The Shoals — Music Magic

Words and Photos by Ken Billett

“Here in the middle of the studio is one of the most famous pianos in all of music.” The docent motioned to a black baby grand piano while he let his words sink in. Everyone in our small tour group nudged closer to the piano. “On this piano, Bob Seger wrote and played the hit song ‘Old Time Rock and Roll,’ which many of you will remember from the movie ‘Risky Business’ starring Tom Cruise, and the original demo recording for Lynyrd Skynyrd’s ‘Freebird’ was played on this same piano.”

Our docent went on to name several other famous musicians who likely played or played around on the baby grand—Boz Scaggs, Paul Simon, and Leon Russell, to name a few.

The Muscle Shoals Sound Studio was housed inside a small stone-facade building at 3614 Jackson Highway in Sheffield, Alabama, just down the road from Muscle Shoals, Alabama. One of the most iconic structures in popular music, the low-key, squared-off building has appeared in magazines, promotional ads, t-shirts, posters, and on album covers.

In mid-November 2022, while enjoying a long weekend in nearby Florence, Alabama, Vicki and I toured the restored recording studio on a cold, blustery day.

We last visited the Florence and Muscle Shoals area in October 2018 to celebrate our 29th wedding anniversary. Since that last visit, the Florence Visitor Guide now referred to this area as The Shoals, comprised of four cities—Florence, Sheffield, Muscle Shoals, and Tuscumbia—each situated either along or near the Tennessee River. This section of northern Alabama was a little more than two-and-a-half hours from Memphis on US-72. Basically, you drove towards Pickwick Lake (part of the Tennessee River) and then continued for another 30 minutes before reaching the outskirts of Tuscumbia and Muscle Shoals.

Note: Drive another 30 minutes or so past The Shoals and you’ll arrive in Huntsville, Alabama, like we did a couple of months earlier in late August 2022 to see The Black Keys perform live (read Huntsville, Alabama: Let’s Rocket).

We loved this area the first time we visited and decided earlier in 2022 to make a return trip. Unfortunately, COVID and some unpleasantly hot early summer weather delayed our planned weekend getaway. November may not be an optimal time for travel, but we survived an extreme temperature swing accompanied by those gusty winds.

The Shoals has several cultural and historical ties to Memphis—music, of course, being the obvious link—W.C. Handy, the “Father of the Blues” was born and raised in Florence, as was Sam Phillips, the “Father of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” who, after relocating to Memphis, discovered and helped guide the careers of Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Howlin’ Wolf, Jerry Lee Lewis, and many others.

The area’s rich music history and continued prominence as a recording center weren’t lost on residents of The Shoals. As a local librarian told us, “Around here, everyone plays guitar. Everybody’s a musician of some sort.”

The magic of music was alive and well in The Shoals.

Florence and the Singing River

On an unseasonably warm but pleasant Friday afternoon, we relaxed outside on the upper deck of Stanfield’s River Bottom Grille, a floating restaurant bar that’s part of the Florence Harbor and Marina located on the north side of the Tennessee River. Any place on or close to the water is going to receive high marks from us and with its beautiful views, great food, and laid-back atmosphere, Stanfield’s has become a must do when we visit Florence.

The Tennessee River’s shoals were essentially ridges or banks of sand naturally created by the twists and turns of the river. The Singing River nickname came from the local indigenous tribes who said the flowing waters sounded like a woman singing.

Florence, with a population of about 41,000, doubles as a college town. Located just to the north of Florence’s historic downtown was the University of North Alabama—home to almost 8,000 students.

Much like some of our other favorite small-town haunts—Paducah, Kentucky, and Cape Girardeau, Missouri—Florence’s redeveloped downtown core had plenty of interesting shops to wander through and a slew of good eating establishments where we loved to simply hang out.

And where the music magic was never far away.

W.C. Handy—Father of the Blues

Just west of Florence’s downtown core, was the W.C. Handy Birthplace and Museum. The museum site, now run by Handy’s grandchildren, included the Handy Family’s log cabin—surprisingly in great condition—and the upright piano Handy used to compose the renowned “St. Louis Blues.”

Another famous piano.

Handy’s early twentieth century contributions to blues music and his pioneering work promoting the mostly Black music form to wider audiences that earned him the title, “Father of the Blues.” After Handy’s death on March 28, 1958, in New York City, over 25,000 people attended his funeral at a Harlem church and another 150,000 gathered on the streets to pay their respects.

Muscle Shoals FAME

Back across the river in Muscle Shoals, we toured the FAME Recording Studios—the Heartbeat of the Muscle Shoals Sound. FAME and the Shoals Sound became legendary, as did the artists who recorded there in the 1960s and 70s: Etta James, Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, Little Richard, Jerry Reed, Lou Rawls, the Osmond brothers, Bobby Gentry, and many others. More recent FAME alumni included Gregg Allman, Alicia Keys, Jason Isbell, Demi Lovato, Vince Gill, Alison Krauss, and on and on.

During the guided tour, we learned about the incredible history (and music) made at this one location. FAME contained two studios, known simply as Studio A and Studio B, and both spots had their own unique story. Much like Sun Studio in Memphis, you can almost feel that historic vibe—and the music—when you step into those rooms.

The Sheffield Swampers

Not too far from FAME on Jackson Highway in Sheffield, we were standing with our small tour group, absorbing more facts, figures, and anecdotes about the somewhat cramped studio space that produced many big musical hits. Muscle Shoals Sound Studio was started by the four members of the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, who were once the FAME Studios house band. Known for their funky R&B style of play, the quartet would later be immortalized as the Swamperson Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama.”

After 1978, the original building on Jackson Highway went through tough times, but, in 2013, was restored to its original glory, including the tiny studio restroom where Keith Richards supposedly wrote “Wild Horses” for The Rolling Stones.

Music Legacy

As Saturday afternoon’s temperatures continued to plumet and the winds continued to blow, we sought refuge inside the Florence-Lauderdale Public Library located across a tree-lined street from our Airbnb. The library had a beautiful interior and, of course, a used book sale was going on. We bought a couple of paperbacks and briefly talked with the librarian who mentioned that everyone in the area was a musician, or a want-to-be musician.

We walked around the interior noting how clean and well-kept the library appeared—even after 20 years in its current location—then I noticed guitars on a wall behind the Check Out counter. Apparently, library members could check out one of four acoustic guitars. There’s even one cigar box guitar to borrow and play.

Now that’s one way to continue a music legacy and maintain that music magic.

Ken Billett has called Memphis home for more than thirty years. A freelance writer, fiction author, and nationally known advocate for skin cancer prevention and research, Ken volunteers his time at the Blues Hall of Fame on South Main in downtown Memphis. When not tending to his flowers, Ken and his wife Vicki travel extensively. StoryBoard Memphis is proud to present Ken’s columns Time Capsules and Get out of Town as ongoing features here on StoryBoard.

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