Sure, Detroit has Motown, and L.A. has Sunset Sound, but the South is home to some of the most iconic recording studios in the world. As a bonus, the most famous of them are available for public tours. The region is home to the birth of so many musical genres ranging from blues to jazz, rock ‘n’ roll, bluegrass, R&B/soul, gospel, Cajun/zydeco and country. It’s no surprise that these Southern studios produced some of the most influential acts and music. So, make up a new playlist of your favorite hits, plug these locales into your GPS, and get ready to take the musical road trip of a lifetime!
706 Union Ave, Memphis, TN 38103 • (800) 441-6249
Perhaps unique to any city in the South, Memphis, TN, can lay claim to the cradle of more important musical styles than anywhere else. Known as both “The Home of the Blues” and “The Birthplace of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” the Bluff City was also the nascent home to many R&B, rockabilly, gospel and jazz superstars. These styles all converge in the history of Sun Records (the sister record label to Sun Studio), where legendary producer Sam Phillips took advantage of the variety of music acts in town to cut records that changed the course of musical history.
Sam’s most famous find was, of course, the King: Elvis Presley. As a young man, Elvis revolutionized the industry by adding a rocking backbeat to bluegrass classics like his first hit “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” and his gyrating hips captivated a generation of devoted fans. The driving rockabilly backbeat of D.J. Fontana’s drums became the trademark sound of Sun Records and helped launch the careers of stars like Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, Conway Twitty and Charlie Rich.
The record label was sold in the 1970s, and recording operations were moved to Nashville before the original studio building was sold to a plumbing supply company. Fortunately, it was restored to its historical condition and reopened to the public in 1987 as Sun Studio. Open for tours seven days a week, the studio features an amazing collection of memorabilia from its history, including instruments played by famous musicians and some of the original recording equipment. Visitors can even touch a microphone used by the King himself!
Fun fact: Sam assembled the first “supergroup” in rock history when he brought Elvis, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins together to record as “The Million Dollar Quartet.”
Stax Museum of American Soul Music
926 E McLemore Ave, Memphis, TN 38106 • (901) 942-7685
Inspired by the success of Sam Phillips at Sun Studio, brother and sister team Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton purchased a former movie theater on McLemore Avenue in a neighborhood south of downtown Memphis. They named their venture Stax, a combination of the first letters of their last names. There was something magical about the sound in that old theater, where a stable of musicians played on some of the most iconic rock and soul albums ever produced in the ’60s and ’70s. Nicknamed “Soulsville, U.S.A.” as a Southern-fried alternative to Motown’s “Hitsville,” the site is now preserved as the Stax Museum of American Soul Music. A walk through the numerous exhibits at this museum is like taking a trip through the history of funky music.
The tour begins with a visit to the source of inspiration for so much great Southern music: the church. An early 20th century Mississippi Delta church has been carefully reassembled inside of the building to pay homage to the gospel roots behind soul music. Exhibits are presented chronologically, showcasing many of the notable singers and groups that recorded at Stax through the years. Stax was famous for employing some of the funkiest musicians in history as backing musicians, including both white and black players, a very unusual development in the segregated South of the era.
Moving from exhibit to exhibit, visitors exclaim, “Wait, they recorded here, too?” as they discover the amazing array of talent that made their way to Memphis to lay down tracks. The roster of artists that spent time at Stax is truly impressive: Booker T. and the M.G.’s, Rufus and Carla Thomas, Sam & Dave, Eddie Floyd, Albert King, Wilson Pickett, the Bar-Kays and Isaac Hayes all called Stax their home. In fact, one of the showpieces of the museum’s collection is Isaac Hayes’ gold-plated Cadillac Eldorado. Displayed on a rotating turntable like an LP, guests can view the car’s tasteful appointments, such as a refrigerated mini-bar, television and white fur carpeting on the floorboards.
The tour concludes in “the room where it happened,” the actual studio space where the magic was made. You can still recognize the room’s former use as a cinema by the shape of the ceiling and sloped floor that created a perfect environment for sounds to blend in soulful harmony. The studio is still set up as if Wilson Pickett was about to walk through the doors to belt out his next hit, and many of the instruments used in those recordings are on display around the room.
Fun fact: In 2013, President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama hosted an event called “In Performance at the White House: Memphis Soul” featuring many iconic Stax recording artists, including Booker T. Jones, Steve Cropper, Eddie Floyd and Sam Moore.
RCA Studio B
1611 Roy Acuff Pl, Nashville, TN 37203 • (615) 416-2001
Although Memphis is regarded as the home of the King, Elvis recorded more than 200 songs in Nashville (including many of his greatest hits) at RCA Studio B on Music Row. Along with its sister Studio A around the corner, these two locales were integral in the formation of what became known as “The Nashville Sound,” which incorporated arrangements of sweeping string instruments and large choruses of backing vocals into the more traditional stripped-down sound of country music.
Country Music Hall of Fame inductee Chet Atkins ran the operations and produced hundreds of hits in Studio B over the years, and now the studio is operated by the Hall of Fame. Open to public tours as part of packages with the large Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum building downtown, Studio B offers the chance to experience where stars like The Everly Brothers, Eddy Arnold, Bobby Bare, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Jim Reeves, Dolly Parton and Floyd Cramer cut some of their greatest hits while associated with RCA.
Studio B is operated as a collaboration between the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum and the Mike Curb Family Foundation. Mike Curb is a big supporter of Nashville’s Belmont University, a school known for its outstanding music performance, recording and business programs. So, in addition to public tours, Studio B is also available to Belmont students to practice the sort of analog recording techniques that were employed back in the day and have become more popular among modern artists looking for a more rootsy sound.
Fun fact: An ingenious producer inserted thumbtacks into the hammers of one of Studio B’s pianos to create that tinkly honky-tonk sound reminiscent of a toy piano.
603 E Avalon Ave, Muscle Shoals, AL 35661 • (256) 381-0801
It’s tough to imagine a rural region with more amazing musicians per capita than the Muscle Shoals area of northern Alabama. The quartet of towns of Muscle Shoals, Florence, Sheffield and Tuscumbia have birthed a remarkable roster of talent as well as many important recording studios that produced hits across multiple musical genres. The most famous of all of those studios is FAME Studios, created by legendary producer Rick Hall. The studio was originally located in Florence, hence the name Florence Alabama Music Enterprises, but moved a few miles to Muscle Shoals in 1961.
Rick was known as a taskmaster in the studio, a perfectionist who worked long hours to get the sound exactly right. Musicians respected his ear for audio fidelity and also for a great song. His FAME Music Publishing employed songwriters who churned out hits for artists ranging from the Beatles to Elton John and Janis Joplin, as well as more modern acts like the Zac Brown Band and Martina McBride.
However, the real impact of FAME took place inside the two recording studios. In fact, a sign still hangs over the door leading into the performance area reading, “Through these doors walk the finest musicians, songwriters, artists and producers in the world.” This is not just a boast; among the artists who cut records in those rooms are Aretha Franklin, Little Richard, Wilson Pickett, Etta James and two sets of famous brothers, the Allmans and the Osmonds. (No, really. The Osmonds cut some of their biggest hits in rural Alabama!)
Even after Rick passed away in 2018, FAME continues as an active recording venture, hosting modern acts such as Jason Isbell, Tim McGraw, Demi Lovato and Jack White during evening hours after public tours are over. These popular tours offer a glimpse into both the past and present of FAME. Visitors walk through the hallowed grounds of both studios filled with some of the same instruments used on iconic recordings we all know and love. A visit to the recording booths where Rick spent those late hours is a chance to be in the presence of true genius.
Fun fact: Among the memorabilia displayed in the lobby of FAME is a display of yellowed cards from Rick’s old Rolodex. If you’re old enough to remember what a Rolodex was, you can actually find out the number to Jerry Reed’s boat phone. ( … if you’re old enough to remember who Jerry Reed was … and what a boat phone was.)
Muscle Shoals Sound Studio
3614 Jackson Hwy, Sheffield, AL 35660 • (256) 978-5151
In addition to Rick’s production expertise, a big part of what made FAME such an iconic recording studio was the house rhythm section, a collection of local musicians who laid down the music and who called themselves “The Swampers.” (Lynyrd Skynyrd name-checked the group in the hit “Sweet Home Alabama.”) In 1969, four ace players split off from FAME to create Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in Sheffield, sometimes referred to by its address “3614 Jackson Highway,” which was emblazoned on the front of the humble building, the former home of a coffin showroom.
In addition to producing the hits, the members of The Swampers also contributed their musical talents to tracks by Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett and the Staple Singers. Their rapid initial success attracted acts from all over to record with the talented quartet, representing diverse musical styles, ranging from Cher’s soulful pop to the psychedelia of Traffic to the songwriter-driven hits of Paul Simon and Bob Dylan. George Michael even cut a version of “Careless Whisper” in the studio, although it wasn’t the exact track used on his album.
Tours of Muscle Shoals Studio kick off in the basement lounge where acts prepared for their sessions by taking part in all sorts of “relaxation” popular during the era. You can only imagine who was served at the lounge’s bar. Actually, you don’t have to just imagine since the walls are covered with album covers from dozens of records produced there. Moving upstairs to the studio space, informative tour guides recount the history of the studio while showing off the legendary instruments used in those recordings. A large piano in the center of the room is responsible for the famous descending riff that kicks off Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock ‘n’ Roll,” and during a lunch break while recording their anthem “Free Bird,” one of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s roadies sat down at the keyboard to pick out the gorgeous piano intro. None of the members of the band even knew the man played piano, and they immediately added his part to the final mix. They also told Billy Powell that he had hauled his last instrument case and hired him as a full member of the band.
The wood-paneled walls are decorated with candid photos of recording sessions along with swatches of carpet used to absorb sound. The vocal booth is little more than a closet, but it was big enough to hold Mick Jagger’s powerful voice during a memorable recording session. The 3614 building is no longer a full-time working studio, so it’s open for frequent tours seven days a week. On occasion, bands will rent it out to soak in the spirit of its history for special recording sessions, and acts as diverse as the Black Keys and actor Keifer Sutherland have cut records there during the past decade.
Fun fact: The Rolling Stones, who often took weeks to lay down one track for their albums, had one of their most productive recording sessions at Muscle Shoals Sound. They recorded three songs throughout the weekend: “Brown Sugar,” “Wild Horses” and “You Gotta Move.” This was mainly attributed to the fact that there wasn’t much else for them to do in the sleepy Alabama towns surrounding the studio.
540 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd, Macon, GA 31201 • (478) 257-5327
Macon, GA, is not as well-known as a musical center of the South, but it occupies a special spot in the history of Southern rock. Soul pioneer Otis Redding drew attention to his hometown of Macon after moving there as a child. He had the idea of starting a record company there, and his small downtown studio eventually grew into the home of Capricorn Records. From there, Capricorn became the label of record(s) for many of the most popular Southern rock and soul bands from the 1970s, including the Allman Brothers, Delbert McClinton, the Outlaws, Dobie Gray, the Marshall Tucker Band, Elvin Bishop, Grinderswitch and Wet Willie.
As Southern rock fell out of fashion in favor of punk rock, hair bands, heavy metal and grunge, Capricorn went bankrupt in 1979. The recording label experienced brief rebirths in Nashville and Atlanta as part of other larger labels and recording studios, but by the early part of the 21st century had disappeared as an entity.
In 2015, Capricorn was reborn when Macon’s Mercer University received the property as a donation and announced it would be renovating the complex of buildings as a museum and a recording studio for students to work and learn in. The new Mercer Music at Capricorn opened in late 2019 as a multi-use music venue with almost 20,000 square feet of space divided into four major components.
The Capricorn Music Incubator offers a dozen rehearsal spaces that are rentable by the day, month or year for musicians to rehearse, write and collaborate. Capricorn Sound Studios is a state-of-the-art commercial recording facility filled with all the modern toys that any producer could want. The Capricorn Museum tells the story of the label and the studio through digital, visual and audio storytelling exhibits, including an interactive listening station where visitors experience blasts from the past from the Capricorn Records catalog. The final component of Mercer Music at Capricorn is a coworking space where offices are available for rent by non-profit arts organizations, music-related businesses and creative professionals seeking to revel in the creative vibe of the building.
Fun fact: Capricorn acts The Marshall Tucker Band, Elvin Bishop, Grinderswitch, Wet Willie, and the Allman Brothers’ guitar player Dickie Betts are all mentioned in Charlie Daniels’ ode to Southern rock “The South’s Gonna Do it Again.”
Enjoy your music-inspired adventures!
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