On our final leg of exploring Nashville’s Big Back Yard, I had the absolute pleasure of visiting The Shoals along with Mr. Rob Carnegie, President & Chief Executive Officer of Florence-Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau. The Shoals comprise the metropolitan areas of Florence, Muscle Shoals, Tuscumbia and Sheffield, Alabama. The Shoals offers a rich musical heritage, is home to the birthplace of Helen Keller, houses the state’s only Frank Llyod Wright Home and the University of North Alabama. This area presents a wealth of recreational opportunities in their parks and the beautiful Tennessee River. It was a trip I will never forget and cannot tell enough people about it! Getting to meet Rob was a blessing; it was quite the experience and built what I hope is an ongoing friendship. So, without further ado, come along with us to The Shoals.
For starters, any discussion about American music that does not include Muscle Shoals, Alabama, is not really a discussion at all. Heart-pounding. Soul-shaking. Iconic. Many words have been used to describe the Muscle Shoals sound. The sound implored a generation of musicians to travel to the southern banks of the Tennessee River, searching for a bit of that Muscle Shoals magic.
FAME Recording Studios
Originally housed above the city drugstore in Florence, Florence Alabama Music Enterprises was founded in 1959 by Rick Hall, Billy Sherrill and Tom Stafford. In 1960, Rick took over sole ownership, moved the studio to Muscle Shoals (Wilson Dam Highway), and shortened the name to the acronym FAME. This is where Muscle Shoals would have its first international success with Arthur Alexander’s You Better Move On – also recorded by The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. After a year of success, the studio moved to its current location at 603 East Avalon Avenue, Muscle Shoals.
The famous sign above the entryway into FAME’s studios reads: “Through these doors walk the finest Musicians, Songwriters, Artists, and Producers in the World.” This is as true today as it was in 1961. Since it first opened its doors, FAME has welcomed a literal who’s who of music royalty from Etta James, Wilson Pickett and Aretha Franklin to Alicia Keys, Demi Lovato and Jason Isbell. They have all come searching for the beautiful, soulful, sonic footprint that defines FAME Recording Studios.
Muscle Shoals Sound
The studio opened in early 1969 by the Muscle Shoals rhythm section, The Swampers (David Hood, Jimmy Johnson, Roger Hawkins and Barry Beckett). They began working together at Rick Hall’s Fame Studio in Muscle Shoals, where they became well-renowned in the recording industry for playing a unique style of funky R&B. The musicians decided to become entrepreneurs, leaving their positions at FAME, and establishing Muscle Shoals Sound in Sheffield, Alabama. At the time, this studio was the only recording studio owned and operated by the session musicians. The four musicians were equal partners in the endeavor working as studio musicians, booking sessions, paying the bills and handling all aspects of a running business.
I had the opportunity to visit both historic studios and walking through the doors was magical. As I thought about all the talent and history that took place before me, I was mesmerized. Then, I met and talked with David Hood, bassist for The Swampers, and his wife Judy Hood, Chairwoman of Muscle Shoals Music Foundation. When I asked Judy to describe Muscle Shoals, she said: “For many people, the music created in Muscle Shoals is the soundtrack for their lives. The vast catalog of hits recorded here reflects the talent, creativity and diversity of the musicians who recorded at FAME and Muscle Shoals Sound. The Shoals area is a magical place; visitors are always surprised at the natural beauty and depth of the culture in the area. Those who come here should expect an experience like no other. When I welcome visitors here, I always ask them if it is their first visit to the Shoals. If they answer ‘yes,’ I smile and say, ‘It won’t be your last.’ People always come back; some even move here.”
Now Muscle Shoals has got the Swampers
And they've been known to pick a song or two (yes they do)
Lord they get me off so much
They pick me up when I'm feelin' blue
Now how about you?
- Lynryd Skynryd "Sweet Home Alabama"
A boy growing up in Cadiz, Kentucky I always loved this song but had no idea who the Swampers were. A friend recommended me to watch the Muscle Shoals story documentary and it was mind-blowing. I highly recommend you watch and then plan your visit.. I'm a music lover and did not know what I did not know but A LOT of the music of my life was recorded in Muscle Shoals, Alabama.
"Brown Sugar" – Rolling Stones
"Respect" – Aretha Franklin
"Mustang Sally" – Wilson Picket
"Main Street" – Bob Seger
"When A Man Loves a Woman" – Percy Sledge
"Kodachrome" – Paul Simon
Believe me when I say…I am not scratching the surface…these are just a few of the ones on my playlist or in my vinyl collection.
IVY GREEN: Birthplace of Helen Keller
The Ivy Green home was built in 1820, only one year after Alabama became the twenty-second State of the Union. Since 1954, Helen Keller’s birthplace has been a permanent shrine to the miracle that occurred at a well-pump in the small southern town of Tuskegee, Alabama. Standing at the side of the seven-year-old blind and deaf Helen Keller was a young woman named Anne Sullivan. Anne was steadily pumping cool water into one of Helen’s hands while repeatedly tapping out an alphabet code of five letters on the other hand. Suddenly the signals crossed Helen’s consciousness with a meaning. She knew that W-A-T-E-R meant the cool something flowing over hand. By nightfall, Helen had learned thirty words.
Sue Pilkilton, the Executive Director of Ivy Green, said: “We try to focus on all the accomplishments and barriers that Ms. Keller had to face due to her disabilities. Our mission is to keep Ms. Keller’s legacy alive by bringing hope to those struggling with disabilities. Helen Keller’s birthplace is an international tourist attraction bringing visitors from all fifty states and fifty-five foreign countries in 2019.”
The Frank Lloyd Wright Rosenbaum House Museum
The Rosenbaum House, designed by architect Frank Lloyd Wright, is a single-family home built for Stanley and Mildred Rosenbaum in Florence, Alabama. The Rosenbaum is the only Wright architecture in Alabama and one of only twenty-six pre-World War II Usonian houses. In 1960, Architecture critic Peter Blake wrote, “during the 1930s, Wright built four structures of a beauty unexcelled in America before or since.” After touring The Rosenbaum House, I got to see what all the fuss about Frank Lloyd Wright is…and it is impressive. Every little detail, foresight and planning...genius!