It all connects to the river. The music, the history, the atmosphere.
It’s one of the most influential places in American music history. You might be thinking of Nashville or Memphis or even Los Angeles. But it’s actually a small town in North Alabama, or rather a grouping of towns, all dotted along the Tennessee River: Muscle Shoals, Sheffield, Tuscumbia, and Florence.
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The Native American tribes first used these lands as their hunting grounds in the 18th century before European settlement. They spoke of the “singing river.”
Legend goes that when these tribes were removed during the Trail of Tears, one young woman found her way back home by following the sound of the river. The ancestors are honored at Tom’s Wall, a manmade rock wall on the Natchez Trace Parkway. Tom himself is there to welcome visitors on most days.
Early Music Influences
The first notable artist to come out of the Shoals was W.C. Handy, a native of Florence. Born the son of a pastor, Handy learned to play the guitar and later the trumpet. A move to Memphis led to one of his most famous works, “Memphis Blues,” which would inspire “Beale Street Blues” and “Saint Louis Blues.”
He was remembered as the Father of the Blues and a successful composer, songwriter, and publisher. When in Florence, you can visit the W.C. Handy House, a one-room cabin restored to look as it did when his family lived there.
The Recording Era
The 1960s were a time of great creativity in the Shoals, as artists came from all over the world to record in these studios. Some changed names and ownership, but Fame Recording Studios and 3614 Jackson Highway are the most notable, hosting famous acts like Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan, and The Rolling Stones over the years.
Notable hits like “When A Man Loves A Woman” and “Wild Horses” were recorded with the Muscle Shoals Sound. Southern rock also found its sound here with The Swampers, a session band. What made this so unique was that black and white artists came together in the music industry when the rest of the country was so divided. Some of our favorite Muscle Shoals songs are put together on the playlist below.
Muscle Shoals Today
Thanks in part to the Muscle Shoals documentary and the Beats by Dr. Dre foundation, these studios have been restored for visitors. Historic markers around town show where important music events took place. Visit the studios with the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio tour in Sheffield Alabama or the Muscle Shoals VIP Music Tours.
The Alabama Music Hall of Fame honors the artists from the past as well as modern musicians to come out of the area. Patterson Hood of Drive By Truckers and John Paul White, formerly of The Civil Wars, still have ties to the Quad Cities.
The Shoals Beyond Music
If you’re interested in visiting the Shoals for yourself, each of the towns has something to offer.
Rivertown Coffee, Florence– Grab your morning java and pastries at this coffee shop next to the Shoals theater.
Claunch Cafe, Tuscumbia– Set inside the local park, this cafe is a popular spot for a lunchtime bite, especially for their chicken salad.
City Hardware, Florence– You’ll find both Southern dishes and international flavors at this downtown eatery.
360 Grille, Florence– Located in the tower the Marriott, enjoy a rotating view with your meal.
Odette, Florence– Perhaps the best restaurant around, you’ll find creative Southern dishes and craft cocktails.
Rattlesnake Saloon, Tuscumbia– This remote watering hole is located inside a cave hosts live music.
Pope’s Tavern Museum, Florence– This tavern was used as a hospital for soldiers during the Civil War and a watering hole for stagecoach travelers. It contains artifacts like a Confederate soldier’s uniform and a rare rifle.
Ivy Green, Tuscumbia– An important stop is the birthplace and home of Helen Keller, which contains items from her life. You can see the well featured in The Miracle Worker.
Frank Lloyd Wright Rosenbaum, Florence– Tour the only Frank Lloyd Wright-designed home in the state of Alabama. Despite some flood damage, the home retains much of the original design from the architect, including furniture.
Singin’ River Brewing, Florence– The area’s only craft brewery honors the river through their name and the names of their beers. Coda Chrome, Handy’s Gold and The Swamper are just a few.
Marriott Shoals Hotel And Spa– The luxury hotel has views of the river and all the amenities. It also has a restaurant and bar named for the Swampers as well as a revolving restaurant. Read our review here. Florence
Gunrunner Boutique Hotel– The stylish boutique hotel takes its inspiration from the musicians that performed here with ten themed rooms. Most of the rooms have private balconies. They also have a spa and a bar. Florence
The Stricklin Hotel– Located in a 1946 building, the Stricklin has art-filled rooms with modern decor. The hotel is also home to a bowling alley and Big Bad Breakfast, a favorite from Oxford. Florence
McFarland Park– The city’s public park also has its own campground for RVs and tents with river views. There’s also a marina, floating restaurant, and playground. Florence
Rentals– Spread out in your own space, which might be a cozy downtown cottage or a spacious barn. FlipKey has some unique properties like a home owned by the Muscle Shoals Studio. Airbnb has a few options as well.
My trip to Florence, Alabama was made possible by Visit Florence.