Last Updated on July 21, 2023
Over 400 gold records have been recorded in the studios of Muscle Shoals, AL. How could one small town in Alabama make such a mark on the music industry?
What lured the most talented artists in the 1960s and 70s to record here when they could have taken their music anywhere in the world? What was the magic ingredient?
Many believe the magic is in the water.
The Origins of Muscle Shoals
Native Americans chose to settle this shallow area of the Tennessee River for its abundant supply of mussels, fresh-water streams, forest, and wild game.
The name Muscle Shoals has many legends. However, the one that makes the most sense is that the Native American name for the location means “it took many ‘muscles’ to cross shoals.”
It was also believed there was an Indian maiden that lived in these waters and sang songs to protect them. This belief led Indigenous inhabitants to call the Tennessee River the ‘singing river’ as hard breezes would produce musical notes as it travels over the shoals.
There are theories that the incredible music fortune Muscle Shoals has seen is karmic — lightning in a bottle, so to speak – with music studios popping up near the Singing River. The next thing you know, you’ve got W.C. Handy, Sam Philips, and Aretha Franklin here in Muscle Shoals cranking out hits.
There’s no question about it; when you visit Muscle Shoals, you’ll feel the magic and the vibe the minute you walk into these iconic music studios. The Muscle Shoals ‘sound’ created here allowed musicians and artists to find a rhythm they had never experienced anywhere else.
During the 1960s and 70s, the studios’ success established Muscle Shoals as the “Hit Recording Capital of the World.”
FAME Recording Studios
The sign above the FAME studio door reads, “Through these doors walk the finest musicians, songwriters, artists, and producers in the world.”
They weren’t kidding.
The song “Better Move On” by Arthur Alexander was the first national and international hit recorded in Alabama in 1961. This song launched Muscle Shoals and the FAME Recording Studios onto the world’s musical stage.
FAME Studios opened in 1962 with Rick Hall leading the way and then working with Jerry Wexler to bring in legendary artists to record with the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section. The group consisted of four talented musicians: Roger Hawkins, Barry Beckett, Jimmy Johnson, and David Hood.
These four were masters, infusing their recording sessions with southern flavors of R&B, soul, and country, a mix that became known as the “Muscle Shoals sound.” Artists who came specifically to record with those playing that soulful, funky groove were surprised to learn that these studio musicians were white.
Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Etta James, Bobbie Gentry, Mac Davis, Percy Sledge, The Osmonds, The Allman Brothers, Candi Staton, Little Richard and Otis Redding were among the legendary artists gracing these studios.
Walking through the same rooms where these musical giants performed their magic feels surreal. You can see the little beige piano where Aretha played while singing “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man.” The booth where James crooned “Tell Mama.” The studio where Pickett’s “Hey Jude” and “Mustang Sally” were recorded.
This state-of-the-art studio still produces hits and is one of the longest continually operating recording studios. Contemporary artists using the facilities in recent years include Alabama, Shenandoah, Vince Gill, Alan Jackson, Chris Stapleton, Alison Krauss, Alicia Keys, Kid Rock, Lee Ann Womack, Steven Tyler, Jason Isbell, Demi Lovato, Ann Wilson of Heart, Tim McGraw and Kenny Chesney.
Over 220 gold records have been produced at FAME.
Muscle Shoals Sound Studio
After the success of recording with Wexler and Aretha, the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section – now known as the Swampers (thanks to Lynyrd Skynyrd shouting them out in “Sweet Home Alabama”), broke away from FAME and started their own studio.
Their Muscle Shoals Sound Studio kept the magic going from 1969 to 1978, producing phenomenal music with legendary artists like Cher, Bob Seger, Percy Sledge, Mavis Staples, Joe Cocker, Paul Simon, Lynyrd Skynyrd (who recorded the original version of “Free Bird” here), Bob Dylan, Rod Stewart, the Rolling Stones, Willie Nelson, Duane Allman, Art Garfunkel, Cat Stevens, and the Black Keys.
This tiny concrete building is one of the most influential recording studios in the world.
The studio tour takes guests to the basement lounge restored to its 1970s heyday with couches, chairs, and orange shag carpet. Recorded hits line the walls, even the secret room.
Before heading into the recording room, our group hung outside on the listening porch where artists would hear playbacks of what they just recorded. Then we entered the hallowed studio, walking past the control booth and right into where music magic happened.
When the guide played music recorded in that room, it sent chills through us all. We were standing where legends were made with songs that shaped our lives. These include the Rolling Stones who allegedly (you have to go on the tour to find out if it’s true) recorded three songs here in 1969: “Brown Sugar,” “You Gotta Move,” and “Wild Horses.” You’ll have to take the tour to find out if it’s true.
Muscle Shoals Sound Studio closed in 1979 moving operations to a different studio, but returned and reopened in 1999. The studio is back up and producing hits, the latest being Chris Stapleton’s “Cold,” which earned him a Grammy in 2022.
It’s amazing that 60 years later hits are still being generated in this little concrete building.
Not surprising and well-deserved, the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section was inducted into the Alabama Music Hall of Fame in 2005, and the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2006.
W.C. Handy Home & Museum
Another musical genius born near the ‘Singing River’ in 1873 was William Christopher Handy.
W.C. Handy’s Home and Museum is open to the public to explore and admire the memorabilia collected from his esteemed musical career. You can see his famous trumpet, piano, and original sheet music, and even try the Deagen Organ Chimes.
The log cabin portrays W.C. Handy’s childhood home before he headed to St. Louis and Memphis to become a musical legend.
Did water play a part in his ability to create soulful music as well? Perhaps.
W.C. Handy traced the discovery of the blues back to his time on the Mississippi Delta where he was inspired by the sounds he heard as a child, from secular fiddle music and the songs of field laborers to the nature sounds of birds, frogs, and farm animals. W.C. Handy was able to join those sounds, creating music that was new to everyone’s ears.
His compositions “Memphis Blues” and “St. Louis Blues” set the stage for a new form of music that took off. Handy likewise was inducted into the Alabama Music Hall of Fame in 1987.
It began raining just as I arrived at Tom’s Wall located off the Natchez Trace Parkway about 20 miles from Muscle Shoals. The wall was constructed by Tom Hendrix to honor his great-great-grandmother Te-lah-nay, a Yuchi Native American whose tribe lived along the Tennessee River in the 1800s.
Unfortunately, as a young girl, she was part of the Native Americans forced to relocate to Oklahoma along the infamous ‘Trail of Tears.’
Teh-la-nay was very unhappy in Oklahoma and missed her home. She felt the local waters and rivers did not sing to her as the Tennessee River once did. Knowing in her heart she wouldn’t make it if she stayed, she decided to return home.
Teh-la-nay escaped the reservation and spent the next five years trying to get back. She walked the entire time in extremely difficult conditions with numerous obstacles on her journey. But, Teh-la-nay, ever the survivor, returned to Alabama and her singing river. The story goes that the river continued to ‘sing’ even after the Native Americans left, beckoning them to return to their native home.
Tom Hendrix wanted to honor his great-grandmother as he’d heard stories of her since he was a small boy. Tom decided to create a stone wall that took 30 years to build. He constructed it one stone at a time to represent each step of her journey home. While building the wall, he said he “wore out three trucks, 22 wheelbarrows, 3,300 pairs of gloves, three dogs, and one old man.”
Tom’s Wall is the largest un-mortared stone wall in the United States, as well as the largest memorial to a Native American woman.
After the wall was finished, Tom walked along with Charlie Two Moons, a spiritual Native American, who proclaimed “The wall does not belong to you, Brother Tom. It belongs to all people. You are just the keeper, and I will tell you that it is wichahpi, which means ‘like the stars.’ When they come, some will ask, ‘Why does it bend, and why is it higher and wider in some places than others?’ Tell them it is like your great-great-grandmother’s journey and their life journey – it is never straight.”
The steadily pouring rain led to a transformative walk down a dirt path that twisted and turned. We could almost sense Teh-la-nay walking toward us, emerging from the misty rain.
Over the years, people have sent Tom stones to be added, and as you’ll note, there’s quite a variation along the wall.
Tom’s Wall can be viewed daily from 8:00 AM to 4:00 PM at 13890 off Savannah Hwy, at Natchez Trace Parkway Mile Market 338. There is additional parking across the road.
The magic made in Muscle Shoals since the 1960s is, as Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler said, “…to be here to record in the midst of the vibe in the booth, is a world that could never be lived again, you could never be this again, this will never happen again, anywhere, churning out great music.”Indigenous culturemusic