Tucked into the bucolic countryside of Northwest Alabama is an intriguing geographical region that has fascinated imaginations, nurtured creativity, and fueled political intrigue since the revolutionary war. Strategically positioned at the center of this cultural crossroads lies the city of Muscle Shoals.
Long before mankind imposed his presence on this pristine wilderness, a mighty river—later to become known as the Tennessee—carved a meandering channel through the surrounding hills and valleys. Natural obstacles futilely resisted its intrusion. But the river did what all rivers must do: it obstinately plowed, washed, and shoved its way through, grinding and chewing everything in its path, imposing its considerable mass forward. As a quid pro quo of sorts, the river acquiesced to the rugged terrain and simply shallowed up. Finding the jagged rocks that formed near the earth’s surface nearly impenetrable, the river stubbornly tumbled over them, creating rapids and shoals that dropped some 130 feet in less than thirty-seven miles.
Over time, mussels made their way down stream and took a liking to the area and set up shop in the shoals, populating the river channel with prodigious colonies. Early settlers, wont to attach names to their every discovery, used an obsolete form of the word mussel and named the area Muscle Shoals. The very worst of the shoals used to lie just east of the communities of Muscle Shoals and Florence, Alabama.
The area that surrounds what has today become known as the quad cities (Florence, Sheffield, Tuscumbia, and Muscle Shoals) was part of the Cherokee hunting grounds late into the eighteenth century. After the American Revolution, the Cherokee tribe divided. An anti-American faction, known as the Chickamauga, separated from the more mollifying Cherokees. They eventually settled along the fertile banks of the river and claimed the Muscle Shoals area as their own. It was a conflict in the making.
When Anglo-Americans arrived in the 1780’s, the Chickamauga resisted them. To counter their opposition, President George Washington dispatched Major John Doughty to establish a post. His unfortunate expedition was nearly decimated and the project was abandoned. By 1797, despite the zealous intervention of a young Andrew Jackson, President John Adams and a reluctant Congress refused to get involved and the conflict persisted. Final resolution would have to wait until Jackson became President and implemented the Indian Removal Policy.
The petulant shoals that made early steamship navigation all but impossible, have long since disappeared, having been inundated by Wilson Dam, one of the highest single-lift locks in the world. The dam was constructed during World War I to supply electricity to the nitrate plants at Muscle Shoals built for the making of explosives for America’s war effort.
Today, Muscle Shoals is an unlikely home to the music recording industry. Most folks are at a loss to explain why Muscle Shoals has risen to such international prominence. Some say it’s the unmistakable infusion of local culture, others attribute the musical success to the Swampers, the infamous band of musical misfits who played backup on many a hit song and developed what has come to be known as the Muscle Shoals Sound (which Aretha Franklin affectionately referred to as “greasy and funky”). And there are those who claim that this unique sound can only be attributed to something much more romantic and mysterious: something in the water. Whatever the case may be, just go ahead and name a musical artist, anyone from 1959 to last week, and the odds are pretty good that they have either been inspired by someone who recorded at Muscle Shoals or they have had the privilege of actually recording there themselves. The music that they have made there excites the spirit, soothes the heart, and sets the foot to tapping. Many of the hits that have come out of Muscle Shoals have climbed to the top of the record charts around the world.
Located at 603 East Avalon Avenue is the granddaddy of them all: the iconic FAME recording studio which was founded in 1959 by Rick Hall, Billy Sherrill, and Tom Stafford. Hall broke away in the early sixties and soon recorded one of the first chart-topping hits to come out of Muscle Shoals, Arthur Alexander’s “You Better Move On.” His song would pave the way and help ensure that Muscle Shoals occupied a prominent position in the musical landscape. During its heyday of the mid-seventies, Muscle Shoals boasted seven recording studios. The list of artists who have cut records at Muscle Shoals is a virtual alphabet soup of the industry’s star performers. Artists such as Etta James, Lou Rawls, Paul Anka, Andy Williams, Jerry Lee Lewis, Paul Simon, Wayne Newton, and countless more whose names are readily recognizable around the world have all recorded here. The Muscle Shoals sound, a rich stew of the Nashville Sound and the Memphis Sound, is a unique take on Southern rhythm and blues. The town, along with FAME studios, continues to attract fans and recording artists from around the world.
When you visit the area, be sure to allow time in your schedule to see Wilson Dam with its hiking, camping, boating, and fishing attractions. It is known as the “Small Mouth Capital of the World.” Its’ reservoir, long since inundating the original treacherous muscle shoals that were an impediment to the steamboats for over 100 years, provides area residents and vacationers with recreational activities all year long.
And don’t miss the W. C. Handy birthplace in Florence. The influential early blues man, widely known as the “Father of the Blues,” was born here in 1873. He was an educated musician who took this uniquely American musical form from a limited regional audience and introduced it to the national stage. Incorporating stylistic influences from several performers, he went on to become a driving force in the formation of modern blues. The museum houses a collection of memorabilia, musical instruments, personal papers and original sheet music, and so much more.
If you are an apostle of Frank Lloyd Wright as I am, you will not want to miss the Rosenbaum House in Florence. Experts agree that he is considered to be the most renowned architect of his time. He was commissioned by Stanley and Mildred Rosenbaum to create a home that would be unlike any other in the region. Mr. Wright left no detail unattended, and the Rosenbaum House is considered to be one of the purest examples of his Usonian design. The city of Florence purchased the home several years ago for the incredible bargain price of $75,000. They spent some $750,000 to restore it and today offer tours of the home’s striking interior and grounds. Our tour guide proved to be a virtual encyclopedia, not only on the subject of the Rosenbaum House, but on the life and career of Frank Lloyd Wright himself.
Pope’s Tavern is a must-see for history buffs. It was initially constructed as a commercial establishment. But when the Civil War broke out, it was converted from a tavern and inn to a command post for the Confederate Army. It also served as a hospital for injured soldiers. Today it houses a magnificent collection of antiques and artifacts that attest to the rich cultural history of the area.
So, whether you are a history buff, an outdoorsman, a fisherman, a lover of music, or like me, a consummate sightseer with an insatiable appetite for travel, the Muscle Shoals area offers a variety of ways to satisfy your pleasures.
But whatever you do, when you go there, be sure to drink the water. You never know . . . you might cut a top-ten best seller.