Florence/Muscle Shoals, Alabama
The Mississippi River is to the Delta what the Tennessee River and its lakes are to “The Shoals,” the collective of towns Florence, Muscle Shoals, Sheffield and Tuscumbia. Yet there’s continuity to the flow: Did you know that W.C. Handy and Sam Phillips, who found their fame in Memphis, were born in Florence? That’s just one of many crossover examples.
Just as Memphis trademarked the Memphis Sound, the Muscle Shoals Sound distinguished this region, attracting some of music’s biggest names and inspiring future generations. In the 1960s, a string of number one hits from the area’s recording studios resulted in the area becoming known as the Hit Recording Capital of the World. You can tour these music sites on your own, or join a Swampette Music Tour, offered several times annually or by appointment for groups. The agenda for the tours varies, but the standard stops are: (1) The former Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in Sheffield, where session musicians “The Swampers” made legendary recordings* including the Staple Singers’ “I’ll Take You There” and The Rolling Stones’ “Wild Horses;” (2) Muscle Shoals’ FAME Studios, where everyone from Aretha Franklin to Alicia Keys has recorded; and (3) The Alabama Music Hall of Fame in Tuscumbia, honoring native musicians from Percy Sledge to Tammy Wynette.
Hear live music in one of the South’s most unusual locations, The Rattlesnake Saloon, in the back roads of Tuscumbia. Arrive and you will be put into the back of a pickup truck, ride down a dirt road, and discover a fun western saloon and dance hall under a large but shallow cave. This is just one of the many locations in the area offering live music, mostly Thursday through the weekend. For music any night of the week, visit the Swampers Bar & Grill at the Marriott Shoals Hotel & Spa in Florence.
You’ve seen Handy’s Memphis home on Beale Street; in Florence, you’ll see the cabin where the “father of the blues” was born at the W.C. Handy Birthplace, Museum and Library. Annually in July, the W.C. Handy Music Festival presents 10 days of live music throughout Florence. You’ll hear a strong concentration of jazz, if that’s what you like, but the festival’s also good for a dose of the Muscle Shoals Sound (listen for the Muscle Shoals All-Stars) and headliners both traditional and traditionally-influenced. Recent festivals have showcased The Blind Boys of Alabama and Drive-By Truckers. For additional music heritage sites, live music venues and playlists related to The Shoals, see The Year of Alabama Music, The Muscle Shoals National Heritage Area websites and the Muscle Shoals Road Trip.