— MUSCLE SHOALS, ALABAMA — The northwestern Alabama cities of Muscle Shoals, Sheffield, Tuscumbia, and Florence on the banks of the Tennessee River call themselves The Shoals Area. Their biggest claim to fame is their musical heritage. They are the birthplace of the Blues and The Muscle Shoals Sound. Music is not the only attraction in The Shoals Area. It is the birthplace of Helen Keller, the most famous deaf and blind person who ever advocated for handicapped people. Ancient people lived here and left their mark as well.
The nearest airport accommodating major airlines is Huntsville International Airport, about 60-miles to the east. There are no interstates going into the area. You can drive US-73 coming from the east or west or US-43 from the north or south. The big plus here is there is light traffic and no parking problems.
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The Shoals have something for everyone. Aside from the attractions, each city’s downtown area is unique and worth browsing.~Kathleen Walls
1. WC Handy Home & Museum
William Christopher Handy, The Father of the Blues, uttered his first sound in Florence in 1873. His family still owns and operates the log cabin that was his birthplace as a museum dedicated to his memory. Inside, videos tell the story of his rise to fame. In addition, the museum contains some of his sheet music, his piano, personal photos, and some of his other musical instruments. It is small but worth a visit.
2. FAME Studio in Muscle Shoals
Rick Hall first opened Florence Alabama Music Enterprises in 1959 in partnership with Billy Sherrill and Tom Stafford. The original studio was over City Drugstore in Florence. Sherrill and Stafford left the partnership, and Rick Hall shortened the name to FAME and moved the studio to Muscle Shoals.
Hall, himself a Country Musician, recorded Country and Rhythm and Blues musicians. He ignored local Jim Crow laws and recorded both Black and white musicians using the same backup band, Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, later known as The Swampers. They created The Muscle Shoals Sound. FAME got its first national hit in 1961 when Arthur Alexander recorded “You Better Move On.”
Today, you can tour FAME, which still operates as a working studio. The small lobby of the tour begins has gold records and album covers of some of FAME’s biggest stars, Bobby Gentry, Wilson Pickett, Little Richard, and Greg Allman. A guide takes you into the studio through a door with a sign above it saying, “Through these doors walk the finest musicians, songwriters, artists, and producers in the world.” This is still a working studio.
Hall added Studio B in 1967 as FAME became busier. It is called the Rock-and-roll Room. Studio A, the Legacy Studio, is the original recording area. Burlap sack insulation, wood slats, and slanted walls created the right sound. One oddity – since Hall had little money at this time, the bathroom is located inside the studio. The guide explains, “If you were in there when they were recording, you couldn’t flush or even come out.”
So many famous musicians recorded here. Aretha Franklin credits Rick Hall for making her the “Queen of Soul.” One young, homeless guitar player stayed in a tent in the FAME parking lot. He got his break here when he played backup for Wilson Pickett’s “Hey Jude.” That was Duane Allman, who formed The Allman Brothers Band.
3. Muscle Shoals Sound Studio
In 1969, FAME’s Studio Band left to form the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio. The first album they cut at this studio was Cher’s 1969 album, “3614 Jackson Highway,” named for the studio’s address. Her album cover shows Cher in the forefront and all the people related to the album behind her. The name became synonymous with the studio, and today that is the name on the sign in front of the studio. No matter what name you call it, this studio made musical history.
The studio had problems with recording at first, as the building was originally a coffin showroom and not designed for recording. In addition, it had a tin roof. As a result, when it rained, they could not record. The band solved that problem with some burlap with insulation wrapped in it. The building’s cement block wall also created a problem. The sound bounced off the wall. One of the band members had a friend who gave him some Styrofoam to put on the wall. It solved the problem so well that over the nine years they used the building, they recorded 312 albums; 75 of them went gold and 14 platinum. In addition, they recorded 110 top-10 single records.
Lynyrd Skynyrd was the band that immortalized the name, The Swampers when he recorded “Sweet Home Alabama” and used the name in the song.
The studio closed in 1979, and the Muscle Shoals Music Foundation bought it in 2013. They opened the studio for tours. When you tour the studio, you see much of the original equipment and their sound correction material. Some musicians who recorded there included the Rolling Stones, Willie Nelson, The Osmond Brothers, Bob Seegar, Paul Simon, Art Garfunkel, Linda Ronstadt, and dozens of other big names.
4. Alabama Music Hall of Fame
Considering the Shoals Area’s contribution to music history, it is only natural that the state’s music hall of fame is here. Step inside, and you find a lot about Rick Hall and FAME Studio. The Swampers are present as well. You will find an exhibit for Sun Studio here. Although the studio is in Memphis, Tennessee, its founder, Sam Phillips, considered “The man who created Rock-and-roll,” is from Florence. Alabama’s most famous Country Musician, Hank Williams, has an elaborate exhibit in the museum. The group, Alabama, has one of their touring buses on display. You can walk through the bus and see how musicians live on the road. It’s one fabulous museum.
5. Helen Keller
Ivy Green is Helen Keller’s birthplace. Born in 1880, a high fever at 19 months destroyed young Helen’s sight and hearing. When Anne Sullivan came as her teacher, the seven-year-old was almost a savage. After a difficult few months, Anne Sullivan finally got the idea of what sign language meant through to Helen. When Anne signed the word W-A-T-E-R while they drew water from the water pump in the front yard, Helen suddenly understood what the signs meant. She spoke her first word, water.
Helen Keller graduated college and became one of the most famous advocates for handicapped people. Ivy Green is open for guided tours year-round. Much of the furnishings in the home belonged to the Keller family.
If you visit on weekends from June through mid-July, you can see The Miracle Worker’s play, which tells this amazing story.
6. Florence Indian Mound & Museum
Florence’s 43-foot-tall mound, constructed by Paolo-Indians during the Woodland Period with no modern tools, is amazing. However, when archeologists excavated the mound, they found the largest trove of ancient tools and artifacts ever discovered in Alabama. You can climb to the top of the mound if you like.
The museum contains so many historic treasures. There are arrowheads, pottery, spear points, and ceremonial objects. The museum has excellent exhibits and placards that explain the period and lifestyle of the people living on this site.
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7. Tom’s Wall
When Tom Hendrix learned the story of his great-great-grandmother’s journey, he wanted to commemorate her bravery. His ancestor, Te-lah-nay, was a teenager of the Yuchi Tribe that was forced on the Trail of Tears. In Oklahoma, she missed her home and, most of all, the river. Her people called the Tennessee River the Singing River, and they taught her the river sang to her. In Oklahoma, none of the rivers sang. Te-lah-nay escaped from Oklahoma and walked for five years to return home.
Tom created a wall to honor her. He built the wall of unmortared stones. One section is straight, representing her journey to Oklahoma. The other side twist and turns, representing her walk back. Each stone represents a step on Te-lah-nay’s journey home. Tom’s Wall contains 8.5-million pounds of stone, all in place without mortar. Tom’s Wall is the largest unmortared stone wall in the country. It’s also the largest memorial anywhere to a Native American woman. Tom also wrote about Te-lah-nay’s journey in a book titled If the Legends Fade.
After Tom died in 2017, his son, Trace, carries on the family story. You might meet him when you visit the wall. It’s free to view the wall.
8. Frank Lloyd Wright – Rosenbaum House
Frank Lloyd Wright built the Rosenbaum House in 1939. As in most of his houses, Wright was making use of sunlight to make the house bright and cheerful. He used natural building materials back before anyone else thought about the environment. The home looks like it would still be a comfortable home to live in today.
The Shoals have many outdoor activities. McFarland Park has a 60-site campground. For day use, a playground, soccer and baseball fields, a driving range, a marina with a fishing pier and boat ramp, a floating restaurant and bar, and an 18-hole disc golf course. If you need Frisbees, you can buy or rent them at the visitors’ center, which is at the entrance to the park. They have a small museum inside and helpful staff.
Spring Park is another local relaxing spot. You can enjoy a train ride, a carousel, a roller coaster, and a splash pad here. The park sits on a lake that is perfect for picnicking.
10. Dining in Muscle Shoals
You have many dining choices in Muscle Shoals.
- Start your day with breakfast any time of day at Big Bad Breakfast.
- For ethnic food, Rosie’s Mexican Cantina has some delicious South of the Border dishes.
- Yumm is a downtown Thai restaurant with unusual dishes.
- The Marriott has delicious food both in its downstairs Swampers Bar and Grill and in its more upscale restaurant on the rooftop, 360 Grille.
11. Hotel in Muscle Shoals
Marriott Shoals Hotel and Spa fits the theme of the Shoals music heritage. Throughout the hotel and in their downstairs restaurant, Swampers Bar and Grill, there is music memorabilia. They have live music in the restaurant at night.
Muscle Shoals has something for everyone. Aside from the attractions, each city’s downtown area is unique and worth browsing. The Natchez Trace passes by and offers a chance to see a bit of pioneer history embedded in the earth. So many horses, wagons, and walking travelers used the road that they sank the original trace into the ground in many places.
To learn more about this musical area go to Visit Muscle Shoals.
*Opening photo ©Kathleen Walls