooks the Tennessee River. (In fact, Julian Lennon’s first album cover was shot in that area of the Shoals). While that facility is now home to Cypress Moon Studios, photos of the legendary musicians who worked there – from Bob Dylan to Cher to the Rolling Stones (“Brown Sugar”, “Wild Horses”) – line the walls.

David Hood, bass player for the “Swampers”, said the name came from Leon Russell. He said the nickname is ironic because “none of us had ever been in a swamp.” Hood said he is “happier in the studio than on the road.” While the Swampers have gone their separate ways, Hood still tours, does studio work and sometimes plays with his son, Patterson, who co-founded the alternative country/rock band, Drive-By Truckers.

Nutt House Recording Studios in Sheffield, AL. Producer Jimmy Nutt poses with some of the CDs he created, including Jimmy Buffett’s “Meet Me in Margaritaville,” shown in center of the wall. The Muscle Shoals area is home to dozens of recording studios of all sizes. Nutt House Recording Studios in Sheffield, AL. Producer Jimmy Nutt poses with some of the CDs he created, including Jimmy Buffett’s “Meet Me in Margaritaville,” shown in center of the wall. The Muscle Shoals area is home to dozens of recording studios of all sizes.
The actual bus from Alabama's Southern Star tour.The actual bus from Alabama’s Southern Star tour.

Today there are still a number of studios operating in Muscle Shoals (including NoiseBlock Music and Nutt House Recording), and musicians and writers from all genres still work in the area. (Chris Tompkins won a 2008 Grammy for co-writing Carrie Underwood’s hit, “Before He Cheats.”) With so much musical tradition in the area, it’s no surprise that the Alabama Music Hall of Fame is located nearby in Tuscumbia. It’s a great place to explore the last tour bus used by the group Alabama; cut your own karaoke-style demo to a favorite song with ties to the state; or learn about Alabama natives ranging from Hank Williams to Jimmy Buffet.

While the Shoals area is best known for music, Florence also boasts another internationally-known native: Helen Keller, whose life was immortalized in the Tony-winning Broadway play, “The Miracle Worker,” and its later film adaptations. Ivy Green, Keller’s birthplace and home, is open to the public. Visitors can explore the home and grounds while retracing her life and global impact. Not to be missed: the actual water pump where Anne Sullivan first communicated with young Helen in perhaps the most famous scene of the play.

The Coondog Cemetaryin in rural Colbert County.The Coondog Cemetery in in rural Colbert County.

Another unique spot about 30 minutes outside of Florence is a true Southern landmark: the Coondog Cemetery in rural Colbert County. The cemetery is the only one of its kind, serving as the final resting place for a select group of hunting dogs, ranging from world champions to beloved companions.

Visitors to the Florence area can choose from a variety of accommodations and dining choices. Lodging ranges from rustic cabins and B&Bs to the Marriott Shoals Hotel and Spa, where the soundtrack only plays hits recorded at the Shoals. While the hotel has a variety of dining options, other local favorites include lunch at Trowbridge’s Sandwiches and Ice Cream; Dale’s Steakhouse; and Italian cuisine at Ricatoni’s.

Whether you’re a music junkie or simply want a quiet small town getaway, the Shoals area around Florence has something for everyone.

If You Go

Where2Stay

Hampton Inn & Suites
505 South Court Drive
Florence, AL 35630
Tel: 256.767.8282
www.hamptoninn.com

Joe Wheeler State Park
4401 McLean Drive
Rogersville, AL 35652
Tel: 800.544.JOEW
www.alapark.com/joewheeler

Facilities at this state park on the Tennessee River include a 75 room stone lodge, 10 two or three bedroom lakeside cottages and 6 cabins that can accommodate from 4 to 15 people. Dog-friendly lodgings available.

Map powered by MapPress

Marriott Shoals Hotel & Spa
800 Cox Creek Parkway South
Florence, AL 35630
Tel: 800.593.6450
www.marriott.com/hotels/travel/mslmc-marriott-shoals-hotel-and-spa

Residence Inn by Marriott
1000 Sweetwater Avenue
Florence, AL 35630
Tel: 256.764.8888
www.marriott.com/hotels/travel/mslri-residence-inn-florence

Seven Springs Lodge
1292 Mt. Mills Rd.
Tuscumbia, AL 35674
Tel: 256.370.7218
www.SevenSpringsLodge.net

Catering to horse enthusiasts and campers, the lodge offers trails for horses and mountain bikes, as well as hikers, on over 30,000 acres. Campsites and trailer hookups (56 with water and electricity) predominate but there are 2 unique lodging options offered in a couple of redesigned grain silos that can sleep from 6-8 in each.

The Veranda on Walnut (B&B)
414 North Walnut Avenue
Florence, AL 35630
Tel: 256.767.3959
www.verandaonwalnut.net

Where2Eat

360 Grille
(atop Renaissance Tower)
300 Cox Creek Parkway South
Florence, AL 35630
Tel: 256. 246.3600

and

Swampers Bar & Grille
(atop Renaissance Tower)
800 Cox Creek Parkway South
Florence, AL 35630
Tel: 256. 246.3600

For more info on these restaurants and others nearby, click here.
www.marriott.com/hotels/hotel-information/restaurant/mslmc-marriott-shoals-hotel-and-spa/

What2Do

the “Golden Country Car” at Alabama Music Hall of Fame in Tuscumbia, AL. It’s a 1960 Pontiac convertible with 500 silver dollars in the dashboard, 17 silver guns (including pistols for door handles) and a leather saddle between the front seats). The car originally belonged to AMHOF inductee Webb Pierce.The “Golden Country Car” at Alabama Music Hall of Fame in Tuscumbia, AL. It’s a 1960 Pontiac convertible with 500 silver dollars in the dashboard, 17 silver guns (including pistols for door handles) and a leather saddle between the front seats. The car originally belonged to AMHOF inductee Webb Pierce.

Alabama Music Hall of Fame
617 US Highway 72 West
Tuscumbia, AL 35674
Phone: 800.239.2643
www.alamhof.org

Coondog Cemetery
Rural Colbert County
Phone: 800.344.0783
www.coondogcemetery.com

FAME Recording Studio
300 North Commons W.
Muscle Shoals, AL 35661
Tel: 256.381.0801
www.fame2.com

Helen Keller Home (Ivy Green)
603 East Avalon Avenue
Tuscumbia, AL 35674
Tel: 800.329.2124
www.helenkellerbirthplace.org

Muscle Shoals Sound Studio Museum
3614 Jackson Highway
Sheffield, AL 35660
Tel: 256.783.2641
www.MuscleShoalsSound.org

Big River Broadcasting/WQLT
“Muscle Shoals to Music Row Live”

624 Sam Phillips St.
Florence, AL 35630
Tel: 256.764.8121
www.ms2mr.com

W.C. Handy Birthplace Museum
620 West College St.
Florence, AL 35674
Tel: 256.760.6434
www.wchandymusicfestival.org

4MoreInfo

Alabama Tourism Department
401 Adams Avenue, Suite 126
P.O. Box 4927
Montgomery, AL 36103-4927
Tel: 800.ALABAMA (252.2262)
www.alabama.travel

Colbert County Tourism
719 US Highway 72 West
P.O. Box 740425
Tuscumbia, AL 35674
Tel: 888.344.0783
www.colbertcountytourism.org

Florence CVB
One Hightower Place
Florence, AL 35630
Tel: 888.356.8687
www.visitflorenceal.com

Top photo: From left, David Hood, bassist with the legendary “Swampers”, performs at in impromptu concert with Jerry McGee and Mickey Buckins.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Phil February 1, 2011 at 12:37 am

I bought an album (CD) by The Amazing Rythm Aces titled “Nothing but the blues” The production and engineering is first class; about the best in my collection. The credits refer to “Russel Shoals Sound, Nashville” Is this correct or a misprint? Given the high quality of this recording, I’m really interested in any other CDs from this source. Could you please help?
Regards,
Phil
Tasmania, Australia

Stacey Dougherty February 17, 2011 at 6:08 pm

@Phil – Bobby Hickman did some research and here’s his response:

Hi Phil,
I’m sure that would be a misprint. There is no “Russel Shoals Sound” in Nashville (or anywhere else that I can find). “Nothing but the blues” was recorded by the Amazing Rhythm Aces in 2007 in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, in the former Muscle Shoals Sound studios, which was acquired by a movie making company and renamed Cypress Moon Studios. It was actually one of the first music recordings at the studio. Here’s a link to an announcement: http://www.andhranews.net/intl/2007/January/14/em-Cypress-Moon-Studios.asp. If you look at “Muscle Shoals Sound,” you’ll find everyone recorded there from Dylan to the Rolling Stones during its heyday. There’s not a lot of music in that venue anymore, but Cypress Moon keeps the equipment in use occasionally.

Hope that helps.

Anita Pace December 30, 2011 at 8:27 pm

Phil,

I asked Ace Kelvin Holly about this today. He said that this album was recorded at Russell’s home in Nashville. He was Russell paying homage to Muscle Shoals Sound Studio where he has recorded and still makes appearances from time to time (most recently the 2011 Cypress Moon Christmas Party).

Anita Pace
Studio Manager
Cypress Moon Productions
256-381-5745

Anita Pace December 30, 2011 at 8:36 pm

Stacey,
If the wall could talk at the studio….. So many amazing folks have recorded at Muscle Shoals Sound on the river. Just to clarify, the Cher & Rolling Stones recorded in the former Muscle Shoals Sound Studio on Jackson Highway.

Though not as busy as it was in its hey day, there is still plenty of music made within our hallowed walls. The place was rocking at the Christmas party this year. The Decoys (Scott Boyer, Kelvin Holly, David Hood, Mike Dillon & NC Thurman), Russell Smith, Wayne Bridge, Will McFarlane, Jason Isbell, Jimbo Hart, Donnie Fritts, Spooner Oldham, Jay Johnson and a bunch of other Funky Folks…..).

Next major project will be recording the soundtrack for the upcoming feature film, The Story of Bonnie and Clyde.

Have an AMAZING 2012!

Anita Pace
Studio Manager
Cypress Moon Productions

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