Blues (and Great R&B), Brews and BBQ in "The Shoals" - Incredible Music History
Updated: Nov 9, 2020
American Indians living along the Tennessee River in Northwest Alabama called it the "Singing River” because they believed a woman who lived in the water there sang to them. Fast forward a couple hundred years and the sleepy communities near Florence are rocking with the emergence of the "Muscle Shoals Sound" and “The Swampers” house band at FAME Studios.
For more than a decade, FAME and Muscle Shoals Sound Studios, born in a building that was formerly a coffin showroom, helped propel artists such as Aretha Franklin, The Rolling Stones, Wilson Pickett, Bob Dylan, Etta James, Otis Redding, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Bob Seger, Traffic, Joe Cocker, Alabama, and many others. Music lovers can tour these historic, intimate recording studios and hear remarkable stories about the creation of some of America’s most enduring and influential music. FAME Studios are still in action, recording projects for artists such as Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, Drive by Truckers, the Civil Wars and Jamey Johnson.
Between studio tours, get some must-have barbecue at Bunyan’s in Florence. Hot dogs and smoked pulled pork are topped with a hot mustard slaw and then the buns pressed, panini style, into a truly tantalizing taste. The place is nondescript from the outside but the soul in the BBQ is pervasive. I was allowed brief and I'm told, extremely rare, access to the inner sanctum, the kitchen behind the food pass-through window to witness first hand how those dogs and sandwiches come together. Speaking of local flavor and Southern cuisine heavy with a “wow factor,” try the turnip greens soup at Claunch Café in Tuscumbia.
Drink like a rock star with a craft-brewed ale at Singin’ River Brewery in Florence. The Bourbon Barrel Ale (8.7 ABV) was my bestie. Like many micro-brewpubs, they're always inventing and the stuff on tap routinely rotates. Order a four-brew flight and figure out a favorite.
The immediate area is loaded with stuff to see, including the W.C. Handy Home and Museum, Ivy Green (the Helen Keller Birthplace), the Alabama Music Hall of Fame (cut your own single there for $10), and more. Many offer military discounts; admission rarely exceeds $10 at any one venue.
There are many quality lodging options. If you're a military or government-affiliated traveler, all the big hotels -- Marriott, Residence Inn, Holiday Inn Express, Hampton Downtown, Hampton Midtown, Comfort Suites -- offer a government per diem rate. The Marriott is a resort-style property with live music nightly. Military members, veterans and their families can visit many attractions in the area for free each Armed Forces Day. For a full rundown of what to see and experience, go to www.VisitFlorenceAL.com.
Spend a couple days. It’ll likely take “Wild Horses” (recorded in Muscle Shoals by The Stones) to drag you away.
Note: "The Shoals" is a key destination in the region now artfully branded as the “Americana Music Triangle.” From New Orleans to Nashville, all along the Natchez Trace and up the Mississippi River to Memphis, diverse cultures collided, creating new fusions of cuisine and sound.
The studios of Muscle Shoals are key stops on the “Gold Record Road.” This driving trail links iconic places, guiding music buffs to well-packaged options where they can learn more about music history and experience some of the best live performances anywhere. Most destinations are within an eight-hour drive of each other. But, day-trippers or people looking to make a weekend out of it, can shrink their options to a smaller footprint with the Americana Music Triangle. These destinations include Memphis and Franklin, Tennessee, and Tupelo, Mississippi. Each is fewer than 4 hours by car from each other.