Nashville is rightly proud of its moniker “Music City,” but there’s a quartet of towns a little over two hours south that might be able to challenge for that title. The Shoals is a collective name for four Alabama towns that have their own rich musical traditions: Muscle Shoals, Florence, Sheffield and Tuscumbia. Together they make for a great weekend trip to discover the musical history that has been an important part of the region since indigenous tribes claimed they could hear the sound of a woman’s song emanating from the Tennessee River and named it “The Singing River.” Here are a few suggestions to help you plan out a weekend in The Shoals.
While the region is best known for the rock and R&B music that has been produced there since the 1960’s, the area’s spot in American musical history stretches back much further than that. The Alabama Music Hall of Fame in Tuscumbia honors musicians from all over the state with exhibits ranging from one of the fathers of the blues, Florence native W.C. Handy to the eponymous country band Alabama that ruled country radio throughout the 80’s. The Hall of Fame selects new members every couple of years to enshrine in their hall of heroes, and multimedia exhibits in various galleries trace the progression of music in the state.
For a deeper dive into Handy’s history, you can visit his birthplace in Florence, or rather you can visit the tiny cabin where he was born in 1873 and which was subsequently moved from its original location deep in the woods to a spot that is more accessible to visitors. Handy is most famous for his contributions to the early blues canon including “St. Louis Blues,” “Beale Street Blues” and “Memphis Blues.” I small museum at the site showcases artifacts from his career like early instruments and congratulatory notes from two US presidents.
The most popular sites in The Shoals to visit are two iconic recording studios famous for producing some of the greatest music of the 60’s and 70’s. FAME is the center of The Shoals musical universe, where renowned producer Rick Hall made music for decades before passing away in early 2018. Make sure to not the sign over the door to the hallway that leads between the two separate recording studios that reads “Through these doors walk the finest musicians, songwriters, artists and producers in the world.” and it’s hard to argue with that sentiment.
Among those talented individuals who cut records have been Jason Isbell, Wilson Pickett, The Osmonds, Otis Redding, Ronnie Milsap, Jerry Reed, John Michael Montgomery, Vince Gill, Alan Jackson and dozens of others. Visitors can tour both studios and see some of the actual instruments that were played on legendary tracks.
In 1969, four members of FAME’s house band, The Swampers, split off to start their own studio in Sheffield which they named Muscle Shoals Sound Studio. In addition to playing on numerous albums, the musicians began to produce the records as well. Unlike FAME, which is still a working recording studio, Muscle Shoals Sound only produces the records occasionally, so they can offer tours almost continuously seven days a week.
The tour begins in the basement lounge where you can imagine what went on with all those musicians while they prepared to record and then into the actual studio where the Stones sang “Brown Sugar,” Paul Simon recorded “Kodachrome” and Bob Seger sang about that “Old Time Rock and Roll.”
Music is still an important part of The Shoals, and John Paul White, formerly of The Civil Wars, is right in the thick of the action. He has created his own record label Single Lock Records which he started with Alabama Shakes keyboard player Ben Tanner to showcase the musical talent still coming out of the region, including the popular R&B act St. Paul And The Broken Bones. White has also invested in performance venues in the area where you can see his stable of label talents perform along with other local heroes awaiting their big breaks.
If you need more advice to plan your own itinerary for a trip to The Shoals, check out Visit Florence for more suggestions.