Walking, Strumming and Singing in the Footsteps of History

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Josephine Matyas

Poor Alabama. So often overlooked by Canadian travellers in their rush for the sun and sand of the Gulf coast. After a few days here, it was clear to us that Alabama had something special; something that other destinations could not possibly match.

By Josephine Matyas & Craig Jones

Alabama is a place where history was actually made. Across the state, battles were fought in the Civil Rights movement of the turbulent 1950s and 60s. The outcomes shaped the course of American history. And, in the northwest corner of Alabama, in the foothills of the Cumberland Plateau known as the Shoals, musical history was created.

Music flowed from the Shoals’ unassuming sound studios, though it seems unlikely that so much creative mojo could have come from this speck on the map. The Shoals were the workplace of Sam Phillips, the genius behind Sun Records and the man who developed the talent of Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison and Jerry Lee Lewis. It was the birthplace of The Father of the Blues, W.C. Handy. Music happened here.

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At the heart of the Shoals 1960s musical karma was FAME Recording Studios’ rhythm section of musicians, known as The Swampers, who had a reputation for putting the song first.

“It’s the way the parts are interlocked,” explains Ben Tanner, a former studio tech at FAME and keyboardist with the Grammy-nominated band Alabama Shakes. “There’s a feel to the way these guys played together that translated into hits. People wanted a part of that experience; they wanted to make their music here.”

And make music, they did. The Shoals’ recording studios were favourites for A-list talent including Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Paul Simon, Willie Nelson, The Rolling Stones, Percy Sledge and Aretha Franklin, among others.

Talent may have streamed in from out of state, but it’s the home artists that are celebrated at the archive-stuffed Alabama Music Hall of Fame. Hank Williams, Nat King Cole, Wilson Pickett, Emmylou Harris and Lionel Ritchie are all natives of Alabama. In The Shoals they half-jokingly speculate: “there must be something in the water.”

“The talent pool is wide and deep here,” understates the museum’s curator Dick Cooper, pointing at dozens of inductees on the Hall of Fame wall.

The tour of FAME Recording Studios touches hallowed ground for fans of the sounds that rolled out of the 1960s and 70s. The understated property has been under the steerage of musical titan Rick Hall since 1959. His story and the story of the Shoals have come to the big screen in the Sundance-acclaimed documentary Muscle Shoals.

“We’ve been here for 51 years and in that time Rick has managed to put his thumbprint in 350 million records,” says the studio’s manager, John Gifford. “Rick didn’t care about racial segregation. All he cared about was whether they were about music. He formed a group of studio musicians to create a certain sound.”


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Aretha Franklin, Etta James, Dwayne Allman, Wilson Pickett, Clarence Carter and countless others all stepped up to the microphones in FAME’s Studio A. Much of the setup and equipment remains the same – the floor space is dominated by the grand piano that’s been there since the 1970s.

In 1969, The Swampers and Rick Hall parted ways and the group of funky-sounding musicians established their own small shop, Muscle Shoals Sound at 3614 Jefferson Highway. Bob Seger came to town to record his hit Old Time Rock & Roll and there were suddenly two powerhouse studios in a very small corner of the state.

Some of the most enduring music of our generation came from oft-overlooked Alabama.


What you need to know

The area known as the Shoals encompasses four merged towns: Florence, Tuscumbia, Sheffield and Muscle Shoals. www.visitflorenceal.com and www.yearofalabamamusic.com

Don’t miss

  • The documentary Muscle Shoals opened in theatres October 2013.
  • FAME Recording Studios gives tours daily. The original sound studios are still operational, including the sound proof booths where the musicians had sightlines to one another.
  • Muscle Shoals Sound Studio – known locally as “3614” – is undergoing renovations and is not yet open to the public. The front façade was made famous on Cher’s album cover, 3614 Jackson Highway. Set your GPS, stand out front and feel history wash over you.
  • Every November, Florence holds a festival to celebrate The Father of the Blues, W.C. Handy, renowned for Saint Louis Blues. His homesite – a small two-room log cabin – has been transformed into the W.C. Handy Museum.
  • If you’re camping, McFarland Park Campground has tranquil lakeside sites. The background music at the upscale Marriott features only tunes produced in The Shoals.
  • Ninety minutes to the south, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute tells more Alabama history. A new display on Music As Protest illustrates how song has always been part of the fight for change. It’s an anchor in the compact Civil Rights District, several blocks that include Kelly Ingram Park, the historic Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame.

About the writers

This is an experiment in creating a lifestyle: Taking her expertise (travel writing) and his experience (as a professional musician and freelance writer), stirring it together and seeing what happens. Add a camper van (a 20-foot Leisure Travel Class B, for those who need the specs), an easy going Border Collie (Eleanor Rigby), a window of six weeks and a yearning to follow and write about the great music trails of the Southeast United States. There’s a file full of maps and a GPS nicknamed “Hal” (we prefer the maps).