There are definitely some famous musical towns in the South. Memphis can lay claim as a birthplace of both the blues and jazz, although New Orleans would question that second brag. Nashville is literally known as Music City, but no portion of the region has more great musicians per capita than the Shoals in northern Alabama. Made up of four towns — Muscle Shoals, Florence, Sheffield and Tuscumbia — this hotbed of music in the top left corner of Alabama along the Tennessee River has produced some of America’s most beloved music.
Since the late 1960s artists have flocked to the Shoals to record with talented producers and session musicians. The roster of talent that has recorded there ranges across multiple musical genres, from the soul of Wilson Pickett and Aretha Franklin, to Southern rock from Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Allman Brothers, to pop records from Paul Simon, George Michael and the Osmond Brothers, to country and Americana hits by Carrie Underwood and Jason Isbell. The Rolling Stones even made a trip across the pond to lay down tracks for their classic album Sticky Fingers.
An award-winning documentary named Muscle Shoals told the story of famous producer Rick Hall, who really started the wave of musical success for the area, and of the famous rhythm section that drove the beats, a group of young local musicians known colloquially as “The Swampers.” The documentary shined a much deserved spotlight on the region and stimulated lots of tourism from fans of the music that emanated from the Shoals. But there’s a lot more than just music to see and hear in the area, and the fact that the Quad Cities are within a half day’s drive of Southern metropolises like Nashville, Memphis, Birmingham and Atlanta have made it a popular destination for a weekend jaunt. Here are some suggestions to pass a few days along what the indigenous tribes called “The Singing River.”
How to Spend 48 Hours in the Shoals
Check in to your hotel and get ready to walk off some of the road grime with a nice stroll around downtown Florence, the largest city in the Shoals and home to University of North Alabama. Attractive lodging options include theon the outskirts of Florence, which offers comfortable rooms with kitchenettes in case you’d like to cook a meal on your own. There’s also a nice pool to cool off in. More luxurious is the , a full-service property with dining options like Swampers Bar & Grill and the 360 Grille, which offers a sweeping view of the region including the locks of the nearby dam.
The University is located right downtown, so it’s a nice place to walk around and get your bearings and to realize how ingrained music is in the entire life of the college — and vice versa. Walk the pleasant streets of downtown Florence and window shop at some of the quaint stores and boutiques in town. Stop into , a retail wine shop and specialty market that also features a cozy wine bar for tastings of fine wines and local beers. It’s a popular gathering spot for locals, so be sure to ask your neighbor at the bar for advice on where to eat dinner. Odds are they’ll suggest , a farm-to-table restaurant that serves elevated American fare artfully plated. Located in an historic downtown building, Odette offers a lovely ambiance for fine dining, but without getting too stuffy. The long bar serves up great cocktails and offers extra seating for smaller dining parties.
After dinner, you’ll be looking for some live music, because this is the Shoals after all. You’ll definitely want to check out theconverted movie house from the 1940s, and when they aren’t featuring music, live theater often takes the stage so you can get a little drama in your life too — in a good way, of course.
John Paul White, formerly of the popular Americana band The Civil Wars, is a Florence native who has invested in his hometown by starting up Single Lock Records and opening, a music venue where he features regional acts. With White and his Single Lock partners as curators, the music is always top-notch.
Don’t sleep in, because you’ve got a busy day of music, shopping and culture ahead of you! Fuel up with a muffin and some excellent java from, a popular local roaster that also serves up great pastries and sandwiches.
While you’re still downtown, you should definitely check in to the flagship store of, a famous Southern clothing designer who has spread his influence all the way from his hometown to Nashville, Atlanta, Austin, NYC and other fashion centers. Billy Reid also hosts the annual , a festival celebrating fashion, food, music and art that draws thousands of visitors to downtown Florence each year.
Located on the outskirts of town is the factory of another local fashion icon, Natalie Chanin. It’s pretty amazing that such a small town would produce two designers who have such a great impact on Southern fashion, but that’s definitely the case. Natalie’s brand is calledand features an extended collection of both hand-sewn and machine-made organic apparel produced by a team of local and regional seamstresses who contract to create each unique piece.
Factory tours are available during the week, but if you miss that, you can still shop in the showroom of the factory building in what was once just a small part of a huge textile industry in the region.
There’s also a lovely little café next to the showroom that serves local and seasonal fare in a bright and airy dining space.
After a little retail therapy, it’s time to check out the music sites that made the Shoals famous. Thein Tuscumbia is a great place to start with exhibits honoring musicians from all over the Yellowhammer State. While the museum does cover the whole state, Shoals artists are well-represented among the display cases and busts of Hall of Fame inductees in the great hall.
However, the essential sites to visit are the studios where all that great music was (and still is) made. is the granddaddy of Shoals studios and is where Rick Hall plied his craft for decades before passing away in early 2018. A sign over the door to the hallways that lead to the two separate recording studios reads, “Through these doors walk the finest musicians, songwriters, artists and producers in the world,” and it’s hard to argue with that sentiment. Tours lead visitors through both studios, where they can see some of the iconic instruments that were used on the famous recordings and the mixing boards where the tracks were laid down.
In 1969, four members of The Swampers split off from FAME to start their own studio in Sheffield, which they named “Brown Sugar,” Paul Simon recorded “Kodachrome” and Bob Seger praised that “Old Time Rock and Roll.” Of course, you have to exit through the gift shop.. These talented musicians continued to play on tracks as well as producing the albums. Their success magnified what Rick Hall was accomplishing at FAME, and the healthy competition between the two studios really put the Shoals on the musical map. While FAME is still a working studio, Muscle Shoals Sound only produces the occasional record, so they offer tours almost continuously seven days a week. The tour takes you through the basement lounge, where you can only imagine what went on with all those musicians, and then into the actual studio where the Stones sang
All that touring can work up a powerful hunger, so stop by, a funky little local hang known for their gourmet hot dogs, cold draft beer and eclectic artwork featuring famous paintings with wieners substituted for the original subject of the artwork.
Spend your afternoon visiting some of the Shoals cultural and historic sites like the birthplace of “The Father of the Blues.” The city actually moved the small cabin where he was born from way back into the woods and added a small museum to honor the composer of the famous “St. Louis Blues,” “Beale Street Blues” and “Memphis Blues.” Handy was quite a traveler, apparently. Visitors can see all sorts of Handy memorabilia in the museum, including congratulatory knots from U.S. presidents and original hand-written sheet music from some of his famous compositions., a famous musician known as
Another famous native of the Shoals was Helen Keller, born in Tuscumbia in 1880. At “water,” a scene famously recreated in the movie The Miracle Worker.you can actually visit the site where Annie Sullivan held young Helen’s hand under a pump while signing the word
About 20 minutes outside of town is a real oddity worth visiting.is a monument constructed by Tom Hendrix to commemorate his great-great-grandmother’s forced relocation from her local native tribal grounds to a reservation in Oklahoma during the 1830s. The story goes that the young girl realized that she could no longer hear the singing waters of the Tennessee River (and all the water she had access to did not “sing”) and escaped from her camp, taking five long years to walk back to Alabama. Tom was moved to honor his family heritage and spent more than 30 years constructing a free-standing, unmortared stone wall, the largest such wall in the country. Placing each rock by hand, Tom created a monument with two paths, an outward path for her trip west and a longer run representing her perseverance to walk all the way home. The rocks used in the construction have come from more than 120 countries, and each stone is meant to represent one step in her journey. Visitors leave offerings atop the wall and take advantage of peaceful alcoves that Hendrix constructed to offer spots for contemplative thought.
For dinner, you can either dine upscale at theat the Marriott and take in the stunning views as the restaurant revolves, or you can go a little more casual with a fun meal at , a down-home Southern joint known for their fried yardbird and Mississippi Delta-style tamales. In fact, just about anything coming out of the fryer at Champy’s is worth a try. With big screens showing sports and the occasional live band, Champy’s usually offers a rowdy good time.
Your last meal in the Shoals should definitely be at, a local outpost of the Oxford, MS-based breakfast chain helmed by James Beard Award-winning chef John Currence. From Tabasco/brown sugar bacon to Anson Mills steel cut oatmeal to some of the best chicken and waffles known to man, BBB provides the fuel you’ll need to get home. However, if you partake in one of their famous Big Bad Bloody Marys, you might want to let someone else do the driving.
If you’re a fan of architecture, you definitely need to stop by theon the way out of town. Designed for Stanley and Mildred Rosenbaum in 1938 by famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright as one of the prototypes of his Usonian concepts, the home is now property of the City of Florence and is the only Wright house in the South open for public tours. Built mainly of native natural materials like cypress and brick, the Rosenbaum House features a notable cantilevered roof covering the living spaces and the carport, which was an innovative home feature at the time of construction. Tours take visitors through the original house as well as the addition that the Rosenbaums undertook to make room for their four children.
If these aren’t enough ideas for you to plan your own itinerary, the fine folks atare always happy to help guide you. Just be sure to keep the tunes crankin’ on your trip!
All photography by Chris Chamberlain unless otherwise noted.
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