In the Northwest corner of Alabama, the Tennessee River links four cities—Florence, Tuscumbia, Muscle Shoals, and Sheffield—to form the area known as The Shoals. Each community has its own personality, but they share a common thread. Together, they are a wellspring of uniquely Alabama art and culture. Take a weekend to experience some of their offerings.
IT’S IN THE WATER
The Shoals is the beating heart of Alabama’s still-growing musical legacy. For years, the area has inspired and incubated artists and bands; today, a new crop is taking the country by storm. So where does all this talent come from? Perhaps it’s in the water, gurgling forth from the “singing river.” That’s what Native Americans called the Tennessee River, describing the gentle babbling they heard as currents flowed over the rocky shoals.
The area’s first musician to attain major fame was W.C. Handy, known now as the “Father of the Blues.” He was born in Florence in 1873, and as a boy was exposed to music in the church where his father and his grandfather served as pastors. He was the first to put the blues on sheet music, making the regional style more available to the rest of the country and the world. Every summer, the ten-day W.C. Handy Music Festival in Florence celebrates and preserves this heritage.
In the decades following Handy, other musicians from far and wide traveled to The Shoals. The music studios FAME in Muscle Shoals and Muscle Shoals Sound in Sheffield became legendary after artists like The Rolling Stones, Paul Simon, and Aretha Franklin recorded there in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Southern rockers Lynyrd Skynyrd also recorded in The Shoals. They all came hoping to add the area’s signature sound to their work, which included the vocal stylings of local musicians called The Swampers. FAME is still cutting records today, and while the Musical Shoals Sound studio is no longer making albums, its original location now houses the Muscle Shoals Music Foundation, which is open for tours. Learn more about The Shoals’s and the entire state’s contributions to the music industry at the Alabama Music Hall of Fame in Tuscumbia.
Alabama Chanin’s shop in Florence proves you can’t judge a book by its cover. The storefront is in an industrial park, attached to the facilities where the company designs, sews, and dyes its clothing. It may look like a warehouse on the outside, but inside, racks of hand-sewn dresses, shirts, and skirts are artfully displayed along with a thoughtful selection of books and home decor that complement designer Natalie Chanin’s creations.
She’s become a household name in the world of high fashion, thanks to the timeless appeal of her feminine but just a little funky designs. She’s also a hero in the “Southern-made” movement, thanks to her commitment to sustainability and quality. All Alabama Chanin pieces are made with organic cotton grown in the United States (some of it in Alabama), given their muted hues with natural dyes, and most are hand-sewn. Grab a cup of coffee and a bite to eat at the shop’s recently opened café while you’re there.
Alabama boasts another famous fashion designer, and he’s also in Florence: Billy Reid. Shop his selection of men’s and women’s clothing at his flagship store in downtown Florence.
The Shoals is a breeding ground for other artists too. Florence native Audwin McGee is a mostly self-taught. His paintings are vibrant and sometimes a bit macabre but always full of life and raw beauty. His wood and stone sculptures are created on a grand scale, and he also pours his talents in to one-of-a-kind furniture pieces.
There’s more than musical history in the Shoals; one of our state’s most famous women, Helen Keller, lived in Tuscumbia. At her childhood home, Ivy Green, you can touch the well pump where Helen and her teacher Mrs. Sullivan had their miraculous breakthrough. The simple clapboard home holds other treasures as well, including Helen’s Braille typewriter, her letters and other personal items.
Showcasing the art of architecture, The Rosenbaum House in Florence is a stunning example of renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s modern, organic design style. It’s the only Frank Lloyd Wright structure in the state.
SAVOR THE SHOALS
There’s no shortage of restaurants in the Shoals, but you can’t leave the area without trying these three.
In downtown Florence, grab a stool at the counter in Trowbridge’s and treat yourself to something sweet. Still owned by its founding family, this spot is the epitome of a Southern small-town ice-cream parlor. It’s been in the same spot in downtown Florence since 1918, making it the city’s oldest business still operating in its original location. Floats, milkshakes, and other cold creamy confections are all delicious, but the signature dish is Trowbridge’s homemade orange pineapple ice cream, made using a family recipe.
Odette is the place to be at dinnertime. This new restaurant in an old building opened in downtown Florence in November 2014, and it’s gained a loyal following thanks to an inviting atmosphere and Chef Josh Quick’s innovative takes on familiar flavors and a commitment to using fresh, locally sourced ingredients. Start with the red curry deviled farm eggs, and try the pork loin scaloppini over rice noodles seasoned with peanut vinaigrette and finished with spiced-just-right green curry. This dish alone is enough to bring you back to the area.
Get close to nature and enjoy some down-home classics at the Rattlesnake Saloon, an interesting eatery that puts a tasty twist on the concept of cave diving. On the outskirts of Tuscumbia, it’s built under a massive rock ledge; you simply walk into the cave and dive into finger-licking-good burgers, hot dogs, bar snacks, and more. Cold draft beer starts flowing after 5:00 pm, and many nights feature live music.