From “Mustang Sally” to “Free Bird,” Muscle Shoals offers RVers a surprising harmony of rich musical history and outdoor adventure
Having been a fan of the Southern rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd back in the 1970s, I had an inkling that the Cotton State was home to some pretty outstanding music. But I’d never had reason to give the subject much thought until I saw the documentary “Muscle Shoals” on PBS last year.
It was only then I discovered that some of the most important American music of the past 50 years was produced in a remote rural corner of northern Alabama.
So fascinating was the story about how four small towns — Muscle Shoals, Florence, Sheffield and Tuscumbia, collectively known as “the Shoals” — emerged in the 1960s as the “Hit Recording Capital of the World,” that I just had to go there to learn more about the place. Doing so last August, I found there’s more to the story behind the Shoals’ roots in American music than revealed in the documentary that inspired my visit. I discovered too that there’s plenty more than music to make this area a fun, rewarding and informative destination for RVers.
The Shoals musical heritage actually dates back well prior to the hit record days of the ’60s and subsequent decades — to the birth of W.C. Handy in Florence in 1873. Composer and musician Handy rose to fame in the early 20th century as the “Father of the Blues,” best remembered for such classics as “St. Louis Blues” and “Memphis Blues.”
Handy’s hand-hewn log cabin birthplace has been preserved and connects to a museum and library housing a collection of memorabilia and artifacts, including the blues master’s piano and trumpet.
Another lesser-known Shoals native made a major impact on the world music scene in 1954. Sam Phillips, owner/operator of Sun Studio, had the good fortune and presence of mind to record an 18-year-old route truck driver named Elvis Presley from nearby Tupelo, Mississippi, singing a rock variation of the blues song “That’s Alright Mama” — effectively creating rock ’n’ roll.
Handy and Phillips may have paved the way, but it was Rick Hall’s founding of Florence Alabama Music Enterprises (FAME) studios in 1959 that really got things rolling in the Shoals.
A brash, multitalented musician, songwriter, producer and fast-talking promoter, Hall was just the right man, at the right time and at the right place. His early success — the foundation of what would become known as the “Muscle Shoals sound” — was built on bringing together African-American singers and Caucasian musicians in a time and place when race relations were severely strained.
Signing some of the biggest names in early soul and rock, including Jimmy Hughes, Wilson Pickett, Percy Sledge, Etta James and Aretha Franklin — and backing them with his homegrown, all-white rhythm band, the Swampers — Hall’s FAME Studio produced an astonishing string of instant hits.
Most folks of listening age at the time will surely remember some of them: Hughes’ “Steal Away,” Pickett’s “Mustang Sally” and Franklin’s “I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You.”
Acting on a dream and fed up, some say, with Hall’s temperamental and domineering nature, the Swampers left FAME to open their own recording studio in 1969. Calling their new enterprise Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, the band moved into a tiny stone building at 3614 Jackson Highway in Sheffield that had been used to store headstones and grave slabs for a cemetery across the road.
Big-name artists in search of the mythical “Muscle Shoals sound” streamed into the new studio. Among them were no less than the Rolling Stones who stopped off during a U.S. tour in 1969 to record “Brown Sugar” and “Wild Horses.” More stellar artists were to follow, including Rod Stewart, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Cher, Dire Straits and the Staple Singers.
Unswayed by the Swampers’ departure, Hall recruited a new rhythm section, the FAME Gang, and shifted his attention to recording pop and country artists. A string of hits during the ’70s and ’80s from such pop teen stars as Paul Anka and the Osmonds — and from country vocalists, including Bobbie Gentry, Mac Davis and the Gatlin Brothers — resulted in FAME’s most successful period ever.
Hall would later return to his roots, developing new artists. Spotting a local country band playing at a club down the street from FAME Studios, Hall recorded the group, which would later be called Shenandoah. He then negotiated a record deal with CBS that resulted in more than a dozen top-10 singles for Shenandoah — six of them chart-toppers.
Still an imposing figure at 82, Hall is a tall man with thick swept-back hair, long sideburns and an eye-catching mustache with waxed and twisted ends. He works most days at the squat, bunker-like FAME building, wedged in next to a CVS Pharmacy at the busy intersection of Avalon Avenue and Highway 72 in Muscle Shoals. Tours of the studio are offered weekdays at 9 a.m., 4 p.m. and 5 p.m., and from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturdays.
The Swampers vacated 3614 Jackson Highway in the late ’70s, moving Muscle Shoals Sound Studio into larger quarters. The little stone studio remained abandoned until being recently reopened by the Muscle Shoals Music Foundation. Newly appointed to the National Register of Historic Places, it is undergoing restoration — destined to return it to a functional recording space — with assistance from rapper and entrepreneur Dr. Dre’s Beats Electronics.
According to a statement from the company, the goal of the project is “to preserve the rich history and culture of the iconic Muscle Shoals sound.”
Visiting music fans will find another attraction in the nearby Shoals town of Tuscumbia — home to the Alabama Music Hall of Fame — which opened in 1990 with a mandate to honor Alabama’s greatest music achievers and to showcase their accomplishments. The 12,500-square-foot museum is loaded with displays and interactive exhibits that tell the stories behind the songs from Alabama’s most popular music legends.
You’ll be surprised at how many of them there are, and the wide variety of musical genres they represent. In fact, you’ll get to know all 69 of them as you peruse the Portrait Gallery, lined with original oil portraits by Tuskegee artist Ronald McDowell, of each Hall of Fame inductee.
Most have achieved international fame and stature: megastars such as Nat King Cole, Hank Williams, Dinah Washington, Emmylou Harris, Tammy Wynette, Lionel Richie, Wilson Pickett, W.C. Handy, and groups like Alabama, the Temptations and the Commodores.
Roaming about the sprawling exhibit hall, you’ll find plenty to see and do. Take a look, for example, at the actual recording equipment used by Sam Phillips to produce Elvis Presley’s first song, plus the King’s original recording contract (which has to be worth a fortune). Pick your favorites from among hundreds of chart-topping hits penned by Alabamians and play them on the museum’s classic Wurlitzer jukebox. You also can climb aboard Alabama’s tour bus — and imagine yourself on the road with the band.
While an obvious haven for music buffs, the area is equally appealing to outdoorsy types — RVers and boaters in particular. Providing the resource for such activities is the Tennessee River, which meanders through the Shoals, separating Florence on the north side from Sheffield, Muscle Shoals and Tuscumbia to the south.
A pair of Tennessee Valley Authority dams constructed in the 1930s to generate electricity also created a string of three lovely lakes: Pickwick, downstream and to the west of Wilson Dam in Florence, and Wilson and Wheeler lakes to the east, separated by Wheeler Dam near Rogersville. All three lakes provide superb scenery and world-class fishing.
Pickwick Lake, with 496 miles of winding shoreline runs 53 miles from Wilson Dam to Pickwick Landing Dam in neighboring Tennessee. The lake provides excellent habitat for largemouth and smallmouth bass, and due to its stellar reputation for both species, Pickwick hosts a number of big-name tournaments each year.
One of the lake’s most popular smallmouth fishing areas is the “Shoals” section directly downstream of Wilson Dam to the end of Seven-Mile Island. Blue and channel catfish of substantial size also are found here in large schools during the summer.
Prior to the dam project, this area with its rocky bottom and rapid current nurtured vast numbers of freshwater mussels. These meaty bivalves were a main source of sustenance to native populations going back thousands of years. Their presence here obviously led as well to the naming (albeit misspelled) of Muscle Shoals.
Nestled alongside the Tennessee River in Florence, McFarland Park is, in my opinion, hands-down the best campground from which to base your visit to the Shoals. Crown jewel of the city’s Parks and Recreation Department, McFarland features 60 full-service sites and loads of family-friendly amenities, including picnic pavilions with fireplaces, sports fields, a paved and lighted jogging trail and a driving range for golfers.
Also situated within the park is Florence Harbor Marina, which provides direct access to Pickwick Lake. Boaters can use the lock at Wilson Dam to travel back and forth from Pickwick to Wilson lake, and a similar lock at Wheeler Dam to pass from Wilson to Wheeler lake. Wheeler is Alabama’s second-largest lake and stretches nearly 60 miles from Wheeler Dam to Guntersville.
Joe Wheeler State Park on Wheeler Lake affords more good camping options. The park features 110 full-service sites and offers access to the on-site 18-hole championship golf course, lodge/restaurant and marina.
Water skiing, jet skiing, canoeing and kayaking are popular recreational pursuits as well on the river and its string of lakes — making all the more reason to muscle that rig down to the Shoals for your next vacation.
For More Information
Heritage Acres RV Park
Joe Wheeler State Park Campground
McFarland Park Campground