By Renée S. Gordon
‘Now Muscle Shoals has got the Swampers and they’ve been known to pick a song or two Lord they get me off so much. They pick me up when I’m feeling blue.’
— ‘Sweet Home Alabama’
Our first stop on this portion of our “Sweet Home Alabama Music Trail” tour is the Alabama Blues Project (ABP), the love child of musician Debbie Bond. Inspired by Alabama bluesman Johnny Shines (1915-92) she founded the non-profit organization to preserve Alabama’s Blues heritage through research, concerts, art, artist residencies, educational programming and an innovative Blues camp for children. The ABP was the recipient of the notable “Keeping the Blues Alive” Award in 2004.
The organization is headquartered in Northport, Alabama directly opposite a train station and tracks that carried the bluesmen, and their music, from the Shoals to the world. There is a small museum on-site and if you’re lucky, live music. www.alabamablues.org
Tuscaloosa, Black Warrior,” was named in honor of a Choctaw paramount chief who led forces against DeSoto in 1540. The first permanent non-native inhabitants settled near Black Warrior Village in 1816 and gave their settlement the chief’s name. The town was incorporated in 1819 and functioned as the state capitol from 1826-46. www.tcvb.or
The Murphy-Collins Home, constructed in 1923 for an African American mortician, is one of two existing area brick homes by a black contractor. The house contains salvaged materials from the former state capitol including bricks and windowsills. The 2-story bungalow contains an African American museum.
The second oldest church in the city, First African Baptist Church, is the state’s only structure outside of Tuskegee Institute to be designed by Benjamin Barnes, the first black architect to graduate from MIT. The current building dates from 1907 but the church was organized in 1866. Constructed at a cost of $50,000, it was designed to replicate the Tuskegee chapel.
The University of Alabama’s Tuscaloosa campus was the scene of Governor George Wallace’s infamous “stand in the schoolhouse door” on June 11, 1963. Wallace, upon announcing his candidacy for governor had stated, “I shall refuse to abide by any such illegal Federal court order even to the point of standing in the schoolhouse door, if necessary. ” It became “necessary” the following year when a federal injunction was issued ordering their enrollment. Wallace met Deputy U.S. Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach in front of Foster Auditorium and proceeded to block the doorway. President John F. Kennedy federalized the Alabama National Guard and their commander, along with armed troops, ordered him to stand aside. He complied and Vivian Malone and James Hood enrolled.
This event was a watershed in Civil Rights history. On the evening of the 11th Kennedy addressed the nation and stated the administration’s stance on civil rights in general, his condemnation of segregation specifically and his goal of introducing effective civil rights legislation. www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=1294680
Alabama has generated a list of “100 dishes to eat in Alabama before you die” and Dreamland’s Ribs & White bread is a winner. John Bishop, Sr. started the restaurant in 1958 in Tuscaloosa and it has been family owned since then. There are franchises but the original is still the best. www.dreamlandbbq.com
Located about two hours from Nashville and two hours from Memphis, not only was the Muscle Shoals area geographically at the heart of a music corridor, it was also creatively at the epicenter of the industry where soul and country meet. With 12 operating recording studios it was deemed the “Hit Recording Capital of the World” between 1970 and 1984. W. C. Handy, the “Father of the Blues,” and Sam Phillips, the “Father of Rock and Roll,” were born here. Handy is credited with being the first to take the music from the Shoals to the world but others soon followed and then the trend reversed. Artists came from all over the world to record here and benefit from the distinctive “Muscle Shoals Sound.”
Many of the studios are gone but you can still tour several with advance reservations made through the visitor’s center. You can also arrange a guided tour led by author, educator and music historian Terry Pace. He was born and raised in the region and has wonderful, first-hand stories to share.
Gary Baker founded Noise Block Studio, a recording and publishing company, in 1978. The Grammy Award winner and songwriter of “I Swear” and “I’m Already There,” personally supervises all of the studios’ projects. The lobby is decorated with awards won by such artists as Reba Mcintyre, Alabama and LeAnn Rimes. www.noiseblockmusic.com
Jimmy Nutt established the Nutt House Recording Studio in 2006. He works with numerous recording artists and is also a freelance engineer and producer. www.jimmynutt.com
The façade of Muscle Shoals Sound Studios appeared on the iconic cover of Cher’s 1969 “3614 Jackson Highway” album. Interestingly the address sign created for the album was not on the building at that time. So many fans showed up for photo ops in front of the building that they replicated the cover so fans would not be disappointed. The Stones recorded “Wild Horses” and “Brown Sugar” here. The building is currently a museum and is listed on the National Register. www.muscleshoalssound.org
A tour of Cypress Moon Production Company is particularly unique because it is both a recording and film studio. Tours include a film set and information on the current production of Bonnie and Clyde. www.cypressmoonproduction.com
Florence Alabama Music Enterprises, FAME, was established in 1959 and continues to operate to date. Rick Hall, one of the original three founders, early on became the sole owner. In 1961 African American Arthur Alexander recorded the studios’ first hit, “You Better Move On,” and the rest is music history.
Fame looks exactly as it did and a tour is like stepping into a time machine and becoming part of history. All of the legends of the era came here to find their groove and record a hit. The proof is in the fact that 40% of the hits on the Billboard charts were recorded here, the first number 1 being Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman.” Others who laid down tracks here were Wilson Pickett, Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello, Duane Allman, Ike and Tina, the Beatles, Dr. Hook, Rod Stewart, the Osmonds, the Staples Singers, etc. The stories here are endless. Etta James recorded “I’d Rather Go Blind” at Fame and Clarence Carter cut “Strokin,” a record that sold 6-million copies even though it was banned from airplay and the signature double intro on Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock and Roll” was not a creative choice but simply a failure to rewind the tape back to the beginning prior to re-recording.
This is a must-see site. The walls are filled with photos and posters and the studio contains instruments like the piano Aretha played on “I Never Loved a Man.”
Earlier this year a man rode up on a motorcycle to take the tour. The receptionist told him they were not giving it because a recording session was in progress and the man left. She later found out the man denied admission was Sting. Call ahead! www.fame2.com
Our last stops are in Birmingham where there are a variety of places that feature live entertainment. WorkPlay, a multi-level performance space, is an ideal place to kick back and listen to music, as is Gip’s Place. Gip’s is only open on Saturday nights and here you can get a real taste of the Blues experience.
Hank Williams spent the last night of his life in room 409 of The Redmont Hotel in 1952 and his ghost is said to haunt the room. He is considered one of music’s earliest casualties. As the city’s oldest operating hotel it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The art deco Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame relates the accomplishments of jazz musicians throughout the state. This two floor museum traces the roots of Alabama’s contribution through photos, memorabilia, and interpretive panels. www.Alamhof.org
The final site on our tour is Eddie Kendrick Memorial Park. This small urban sanctuary features a sculptural display by Ronald McDowell that includes a carved stage with Eddie Kendrick in the foreground in mid-performance. The remaining four Temptations are arrayed in relief behind him dancing to a Motown hit. Their hits are inscribed in the stone and musical interpretations of their songs play in the background. This is a great place to take a photograph.
Renaissance Ross Bridge Golf Resort and Spa provides perfect accommodations for this portion of our musical journey. At this 4 Diamond, AAA rated property you can sleep like a star. Ross Bridge is so special that Kevin Liles of Def Jam Records held his wedding here. www.rossbridgeresort.ciom
2011 has been designated the “Year of Alabama Music,” and you won’t want to miss the celebration. Make plans now. Information is available online. www.alabama.travel and www.adventuresinsouthernculture.com
I wish you smooth and melodious travels!