Detroit has Motown. Memphis has Beale Street. But if you want to get right to the heart of American music, you’ll have to travel to the Deep South.
Muscle Shoals, Alabama, is far removed from the modern business centers that pepper the rest of the state. And the nearest interstate is 53 miles away. But the city has not only hosted some of the biggest names in the music industry since the 1960s, it has given birth to some of the most iconic songs.
It’s where Aretha Franklin recorded “I Never Loved a Man (the Way I Love You).” It’s where The Rolling Stones gave us a taste of “Brown Sugar.” And it’s where Wilson Pickett introduced us to “Mustang Sally” and took us to the “Land of 1,000 Dances.”
Even as music has evolved, the town has stayed relevant. Carrie Underwood recorded “Before He Cheats” there — and two of the five members of Drive-By Truckers call it home.
Planning a visit to the area? There are a few places that you’ll need to stop — both in Muscle Shoals proper, as well as in some of its sister cities on the other side of the Tennessee River.
Sometimes called “America’s Abby Road,” this recording studio was the home to “The Swampers,” a group of session musicians whose talent was so widely acclaimed they received a shoutout in Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama.”
Among the artists who have recorded hits here are Franklin, Pickett, Joe Cocker, Paul Simon, Bob Seger and Rod Stewart. The studio was added to the National Register of Historic Places in June 2006, and the original building is now a music museum, where you can see a restored control room and isolation booths, as well as instruments popular in the 1960s and 1970s.
The site is still a place where music history comes alive, and visitors can experience that world of sound on a studio tour. Admission is $12 per person.
The original Muscle Shoals recording studio, FAME, is still in operation — and has given birth to songs such as “When a Man Loves a Woman,” Otis Redding’s “Sweet Soul Music,” and The Osmond’s “One Bad Apple.” Started by Rick Hall, who was known as the father of Muscle Shoals music until his death earlier this year, it’s also on the National Register of Historic Places.
The studio offers two tours per day ($10 per person) and an extensive four-hour tour on Saturdays.
In nearby Florence, Alabama (a 10-15 minute drive), pay homage to the father of the Blues. W.C. Handy’s childhood cabin home has been converted to a museum that includes the piano he used to create the style of music that has come to represent so much in St. Louis, Tennessee and other areas of the country.
You’ll also see his trumpet, handwritten music and an extensive collection of his personal papers, giving you an insight into how Handy came up with this musical style that is uniquely American. Adults pay just $2 to get in, while students only have to spend 50 cents.
Hop back in the car and drive to Tuscumbia, home of the state’s music hall of fame. As you walk in the door, a music-controlled color chandelier will launch a light show as you stroll along the Walk of Fame to the heart of the museum, where you’ll see instruments, costumes and clothes of famous Alabama artists.
There’s a 12-foot-tall jukebox, a 16-foot guitar and supergroup (and Hall of Fame inductees) Alabama’s Southern Star tour bus that lets you get a glimpse of life on the road. Admission is $10
After exploring music history, you probably want to experience live tunes — and a taste of the South. In Florence, Alabama, make your way to the Marriott Shoals Hotel & Spa, where you’ll find Swampers. Named after the house band from the Sound Studios, the cozy bar features pictures of musicians at the Studios, signed guitars hanging from the walls, and local musicians rocking out seven nights a week.
Celebrate Alabama’s 200th birthday in 2019 during the ALABAMA 200 bicentennial festivities. From the Shoals to the shores, ALABAMA 200 will present educational programs, community activities and statewide initiatives aimed at teaching, inspiring and entertaining visitors and locals alike.