Home Destinations We found out why this small town in Alabama is the hit recording capital of the world

We found out why this small town in Alabama is the hit recording capital of the world

by Jan Schroder
The original Muscle Shoals Sound studio

Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones called it rock ‘n’ roll heaven. A few of the hits recorded there include their songs “Wild Horses” and “Brown Sugar.”

Others include “Old Time Rock and Roll” by Bob Seger, “Mustang Sally” by Wilson Pickett and “When a Man Loves a Woman” by Percy Sledge.

I can’t play an instrument and got kicked out of choir in 3 rd grade, but I love music and wanted to visit this place where hits are born.

From the lyrics of another hit recorded there by the Staple Singers, come along and “I’ll take you there.”

Where is Muscle Shoals, Alabama?

Muscle Shoals, Alabama, is located about 70 miles dues west from Huntsville and has a population of 16,000+.  It’s located on the Tennessee River, which Native Americans referred to as the singing river reportedly because they believed a singing Spirit Woman lived in the river and protected them.

Perhaps she had something to do with some of the most famous artists in the world coming here to create some of the biggest hits of the 20th century.

sign at Muscle Shoals recording studio
A sign outside of Muscle Shoals Sound Studio proudly proclaiming its status as the Hit Recording Capital of the World. (Photos by Jan Schroder unless otherwise noted)

Here are the top things you need to do in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, and the surrounding area. Muscle Shoals, Sheffield, Tuscumbia and Florence are collectively known as The Shoals.

There’s more to do in Muscle Shoals than visit recording studios, but that is the place to start to understand the soul and why it became a recording capital.

Visit two (still competing?) recording studios

exterior of FAME recording studio
Some of the greatest hits of music history were recorded at FAME.

First, a bit of history, which also answers the question of why this tiny town in Alabama became known as the recording capital of the world.

The story started when producer Rick Hall, Billy Sherrill and Tom Stafford opened Florence Alabama Music Enterprises over a drugstore in 1959. Rick bought out the others, shortened the name to FAME and first found success with Arthur Alexander’s recording of “You Better Move On,” which became a national hit.

drum set in FAME Recording Studio
Instruments at FAME Recording Studio.

That led Rick Hall to open the current location of FAME Recording Studio in Muscle Shoals in 1961. Artists who came to FAME to record included Duane Allman, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, The Tams, Wilson Pickett, Etta James and the Osmonds. Muscle Shoals earned a respected place in the music world.

We toured FAME, which has Studio A and Studio B, both still in demand for recording artists. Artists that include Alicia Keys, Demi Lovato, Billy Ocean and Jason Isbell have recorded there. In the past 50 years the studio has recorded or published music that has sold over 350 million copies.

Roger Hawkins (drummer), Jimmy Johnson (guitarist), Barry Beckett (keyboardist), and David Hood (bassist), who had grown up together, were the session musicians on many of these recordings. They were named the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, but usually referred to as the Swampers.

The Swampers at Muscle Shoals Sound Studio
The Swampers outside their first studio. (Photo courtesy of Muscle Shoals Sound Studio)

One of their claims to fame was a mention in Lynryd Skynrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama.” Come on, sing it with me:

“Now Muscle Shoals has got the Swampers
And they’ve been known to pick a song or two (yes they do)
Lord they get me off so much
They pick me up when I’m feelin’ blue
Now how about you?”

After a financial dispute with Rick Hall, the Swampers left to form their own studio, Muscle Shoals Sound Studio. Early clients included Boz Scaggs, Cher and R.B. Greaves who recorded his hit song “Take a Letter Maria” there. I have fond memories of that song. We had a dance contest at a 6th grade slumber party and I won for my creative moves to a song about a man who finds out his wife is having an affair so he asks out his secretary.

Seeing the name Boz Scaggs takes me back to college when his album “Silk Degrees” was on constant replay. To this day I don’t know what a dirty lowdown is.

But the new recording studio was struggling a bit financially. Then the Rolling Stones showed up for three days in December 1969 after completing a North American tour. They recorded three songs, two of which were huge hits, “Wild Horses” and “Brown Sugar.” The third song was “You Gotta Move.”

receipt for Rolling Stone to record Wild Horses
Here’s how much it cost the Rolling Stones to record “Wild Horses.”

The Swampers continued to make recordings in their small beige-brick studio until 1978 when they left to open a larger facility, which they eventually sold.

The original building was left and fell into disrepair. Then Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine watched the documentary on Muscle Shoals and decided they were going to repair classic studios, starting with Muscle Shoals.

Thanks to them, the studio underwent a $1 million renovation and is open for tours.

Judy Hood at Muscle Shoals Sound Studio
Judy Hood, wife of Swamper David Hood, gave us a tour of the renovated Muscle Shoals Sound Studio.

We were in for a treat at the original location of Muscle Shoals Sound Studio. Our tour was given by Judy Hood, the wife of the only remaining Swamper, David Hood, who is turning 80 this year. She told us more about the renovation of the building by Dr. Dre.

“They didn’t just give us money, they gave us their heart,” she said. They shared a passion for authenticity and wanted the studio to look just like it did back then although they faced a few challenges. “They don’t make this ugly orange carpet any longer,” she said.

The renovated studio had some visitors, but then the documentary came out. “That rocked our world,” Judy said. When asked why here for so many hit songs? Judy said, “Some say it’s in the water. And there is some lightning in a bottle here. I’ve seen grown men cry in here  – no one can believe that four young guys turned this studio into what it became.”

An unintended consequence of the success of the studios in Muscle Shoals was moving the Civil Rights Movement in the right direction. “There was no black and white in the studio,” she said.

Step inside a tour bus at the Alabama Music Hall of Fame

tour bus in the Alabama Music Hall of Fame
Dreaming of going on the road as a touring musician? Get a taste of what life in a bus is like at the Alabama Music Hall of Fame.

More than 1,000 stars are honored at the Alabama Music Hall of Fame in Tuscumbia. Start with the portraits lining two walls in the first room to spot your favorites, then take a self-guided tour through the many exhibits. Step onto the touring bus of the group Alabama for a glimpse of what life on the road is really like.

I tried to imagine being with bandmates all day, the squeezing into a small bus to travel many miles to the next gig. I got claustrophobic and had to step out. Just one of the many reasons I’m not a touring musician.

Visit the home where the Father of the Blues was born

piano at the W.C. Handy home and museum
A portrait of W.C. Handy above the piano in the W.C. Handy Home & Museum.

I confess I didn’t know much about W.C. Handy until I visited the W.C. Handy Home & Museum in Florence. He was born in a tiny cabin his grandfather built in 1873. Although his father believed musical instruments were tools of the devil, he learned to play several and became an influential songwriter, with songs that include “Memphis Blues” and “St. Louis Blues.”

I enjoyed touring his tiny cabin, seeing his piano and following the trajectory of his career through the personal papers and photos.

See the pump where Helen Keller learned her first word

birthplace of Helen Keller
The birthplace of Helen Keller, which dates back to the early 1800s.

Helen Keller’s birthplace is close by in Tuscumbia, Alabama. Known as Ivy Green, the home was built in 1820. Helen was born here is 1889 and was left blind and deaf by an illness when she was 19 months old.

Tour the home and then see the pump where she learned the word “water” from her teacher Annie Sullivan.

I also enjoyed seeing the dining room as I recalled the story of when Annie Sullivan first came to teach the young Helen, who ran around the room like a wild child grabbing food off people’s plates. Annie soon put a stop to that behavior. You can read more about the incredible life and accomplishments of Helen through the articles and artifacts on display.

Visit the only Frank Lloyd Wright home in the Southeast that’s open to the public

The Rosenbaum house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.
The Rosenbaum House, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.

Built in 1939 for newlyweds Stanley and Mildred Rosenbaum, the Rosenbaum House served as their home for decades. As their family grew to include four sons, they asked Wright for an addition, which was completed in 1948.

After Mildred died in 1999, the city of Florence acquired it, restored it and opened it as a museum.

My favorite parts of the home were the many glass windows that allowed in the natural light, and the small plant-filled courtyard.

Where to stay in Muscle Shoals

Marriott Shoals Hotel & Spa
The Marriott Shoals Hotel & Spa in Florence. (Photo courtesy of Marriott)

We stayed at the Marriott Shoals Hotel & Spa. This 193-room hotel has a spa, large lagoon-style pool, spa and fitness center. Swampers Bar and Grill is open all day, and features live music and a happy hour. I loved my room with a view of the pool and the Tennessee River beyond.

In front of the hotel is a large tower that houses 360 Grill, a rotating fine dining restaurant. We didn’t eat there but went up one evening shortly before it opened to take a look at the amazing view.

There are also two boutique hotels in downtown Florence, The Stricklin Hotel with 24 rooms and the GunRunner with 10 luxury suites.

– Jan Schroder, Editor-in-chief

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Checking places big and small off my bucket list - The Travel 100 July 5, 2023 - 11:30 am

[…] Destinations […]

Jeanine Consoli July 10, 2023 - 5:05 pm

I love music history! A cool piece about some of music’s greats!

Charles McCool July 11, 2023 - 6:07 pm

Excellent article, Jan. It was really nice exploring all these amazing North Alabama places with you.


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