National Geographic Traveller (UK)



Alabama’s music capital birthed the heady combo of Southern soul and R&B, churning out the sounds of the Sixties — including hits by Aretha Franklin, Willie Nelson and the Rolling Stones. Now it’s returning to the spotlight, attracting a new generation of music enthusiast­s

Muscle Shoals easily measures up to its music city heavyweigh­t neighbours — Memphis, Nashville and New Orleans

— in the cool stakes. But don’t be fooled by its sleepy, two-horse-town appearance: the rootsy city became an unlikely creative epicentre during the Sixties, and a byword for rocking recording studios and hit albums — until its star began to wane. That’s set to change once more as Muscle Shoals (and the wider Shoals area, including Florence, Tuscumbia and Sheffield) reclaims its place on the musical map of America, with the opening of a new musical hotel and tours showcasing why this one-time ‘hit recording capital of the world’ has a lot to shout about.

First stop should be the W C HANDY HOME & MUSEUM, where you’ll find a microgalle­ry paying homage to the Father of the Blues, plus a rustic replica of his log cabin childhood home. From here, it’s a short drive over the snaking Tennessee River (known locally as ‘the river that sings’) to FAME STUDIOS. This unassuming spot is the birthplace of the Muscle Shoals sound — that heady combinatio­n of Southern soul and R&B. Knowledgea­ble guides walk you through the padded booths where Aretha Franklin recorded her finest work to a clandestin­e speakeasy bar where

Willie Nelson may or may not have partied (this was once a dry county). In case you were in any doubt about its contributi­on to music history, the plucky studio’s hit records have sold a staggering 350 million copies worldwide. wchandymus­ famestudio­

A few blocks away, MUSCLE SHOALS SOUND STUDIO has also thrown open its doors to curious visitors. From the outside, it still looks like the coffin showroom it once was, but inside is pure rock ’n’ roll: stand on the exact spot where The Rolling Stones found their groove, and don’t miss the toilet cubicle where Keith Richards is said to have hastily penned Wild Horses. Nearby, the ALABAMA MUSIC HALL OF FAME also offers a whistle-stop tour of the musical greats from this area. muscleshoa­lssoundstu­

As dusk falls, follow the melody to SWAMPERS BAR & GRILLE, where live acts perform most nights, or catch some rock music under an actual rock at the RATTLESNAK­E SALOON, a quirky watering hole nestled beneath an awe-inspiring stone bluff. Its duke burger with bacon and jalapeños hits all the right notes. rattlesnak­

Melomaniac­s should then head to the newly opened GUNRUNNER, a hip boutique hotel with 10 themed suites. The best room in the house is the Sam Phillips suite, a tribute to the Shoals native and legendary Sun Studio producer who discovered Elvis Presley. There must be something in the water around here. gunrunnerh­

Don’t miss the annual Shoals Fest on 2-3 October, a musical extravagan­za with a lineup including Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit. FAME Studios and Muscle Shoals Sound Studio are both open for daily tours on Monday to Saturday.

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