Having had enough of being stuck at home during this pandemic, I made a Saturday getaway and escaped to the Northern Alabama area known as the “Shoals” to check an item off my musical bucket list. With safety protocols in full force, the time seemed right for this two-hour drive from Music City to visit two legendary music studios and the Alabama Music Hall of Fame. It was an incredibly satisfying experience and comes with my highest recommendation—even during this current mess.
I will spare you the history and suggest that you instead view the essential 2013 music documentary, Muscle Shoals, as your first step in taking this journey and let that, or Wikipedia, explain a lot of the background and why there are two studios.
My first stop was the tour at Fame Recording Studios in Florence. This is the place where the late Rick Hall got things started and the great session band, dubbed The Swampers, were birthed. The list of classic R&B and Soul records recorded here is remarkable, and Fame became where artists went to work with the best session players in the business.
The one-hour tour consisted of time its two rooms, Studio A and Studio B, where the magic happened. Both still had the look and feel of an era long ago and contained many historic musical relics. Currently limited to groups of eight, it was a safely distanced and masked experience led by a young employee chock full of knowledge. My pinch-me moments were hearing Aretha played in the room where she recorded and knowing that this was where Duane Allman played that amazing guitar solo on Wilson Pickett’s “Hey Jude.”
From there, it was a short hop to Sheffield and the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, which The Swampers started after leaving Fame. The small free-standing building at 3614 Jackson Highway is nothing more than one tiny open room, but as they say, “if those walls could talk.” And they did through another fact-filled young employee in another safely run tour. Cool to learn that the blue sign on the building was added after Cher put it on the cover of her album named after the studio’s address.
Again, another place where so much great music was made and again full of many musical relics. Being in the same room where The Rolling Stones recorded “Brown Sugar” and “Wild Horses” was magical. And to have stepped inside the same rest room where Keith Richards camped out to finish the lyrics to the latter song was just too much for this fan.
Hearing music played in this room will forever change how I think of The Swampers. I will never hear Bob Seger’s “Mainstreet” again without focusing on Pete Carr’s guitar intro or homing in on David Hood’s lead bass line when listening to “I’ll Take You There” by The Staple Singers. Man, those guys can play!
The day concluded with a visit to the Alabama Music Hall of Fame in nearby Tuscumbia. Again, a totally safe environment and a fine tribute to the great musicians from The Cotton State. It’s standard fair for a music hall with a portrait gallery of its inductees (from Hank Williams to Lionel Ritchie) and several rooms full of exhibits from performers past and present. As is customary, the presentations are heavy on suits, dresses and other outfits. The centerpieces of the museum are the band Alabama’s tour bus which you can board and one of country-singer Webb Pierce’s tricked-out autos.
It was great day in the Shoals that also included a quick stop to historic downtown Florence. A search there for the original Fame studios above City Drug Store sadly found that its location is left to just a plaque. I give two thumps up for all three stops for being fabulously interesting, reasonably priced and pandemic safe. They are also so close together, that any trip to the Shoals should include all three.