The Unassuming Greatness of a Small Town
Sometimes we forget how beautiful our country is and steeped in rich history and culture the United States really is. Personally, I have not been to many parts of our country, let alone many parts of my home state. Which is a shame, because there is so much to see even within a few-hour drive from your front door.
I was able to remedy my sedentary and untraveled existence slightly when I visited a friend in Alabama about two weeks ago. Now, maybe it’s just me, but when I think about the state of Alabama, nothing exciting or impactful usually comes to mind. Especially as a music enthusiast, I was proven wholeheartedly wrong, even in just one small area of the state.
The Journey Begins
My buddy and I began our road trip in Auburn, Alabama, which is east of the state, almost nearing the Georgia border. After making a rough plan for what we wanted to do (we are guy) we set off on the trek.
Two Red Bulls and four hours later, we arrived in Florence Alabama, located so far north that it almost touches the Tennessee border. Yeah, we went all over the state. Until this day, I had never even heard of Florence, let alone ever imagined I’d be driving around the town.
Then, as we entered the city limits and we were trying to gather our bearings, I looked up and noticed a familiar brown building that I recognized only from pictures. I violently shook my friend’s arm to get his attention. The unassuming structure that I unexpectedly discovered was none other than FAME Studios.
The studio, first established in the later 1950’s was originally perched on the top of the city’s local drugstore. Now, it is situated between a Pizza Hut and CVS. This building at one point in history was considered a “hotbed for entertainers” and housed everyone from Otis Redding to Aretha Franklin. This was also the location where blues-slide legend Duane Allman was a frequent session musician and also where the primary auditions for the Allman Brothers Band were held. Countless legends and iconic sessions were recorded in this building, that it was hard to comprehend that it was right in front of my face.
Home of The Blues
Once we talked about how insane that two-minute viewing experience was, we were back on track to our next destination. Now, I want to point out that the area we were in was called the Florence-Muscle Shoals Metropolitan Area or The Shoals for short. This encompasses four different cities, and an inexplicable amount of rich history.
So, after about ten minutes, we pulled up to a small and shabby wooden building surrounded by open land and rundown houses. As we stumbled groggily out of the car, I attempted to squint through the blinding sunlight to get a glimpse of the cottage. My first gut reaction was “this is it?” Once we walked through the doors, that feeling quickly subsided.
We were standing on the birth site of William Christopher (W.C.) Handy, also endearingly known as “Father of the Blues.” As an avid fan of the blues and music in general, this was a truly special moment, to be in the presence of and around personal items of the Father of Blues music.
The highlight of the tour for me was seeing the actual piano that Handy composed “St. Louis Blues.” This was not only his biggest hit, but also the first published song to have ‘blues’ in the title. There were also many hand-written letters from past presidents, thanking Handy for his contribution to American culture.
The Grand Tour
After we gained our composure from that inspiring experience, we were back on the road. Only about a ten-minute ride later, we arrived at our next destination. This time, the building was a tiny white concrete structure that we would have zoomed right past if we weren’t paying attention.
On the side of the building, in a blue boarder was the name Muscle Shoals Sound Studios.” This notable studio was started by the ex-session musicians at Fame Studios only a few miles away. It was established in 1969 and quickly became recognized as a well-functioning studio and a go to spot for many bands in the day.
Once we entered the now-converted museum, the workers informed us that they were about to head home for the night. Slightly defeated, we were about to turn around when one of the men graciously offered to show us inside. I was not prepared for the overwhelming energy I felt once those doors opened.
A lot of original gear like pianos, basses, amps, and recording equipment were still placed in the medium-sized room. The couch that Joe Cocker slept on while he waited to record his vocals, the bathroom that Keith Richards wrote “Wild Horses” in, and the piano that “Freebird” was conceptualized on, were all in this room. Many prominent and game-changing albums and songs were played and recorded in this room, not larger than small apartment. The experience was truly humbling.
Once we were headed back on the highway, I noticed a sign that said, “Helen Keller hospital, the first hospital in Alabama.” When I relayed this to my friend he said, “oh yeah, Helen Keller is from this area too.” All in the small, unassuming area of Muscle Shoals, Alabama.
There are incredible things everywhere you turn, you just have to get out and explore!