Music flows through the Shoals like the cream in the glass of Guinness: smooth, full and filling. Known to those in the industry, this area in Northern Alabama along the Tennessee River where fingers of rocks pepper the river has been host to a bevy of musicians over the year and is the birthplace of the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Group who have played from everyone from Aretha Franklin to Julian Lennon.
Feeling the history is key but what is quite intoxicating is the people who you can find and talk to. Everyone at one point or another is connected into it. Whether sitting outside a screening at the film festival talking to a bass performer who has played with Billy Bob Thornton and his band to one of the guys who used to tour with Lynyrd Skynyrd, the stories are constant.
A couple studios that pepper the area which look unassuming are the birthplace of some of the great songs and performances of the era. Albums that one might assume were recorded in New York or LA were laid down here in Muscle Shoals and that fact completely inbues them with a great quality.
One great example that falls more contemporary is Julian Lennon, son of John who released his first album in 1983. It’s title track “Volette” was written outside Cypress Moon Studios sitting on a stoop overlooking the Tennessee River with the lyrics “Sitting on a pebble by the river playing guitar/Wonderin’ if we’re really ever going to get that far” then recorded inside. It doesn’t get more literal to the area than that. And the music brings you to the image of the area without fail.
David Hood, the bass soul of the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section and eventually the owner of 2414 Jackson Highway, is a cornerstone of the music in this area. One of the first photos seen in Florence right across the river was a shot outside this studio of a classic proportions. The original cover art has everyone smiling but the one inside a bar across the river is pure cool with Cher’s steely eyes peering out holding a flower. The album itself is named after the studio.
Meeting David is like sitting down with many great studio musicians because you get a great perception of a time in music history. But what always created that vision was the sounds that these people created. It lifted the talent they worked with.
Sitting down for lunch with David and his wife at their house along with a few other friends overlooking the same Tennessee River, stories of touring with Traffic and Steve Winwood and hanging out with Bob Seger are only part of the story. David, being extremely organized, keeps a diary of the dates and who they recorded with. In a business where alot of conjecture and selective memory is widespread, he has it in writing. He also took photographs from the time which is majorly cool as well.
Stopping at F.A.M.E. Studios run by Rick Hall in the early 60s, the auspice of history literally reverberates within its walls. From the echoes of Etta James to the keyboard pounding of Aretha to the knock down train of Wilson Pickett, one room more than any offers a sounding board to the masses as the impetus of the records made throughout the years cover the walls.
Of course, one of the main proponents that fuels a musician is their stomachs. Hangouts and food personified resonate as a staple of the area. As a matter of course, beginning with the path of refined eating is always the first stop on the road to ruin. And a beautiful path it is.
The revolving auspice of the 360 Grille atop the Marriott Muscle Shoals provides both shelter and the inherent view of the Tennessee River, a mile marker chorused repeatedly by those priviledged to follow its path. The twinkling of the starlight angles the hungry away from the mainstays at hand.
With a presence of mind, the introduction of kobe carpaccio is both intense and scintilating followed by a tangy roasted corn and arugula salad while the blackened filet tournedos as a main course gave a visceral representation of excellence with its tender breathe and rich diablo sauce.
Dale’s Restaurant, in its reverent essence of dinner, offers a mood enriched atmosphere that serves to the hearty intentions with a ribeye steak and stacked backed potato to tantalize the senses while Rigatoni’s offers lunch envisioned in the form of the “Rotollo Di Pollo” which raptures with a stuffed grilled chicken breast filled with proscuitto and fontina cheese that functions as both filling and tasty.
However when looking for the heartiness of lore, Staggs Grocery takes the prize. Sitting at the bar with the chili cheese heaven covering a juicy burger and succulent fries, one knows that “home” is here. With a fun staff and pool tables galore, this place defines “hangout” when the needs of the day weigh on you. The permutations of its impact are reflected in the fact that its hallowed halls were patronaged not once but twice during a visit.
Pinnacling with the late night, especially in a college town, balance is key. The importance though relishes itself in variety. Mugshots @ Briney Brothers relishes in its ability to have close to 99 beers on tap with a great atmosphere to boot. Granted its tangible identity is based on that of a sports bar but its sheer volume of possibilities makes it one not to miss especially when celebrations are to be had, musical or not with interactions that are both saucy and salacious.
Muscle Shoals, reflected in the eyes of Florence, prides itself on its musical lore in which its identity swells just below the surface buoyed by the secrets of yore. From the rock of the Stones to the voice of Cher, the area has always been known as the sweet spot, which makes the sharing of its secret all the more rich.