The Shoals: Still making music after all these years
Loop North News

Chicago Traveler

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

In Northern Alabama, The Shoals flourishes with artistic expression, culinary excellence, historic treasures, and Southern pride.

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

Generations later, coincidentally or not, the region known as The Shoals is acclaimed as the Hit Recording Capital of the World.

It began in 1959 when music maker and promoter Rick Hall opened FAME Recording Studios in Muscle Shoals, one of the four small cities 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 James, and Wilson Pickett into super-stardom, and the hits kept on coming. In later years, marquee names as diverse as Paul Anka, Kenny Chesney, Dixie Chicks, Demi Lovato, and Steven Tyler recorded at FAME.

Photo by Pamela Dittmer McKuen

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

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

In 1969, Hall’s in-house rhythm band, affectionately dubbed “the Swampers” by Lynyrd Skynyrd, went off on its own to found Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in nearby Sheffield. Check your retro vinyl collection, and you may have Cher’s solo debut, 3614 Jackson Highway. That’s the studio’s address. The cover of the 1969 album, a commercial failure but critical success, pictures the multi-talented entertainer, Sonny Bono, and supporting musicians in front of the modest stone building and its iconic sign.

Other artists who passed through Muscle Shoals Sound Studio include Bob Dylan, Rolling Stones, Simon and Garfunkel, Staple Singers, and Cat Stevens.

The Shoals today flourishes with a mix of artistic expression, culinary excellence, historic treasures, and Southern pride. You’ll find a rare Frank Lloyd Wright-designed home and the birthplace of the deaf and blind Helen Keller, who led an extraordinary life.

Designers and makers of all sorts have anchored in the area, including high-end fashion entrepreneurs Natalie Chanin and Billy Reid. Studio 23 is a gallery showcasing talented artisans and creatives from throughout the region.

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

Why is it named Muscle Shoals?

It’s a reasonable question, and even the fine tourism folks who welcome you admit they don’t know for sure. Shoals are long, narrow, submerged ridges of sand that build up in shallow waters like parts of the meandering Tennessee River. “Muscle” could be a misspelling of the ubiquitous mussel shells along the shores, or a reference to the physical strength required to navigate the river upstream, or something else entirely.

I can’t settle this, so let’s move on. These are some of the sights, sounds, and tastes that await you in The Shoals:

Recording Studio Tours

FAME Recording Studios and Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, less than three miles apart, are active recording studios that offer public tours. Both are compact, unremarkable, timeworn spaces, but the memories are enormous. The walls are gilded with historic album covers, photos, and autographs of some of the biggest in the business.

At FAME, my guide, Sam, explained tours are given usually early mornings and mid-afternoons. “No band will be here 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 The Shoals to work 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 they returned to the studio’s original location in the early 2000s as a renovated nonprofit museum and recording studio.

Helen Keller Birthplace and Childhood Home

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

Photo provided by Florence-Lauderdale Tourism

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

Photo provided by Florence-Lauderdale Tourism

Tour highlights include the cottage where Helen and Sullivan lived together, and the pump where Helen learned her first word, “water,” and the world of communication suddenly opened to her.

Frank Lloyd Wright Rosenbaum House

Built in 1939 and expanded for the growing family a decade later, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Rosenbaum House in Florence is one of his earliest Usonian homes. The streamlined, low-slung “prairie” style 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, appointed with Wright-designed furnishings, is the only one of his buildings open to the public in the Southeast.

(Right) Rosenbaum House. Photo provided by Florence-Lauderdale Tourism

Photo provided by Florence-Lauderdale Tourism

Alabama Music Hall of Fame

The state’s most notable music achievers of any genre are honored at the palatial Alabama Music Hall of Fame in Tuscumbia. In the soaring rotunda are portraits of those who have been inducted since the first group of five in 1985. Among them are Blind Boys of Alabama, Nat King Cole, Jim Nabors, Lionel Richie, the Swampers, and Dinah Washington.

Photo by Pamela Dittmer McKuen

Featured exhibits include the band Alabama’s first touring bus (left) from the late 1970s, dazzling costumes, musical instruments, and industry awards.

Record your own song in the onsite studio.

Spring Park

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

Stroll along the tree-lined walkway to the tiered waterfall (right). Note the bronze sculpture of a Native American woman with a baby in one arm and her free hand resting on a crude grave marker.

Photo by Pamela Dittmer McKuen

Titled Sacred Tears and created by Birmingham artist Branko Medenica, it’s a memorial to the Southeastern tribes whose forced removal by the United States government led them along the route known as the Trail of Tears.

Where to dine

Dining in The Shoals is a cultural experience as well as a gustatory pleasure. The offerings are legion, from country to cosmopolitan and combinations thereof.

The 360 Grille is an upscale, revolving restaurant atop the 20-story Renaissance Tower at Marriott Shoals Hotel in Florence. It’s the only revolving restaurant in Alabama. The menu is flush with prime beef and hand-crafted cocktails, and the views are panoramic. Be decadent and savor the flourless chocolate torte.

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

Photo by Pamela Dittmer McKuen

Florence’s Big Bad Breakfast, with a dozen locations by James Beard Award winner and Southern phenom chef John Currence, greets your day with fluffy buttermilk biscuits, house-smoked meats, and freshly squeezed juices.

Odette in Florence is an upscale neighborhood eatery with a rustic-chic ambiance and a menu of New American fare with Southern and global flavors. Ingredients are local and seasonal.

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

Photo by Pamela Dittmer McKuen

On the menu are cans and drafts of 15 or so beers, plus a root beer made with Louisiana sugar cane. During the pandemic, the brewery pivoted to hand sanitizer but is now ready to pour you a glass.

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 pawn shop and car dealership.

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

Marriott Shoals Hotel in Florence hosts live music every night in the Swampers Bar and Grille.

 More info: The Shoals

Photos by Pamela Dittmer McKuen except where noted otherwise.

• Contact Pamela Dittmer McKuen at pmckuen@gmail.com

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