Before we left NZ we were often asked where we were going to visit on this trip. We had a list of the usual places like New York, Washington DC, New Orleans and Nashville but right at the top were a couple of places many have not heard about. One of these was Muscle Shoals.
Many of you who know TOH, will know his love of Music. He had seen a documentary about the Muscle Shoals recording studios a few years ago, which only fuelled his passion to see Muscle Shoals. So when we decided to make this trip, this was one place that a visit was a priority.
We started our first morning at the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio. This studio was opened in 1969 by the Swampers who were the famous session musicians originally from Fame Studio. These are the straight looking white guys who musicians from around the world wanted to play with as they had a such a funky R&B sound.
They set their studio up in a building across the road from a cemetery. The building was where the undertaker use to store coffins. It needed to be refurbished to make it into a recording studio. These guys had what I would say the good old NZ Number 8 wire mentality when it came to fixing any problems they encountered when doing the alterations required to turn this building into something special. They installed angled wood surfaces and when they found dead spot on some walls they used polystyrene packing to fix the problem. And it hasn’t changed in all these years…..because it works and works well.
Walking into the studio and feeling all the artists that have been there before us, making the soundtracks for our generation was incredible. The artists that have recorded here are the likes of Percy Sledge, Boz Scagg, Rod Stewart, Joe Cocker, Leo Russell, John Hammond, Lulu, Duane Allman, Bob Dylan, Lynyard Skynyrd and so many more.
We were lucky to have been on the tour with only 4 others, all with music backgrounds, just listening to the knowledgeable questions they asked and the stories being told by our tour guide was fascinating and I really didn’t want the tour (actually more like the stories) to end.
Again TOH (think I should really call him HAC for Have A Chat) got to chatting with a couple on the tour with us. We spent time in the car park chatting and it is such a shame that we had to cut it short as we only just touched on so many common interests. So a visit to Atlanta will have to be factored in some how, sooner rather than later.
Interestingly Muscle Shoals is actually part of a 3 town triangle, Muscle Shoals, Sheffield and Tuscumbia with Florence just across the Tennessee River. We spent the afternoon in Florence, a pretty town, drenched in music as well. Rather hard not to be, with the special triangle just over the river.
This area is full of music, you get the feeling of it as you walk around. It is amazing, how this little back water (which it was way back in the 1950’s and 1960’s) has played such an important part in music history.
Next to our campground there is the Little Ryman Music Hall. It is where locals “can come listen and participate in some old country music in a clean environment with no cussing and drinking with great people”. It is only open on Friday evenings for 2 hours, so we thought we would head on over to have a listen. We snuck into the back and took seats on the church benches and waited with great anticipation. We were warmly welcomed and asked if we would like to perform, we kindly turned down the offer. Well we were in for a treat. I loved the idea of the place and thoroughly enjoyed watching the locals as they each got up to sing, or if they couldn’t sing, then dance and as we were so made so welcome, I would hate to put a downer on the abilities, so less said on that front the best. After listening to 6 or so singers and 1 dancer, we quietly snuck away.
The evening before at our campground as we sat around the campfire, we were told about the Rattlesnake Saloon, another local live music venue. So after our visit to the Little Ryman we headed out to the saloon for the remainder of the evening. It was a 20+ minute drive out in the country to the site. When you get there, you park in a paddock and catch the “taxi” (really a pick-up with wooden seats on the back) down the hill to the saloon.
You could have walked down the hill but it is rather steep and as I fall over sober, we thought it best to catch the taxi down. In hindsight a good idea. The steep ride down the hill in the dark was an experience in itself, only to be outdone by the amazing sight when you get to the bottom, it is just awe-inspiring. The Saloon is built into the hillside under a huge rock outcrop. Just wow. The band was playing, and this one was good. With the rock around and above it was a natural amphitheater. The drinks and food weren’t great but they were cheap and the staff were super friendly.
It was lots of fun and topped off with the trip back up the hill on the back of the “taxi”, where TOH (alias “have a chat”) got talking to the others coming up the hill at the same time. The drive home was interesting, well lets just say it was dark, and the roads were very narrow and there was hardly any signal to get GPS to know where we were going. Thank goodness for the people we just met as we followed their tail lights until we got GPS signal.
The next morning we headed back into the Fame Studio for their tour. Fame Studio was begun back in 1959 by Rick Hall. What an interesting and far sighted man. He was the one who put the Swampers together and they were part of his original session band that drew so many R&B musicians to him to record. People like Wilson Pickett, Rolling Stones, Otis Redding, The Osmonds, Steven Tyler, Elvis, Aretha Franklin (she claims Rick Hall was the turning force in her career) and so many many more.
What I loved about this place, is that it hasn’t changed since the 1950’s. Just like the Muscle Shoal’s Studio it is like walking back in history. But they both are producing something special and best of all, they are both still being used today to record. Making more history.
We finished our trip off to this area with an evening with the folks we met at Rattlesnake Saloon. They invited us over to watch a College Football game of the two teams they follow. How could we refuse such a great offer. We had a great night and left feeling that perhaps Muscle Shoals and this area is a must to return to.
There is something about this place. I don’t feel like I have done it justice. Places we went that I have not mentioned, like The Alabama Hall of Fame or the fact this is where Helen Keller was born and raised. Such a special part of the world.
We were both sad to leave this area. Not only have we ticked off a major item on the bucket list, but we have felt the amazing friendliness of the Southern Folk we have met here. I think we both left a little bit of our hearts here.