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The inside guide to Muscle Shoals, Alabama's music capital

Alabama’s music capital birthed the heady combo of Southern soul and R&B, churning out the sounds of the Sixties — including hits by Aretha Franklin and Willie Nelson. Now it’s returning to the spotlight, attracting a new generation of music enthusiasts.

Published 16 Sept 2021, 06:05 BST
From the outside, Muscle Shoals Sound Studio still looks like the coffin showroom it once was, ...

From the outside, Muscle Shoals Sound Studio still looks like the coffin showroom it once was, but inside is pure rock ’n’ roll.

Photograph by Art Meripol / Alabama Tourism Department

Muscle Shoals easily measures up to its music city heavyweight neighbours — Memphis, Nashville and New Orleans — in the cool stakes. But don’t be fooled by its sleepy, two-horse-town appearance: the rootsy city became an unlikely creative epicentre during the Sixties, and a byword for rocking recording studios and hit albums — until its star began to wane.

That’s set to change once more as Muscle Shoals (and the wider Shoals area, including Florence, Tuscumbia and Sheffield) reclaims its place on the musical map of America, with the opening of a new musical hotel and tours showcasing why this one-time ‘hit recording capital of the world’ has a lot to shout about. 

First stop should be the W C Handy Home & Museum, where you’ll find a micro-gallery paying homage to the Father of the Blues, plus a rustic replica of his log cabin childhood home. From here, it’s a short drive over the snaking Tennessee River (known locally as ‘the river that sings’) to FAME Studios. This unassuming spot is the birthplace of the Muscle Shoals sound — that heady combination of Southern soul and R&B. Knowledgeable guides walk you through the padded booths where Aretha Franklin recorded her finest work to a clandestine speakeasy bar where Willie Nelson may or may not have partied (this was once a dry county). In case you were in any doubt about its contribution to music history, the plucky studio’s hit records have sold a staggering 350 million copies worldwide. 

At the W C Handy Birthplace Museum, you’ll find a micro-gallery paying homage to the Father of the Blues, plus a rustic replica of his log cabin childhood home.

Photograph by Art Meripol / Alabama Tourism Department

A few blocks away, Muscle Shoals Sound Studio has also thrown open its doors to curious visitors. From the outside, it still looks like the coffin showroom it once was, but inside is pure rock ’n’ roll: stand on the exact spot where The Rolling Stones found their groove, and don’t miss the toilet cubicle where Keith Richards is said to have hastily penned Wild Horses. Nearby, the Alabama Music Hall of Fame also offers a whistle-stop tour of the musical greats from this area.

As dusk falls, follow the melody to Swampers Bar & Grille, where live acts perform most nights, or catch some rock music under an actual rock at the Rattlesnake Saloon, a quirky watering hole nestled beneath an awe-inspiring stone bluff. Its duke burger with bacon and jalapeños hits all the right notes.

Located in the heart of downtown Florence, the GunRunner features 10 spacious luxury suites  designed to celebrate the world-class music and history of the Shoals area.

Photograph by Chris Granger / Alabama Tourism Department

Melomaniacs should then head to the newly opened GunRunner, a hip boutique hotel with 10 themed suites. The best room in the house is the Sam Phillips suite, a tribute to the Shoals native and legendary Sun Studio producer who discovered Elvis Presley.

There must be something in the water around here.

How to do it

Don’t miss the annual Shoals Fest on 2-3 October, a musical extravaganza with a lineup including Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit. FAME Studios and Muscle Shoals Sound Studio are both open for daily tours on Monday to Saturday. alabama.travel

Published in the October 2021 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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