The Shoals: Still Making Music After All These Years

(Above) Aerial view of Florence and The Shoals. Photo courtesy of Florence-Lauderdale Tourism. (Click on images to see larger versions).

In northern Alabama, The Shoals thrives with artistic expression, culinary excellence, historical treasures and Southern pride.

16 Aug 22 – According to legend, Native Americans along the Tennessee River in northern Alabama believed that a woman who lived in the river sang to them. They called the waterway the “singing river”, and some said it led the souls of the deceased to a peaceful afterlife.

Generations later, coincidentally or not, the area known as The Shoals is hailed as the hit recording capital of the world.

It all started in 1959 when music creator and promoter Rick Hall opened FAME Recording Studios in Muscle Shoals, one of four small towns that make up The Shoals just south of the Tennessee-Alabama border. (The others are Sheffield, Florence and Tuscumbia.)

He soon launched Aretha Franklin, Etta Jamesand Wilson Picket into superstardom, and the hits just kept coming. Later, renowned names as diverse as Paul Anca, Kenny Chesney, Dixie chicks, Demi Lovatoand steven tyler registered at FAME.

Hall became a legend in his own right, credited with shaping the passionate, gritty blend of country and R&B into the Muscle Shoals sound.

The Alabama Music Hall of Fame in 1985 dubbed him the “father of Muscle Shoals music” upon his induction. He received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2014, four years before his cancer-related death.

In 1969, Hall’s in-house rhythm group, affectionately nicknamed “the Swampers” by Lynyrd Skynyrd, went on his own to found Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in nearby Sheffield. Check your retro vinyl collection and you might have Cher’s solo debut, 3614 Jackson Hwy. This is the address of the studio. The cover of the 1969 album, commercial failure but critical success, features the multi-talented artist, Sonny Bonoand accompanying the musicians in front of the modest stone building and its emblematic sign.

Other artists who have come through Muscle Shoals Sound Studio include Bob Dylan, rolling stones, Simon and Garfunkel, Essential singersand cat stevens.

The Shoals thrives today with a blend of artistic expression, culinary excellence, historical treasures and Southern pride. You will find a rare Frank Lloyd Wright-designed house and birthplace of the deaf and blind Helen Kellerwho led an extraordinary life.

Designers and manufacturers of all kinds have established themselves in the region, including high-end fashion entrepreneurs Nathalie Chanin and Billy Reid. Studio 23 is a gallery showcasing talented artisans and creatives from across the region.

The sounds of music are everywhere – in clubs, bars, stages, festivals and recording studios. For the Native American woman singing in the Tennessee River, I’m sure that’s a heavenly thought.

Why is it called Muscle Shoals?

It’s a reasonable question, and even the tourism people who host you admit they don’t know for sure. Shoals are long, narrow, submerged ridges of sand that accumulate in shallow water like parts of the meanders of the Tennessee River. “Muscle” could be a misspelling of the ubiquitous mussel shells along the banks, or a reference to the physical strength needed to navigate the river upstream, or something else entirely.

I can’t fix this, so let’s move on. Here are some of the sights, sounds and flavors that await you at The Shoals:

Visits to recording studios

FAME Recording Studios and Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, less than three miles apart, are active recording studios that offer public tours. Both are compact, mundane, time-worn spaces, but the memories are huge. The walls are gilded with historical album covers, photos and autographs from some of the greats in the business.

At FAME, my guide, Sam, explained that tours are usually early morning and mid afternoon. “No group will be there at 9 a.m.,” he said. “At 4 p.m. they are usually at lunch or on a break.”

Photo by Pamela Dittmer McKuen

Many artists prefer to come to work at The Shoals because of its location away from crowds and paparazzi, he added.

The Swampers and Muscle Shoals Sound Studio eventually moved to a larger space, but returned to the studio’s original location in the early 2000s as a renovated non-profit museum and recording studio.

Birthplace and childhood home of Helen Keller

Born in Tuscumbia in 1880, Helen Keller was blinded and deafened by an undiagnosed illness before her second birthday. With the help of his teacher and companion for most of his life, Anne Sullivan (called the “miracle worker” in the 1962 film of that name, which won the Oscars for Anne Bancroft like Sullivan and Patty Duke like Keller), she graduated from Radcliffe College, wrote more than a dozen books, and became a beloved international champion of disability rights and humanitarian rights.

Photo courtesy of Florence-Lauderdale Tourism

Ivy Green (left), as the modest family home built in 1820 and the sprawling cultivated land is named, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Photo courtesy of Florence-Lauderdale Tourism

Highlights of the tour include the cabin where Helen and Sullivan lived together, and the pump where Helen learned her first word, “water,” and the world of communication suddenly opened up to her.

Frank Lloyd Wright Rosenbaum House

Built in 1939 and extended for the growing family a decade later, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Rosenbaum House in Florence is one of his first Usonian homes. The streamlined, low-slung “prairie” styling that blended into its natural surroundings was the architect’s vision for a middle-class lifestyle and a design classic today. The meticulously restored Rosenbaum House, featuring Wright-designed furnishings, is the only one of his buildings open to the public in the Southeast.

(Right) Rosenbaum House. Photo courtesy of Florence-Lauderdale Tourism

Photo courtesy of Florence-Lauderdale Tourism

Alabama Music Hall of Fame

The state’s most notable musicians of all genres are honored at the lavish Alabama Music Hall of Fame in Tuscumbia. In the rising rotunda are portraits of those who have been inducted since the first five in 1985. Among them are Blind Boys of Alabama, Nat King Cole, Jim Nabours, Lionel Richiethe Swampers and Dinah Washington.

Photo by Pamela Dittmer McKuen

Exhibits on display include the band’s first Alabama tour bus (left) from the late 1970s, dazzling costumes, musical instruments and industry awards.

Record your own song in the on-site studio.

spring park

A richly landscaped urban park adjacent to Claunch Cafe (keep reading for my lunchtime recommendation), Spring Park in Tuscumbia wraps around a scenic pond outfitted with a 50-jet fountain choreographed to lights and music.

Walk along the tree-lined walkway to the tiered waterfall (right). Notice the bronze sculpture of a Native American woman with a baby in one arm and her free hand resting on a rough headstone.

Photo by Pamela Dittmer McKuen

Title sacred tears and created by Birmingham artist Branko Medenicait is a memorial to the tribes of the southeast whose forced removal by the United States government led them along the road known as the Trail of Tears.

Where to dine

Dining at The Shoals is a cultural experience as well as a taste delight. The offerings are legion, from country to cosmopolitan and their combinations.

The 360 ​​Grille is an upscale revolving restaurant located atop the 20-story Renaissance tower of the Marriott Shoals Hotel in Florence. It is the only revolving restaurant in Alabama. The menu is packed with premium beef and craft cocktails, and the views are scenic. Be decadent and enjoy the flourless chocolate torte.

At the modest Claunch Cafe in Tuscumbia Spring Park, the signature dish is the pecan chicken salad plate, served with lemon tea bread and something pink and delicious called “frozen fruit delight.” The plate was included in 100 Foods to Eat in Alabama by the Alabama Department of Tourism.

Photo by Pamela Dittmer McKuen

Florence’s Big Bad Breakfast, with a dozen locations by award-winning James Beard and phenomenal Southern chef Jean Currencegreets your day with chewy buttermilk cookies, house smoked meats and freshly squeezed juices.

Odette in Florence is an upscale neighborhood restaurant with a rustic-chic vibe and a menu of New American dishes with Southern and global flavors. The ingredients are local and seasonal.

Craft brewing is a rarity (it’s political) at The Shoals, but there’s also the Singin’ River Brewing Co. (right) in Florence.

Photo by Pamela Dittmer McKuen

On the menu, around fifteen beers on tap and in cans, as well as a root beer made from Louisiana sugar cane. During the pandemic, the brasserie has switched to hand sanitizer but is now ready to serve you a drink.

Where to stay

The GunRunner in Florence is a ten-room boutique hotel dressed in architectural remnants of the historic building’s former lives as a pawnshop and car dealership.

The 24-room Stricklin Hotel, a former commercial building, offers boutique accommodation on two floors above the Big Bad Breakfast in Florence. In the basement there is a vintage bowling alley and a high-tech gaming area.

The Marriott Shoals hotel in Florence hosts live music nightly at Swampers Bar and Grille.

Photos by Pamela Dittmer McKuen unless otherwise noted.