Legendary Music and More: Best Things To Do in Muscle Shoals, Alabama

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Wilson Park in Florence, Alabama, Things to do in Muscle Shoals
Wilson Park in Florence, Alabama is among many green spaces reflecting water along the Tennessee River in northwest Alabama. Photo credit: Christine Tibbetts

Sounds and also silence color the dazzling array of things to do in north Alabama’s Muscle Shoals area.

Diverse, different kinds of things. Music dominates, and also infuses unexpected stories into interesting surprise events.

Expect Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett, the Rolling Stones and Lynyrd Skynyrd, of course. Muscle Shoals sound studios opened vast opportunities for talented performers.

They’re not past tense. Visits to these studios are dynamic with music that pulls memories front and center, and pinpoints new singer songwriters too.

Allow several days for other discoveries before, during and after the Muscle Shoals sound studios.

SheBuysTravel Tip: Set your navigation up to experience the Shoals as fully as possible. That means going to communities named Florence, Tuscumbia, Muscle Shoals and Sheffield. Think 20 minutes or so, not a big investment in drive time, from one opportunity in the quad cities to another.

Piano at the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, Things to do in Muscle Shoals
Famous licks were created on this piano, easy-to-envision-sounds on an upstairs tour of the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio. Photo credit: Christine Tibbetts

First, The Muscle Shoals Music

Arrive knowing lots about the music makers who burst into success here, and their songs. This is a region of nostalgia—the feel good of loving those sounds.

Or plan to be reminded of so much because the sound studio tours feel intimate and personal.

“This cluster of Alabama towns has produced some of the most important American music of the past six decades.” Find these facts and more in Chasing the Blues: A Traveler’s Guide to America’s Music by Josephine Matyas and Craig Jones.

Being in the spaces where beloved music developed, and seeing the actual piano and drums (and bathroom!) so many music makers used is profoundly connecting.

Yes, that bathroom has music history. Keith Richards locked himself in for seven hours. The Rolling Stones’ “Wild Horses” was the result.

Amazing what you learn on tours.

SheBuysTravel Tip: Emotional reactions to the music these studios birthed spans many ages. For me it was real-time remembering, a teen in the 1960s. For much younger people on my tours, the joy was equally palpable.

Exterior of FAME recording studios, Things to do in Muscle Shoals
History is also the future with studio tours of FAME clearly embracing today’s singer/songwriter/musicians while telling grand stories of early icons. Photo credit: Christine Tibbetts

FAME Recording Studios

FAME came first, launched in 1959. First song? “You Better Move On” with Arthur Alexander in 1961.

The name started as Florence Alabama Music Enterprises and became FAME when Rick Hall became sole owner.

Today’s tour is as much about Etta James and her “Tell Mama” album, Aretha Franklin with “I Never Loved a Man”, paired with “Do Right Woman” and Wilson Pickett with “Mustang Sally” as it is about Jason Isbell, Demi Lovato and Alicia Keys.

Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, Things to do in Muscle Shoals
The range of instruments in sound studios indicates the breadth of musical talent. Photo credit: Christine Tibbetts

Muscle Shoals Sound Studio

Orient yourself to 1969—the year four sessions players known as The Swampers formed this studio in Sheffield, Alabama.

Originally part of FAME Studios, their names matter in music history: David Hood, Jimmy Johnson, Barry Beckett and Roger Hawkins.

Cher’s debut solo album was their first here, with the cover an image of the studio building: 3614 Jackson Highway. The first big hit was “Take A Letter Maria” and then the Rolling Stones 1971 Sticky Fingers album with “Brown Sugar,” “You Got To Move” and “Wild Horses.”

Name dropping is constant in the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio! How could it be otherwise when Bob Dylan, Duane Allman, Paul Simon, Art Garfunkel, the Staples Singers Willie Nelson and Lynyrd Skynrd all found their way here. Plus many others.

Sign for The Swampers at the Alabama Music Hall of Fame, Things to do in Muscle Shoals
Rhythm section musicians knowns as The Swampers were so talented they could play anything, always reflecting what was unique about a song and a performer. Photo credit: Christine Tibbetts

Alabama Music Hall of Fame

As if all the names and faces and songs from the sound studios aren’t soul-filling enough, the portrait gallery and music memorabilia in the Alabama Music Hall of Fame adds another dimension of music heritage.

These aren’t people from afar who came to Muscle Shoals specifically for the sessions bands. These are Alabama originals like Percy Sledge and Sam Phillips and, of course, the father of the blues W.C. Handy.

Dolls at the Helen Keller Home, Things to do in Muscle Shoals
Helen Keller could have seen her dolls until a fever took away her sight and hearing at age 19 months. Photo credit: Christine Tibbetts

Three Homes with History—and Very Different Stories

Helen Keller Home

Seeing Helen Keller’s dolls in her childhood home in Tuscumbia, Alabama is a deeply moving experience if you allow yourself the time to just breathe standing in the doorway. How did she and her teacher Anne Sullivan ever break through the silence and darkness a high fever caused in a 19-month old toddler?

A visit to the grounds and buildings known as Ivy Green has way more potential than a historic homes tour – even with 1820s credentials. Courage flows here, and a belief despair can change to inspiration.

If everything has a name, I can talk with my hands.

That’s not just the Helen Keller revelation. It’s what children today with profound visual and hearing limitations figure out too at Camp Courage in the birthplace of Helen Keller.

The rest of us could choose to visit on a weekend in June and July to watch “The Miracle Worker” performance on the grounds and in sight of the water pump where she made the connection of water spilling out and the letters w-a-t-e-r being traced in her hand.

Choose the fourth full June weekend and experience the Helen Keller Festival too.

The Rosenbaum Home built by Frank Lloyd Wright, Things to do in Muscle Shoals
The home Frank Lloyd Wright designed in 1939 in Florence is Alabama’s only house by the fabled architect. Photo credit: Christine Tibbetts

Rosenbaum Home Built by Frank Lloyd Wright

Walk around and all through the house in Florence with distinctive Frank Lloyd Wright features. It’s the only one he built in Alabama, and the only one open daily to the public in the southeast.

Usonian is the architectural word tied to Wright, and this house in Florence. He wanted style and affordability, and small, one-story homes less complicated than prevailing designs.

He used only building materials from the area.

Wright was 72 when he designed this home for newlyweds Stanley and Mildred Rosenbaum in 1939. In 1999, the Rosenbaum house became a city-owned museum.

SheBuysTravel Tip: Really feeling what life’s like in a Frank Lloyd Wright Usonian home is so possible in the Rosenbaum because everything’s original. One family only lived here, and their stuff’s still in place. Imagine them (or yourself) in narrow hallways, radiant heat in the concrete floors, cantilevered roof, carport and many built-in features. Notice the windows, and the relationship of the house’s position on its lot. That too is very Frank Lloyd Wright.

The piano where W.C. Handy created St. Louis Blues, Things to do in Muscle Shoals
Behold the keys where W. C. Handy created St. Louis Blues — historic home visits create space for much musing. Photo credit: Christine Tibbetts

W. C. Handy Home and Museum

To behold the piano where W. C. Handy tested the notes that became St. Louis Blues and Beale Street Blues is a profound privilege, really seeing (and hearing) history.

Sheet music in his handwriting, under glass, set me off humming some beloved tunes. Even though his birthplace log cabin is part of the visit, thinking of the “Father of Blues” as William Christopher Handy just didn’t feel as right as the W. C. initials.

The house and museum walkabout is one way to experience Handy; set aside time to sit for the documentary film too.

Handy’s father banned musical instruments from the home so W. C. made music on a shovel working on a furnace crew! Writing musical notes, he pictured song bird calls as each note.

And he praised the Tennessee River and Cypress Creek for musical sounds influencing him in his Florence hometown.

Native American Connections

Three experiences with Native American history in the Shoals area offer deep opportunities to muse about the people who lived here first.

Florence Indian Mound, Things to do in Muscle Shoals
Seventy steps lead the way up to the top of the Indian Mound, a spacious place still holding sacred memories. Photo credit: Christine Tibbetts

Indian Mound and Museum

Climb 70 steps to the top of Florence Indian Mound. Handrails help. On the way up, think about the people who built this mound, one basketful at a time.

Ceremonial events at the top must have held deep meaning thousands of years ago. Visitors today can roam the broad expanse of 145 feet and try to summon some of those emotions.

Touring the museum before climbing the mound is a good order of events to gather insight into the lives of the Tennessee River Valley first people.

Think of the Indian Mound and Museum as one of 13 sites on the Alabama Indigenous Mound Trail.

SheBuysTravel Tip: Highly organized indigenous communities in Alabama from AD 1000 and 1500 are considered to rival ancient civilizations of Central and South America. Thinking about that adds new consideration to stories of the Trail of Tears and the forced removal of Native American people to Oklahoma.

Tom's Wall in Florence Alabama, Things to do in Muscle Shoals
The Trail of Tears story of a Yucchi Indian girl makes a visit to this stone wall in Florence, Alabama, powerful and important. Photo credit: Kathleen Walls

Tom’s Wall

When a long stone wall is also a prayer circle and a book, road trippers to Florence, Alabama should head to the Natchez Trace Parkway, and park the car. There’s a big lot across the street from this remarkable wall that would hold a motorcoach. This is actually County Road 8.

Some say this is Tom’s Wall. Others name it Wichahpi

Here’s why stopping is important. The great-great-grandson of a Yuchi Indian girl built the wall to honor her life story. It’s a doozy.

Teh-la-nay was her name, forced to leave home to go to the U.S. government-created Indian nation in Oklahoma in the 1830s Trail of Tears. More than anything, she missed the sound of singing she had always heard coming from the Tennessee River.

So she walked home. Two years and 700 miles of walking, alone, and a fine book named “If The Legends Fade” by Tom Hendrix tells the tale.

Hendrix spent 30 years building the wall, reported to be the largest un-mortared stone wall in America. Higher and wider in some places, and bending in others, he said, was to reflect her journey, and all journeys through life.

Hendrix also laid stones in a circle, inviting visitors to prayer — noting the cycle of birth, life, death and rebirth.

Sacred stones at Tom's Wall, Things to do in Muscle Shoals
Sacred stones and ancient messages create a sense of awe at Tom’s Wall, just one of many expressions of Native Americans in northwest Alabama. Photo credit: Kathleen Walls

Oka Kapassa Festival

A dozen Native American tribes share stories, dance, music, a torch lighting ceremony and other cultural events the second weekend in September in Tuscumbia.

Oka Kapassa means “cold water,” the first name of this community. Tuscumbia was the name of a Chickasaw chief.

Colbert County

Figuring out the back story of town names, and counties in the places we go isn’t always easy—or even interesting. But Colbert is, embracing Muscle Shoals, Sheffield and Tuscumbia.

Levi and George were the Colbert brothers, Chickasaw chiefs in the early 19th century. They too were forced away in the Trail of Tears.

The Coon Dog Cemetery, Things to do in Muscle Shoals
The Coon Dog Cemetery near Tuscumbia, Alabama, exhales the love between dogs and their owners. Photo credit: Christine Tibbetts

Coon Dog Cemetery

Wandering among graves with epitaphs like “A joy to hunt with” or “He was the best I ever had” means you arrived in the world’s only cemetery devoted to coon dogs. Treeing raccoons, preferably at night, and beloved by their owners – that’s the legacy of these dearly departed dogs.

First coon burial was Labor Day, 1937. Now old timey bluegrass, a liars’ contest and local barbecue become the Coon Dog Cemetery festival every Labor Day near Tuscumbia.

Sounds kitschy, like famous roadside attractions – but the mood among the wooden or stone or sheet metal grave markers is surprising solemn, exuding a sense of calm and loss and love in a forest setting.

No poodles ever allowed. Only coon dogs.

Where to Eat

A meal at Rosie's Mexican Cantina, Things to do in Muscle Shoals
The menu is as expansive as the servings in Rosie’s Mexican Cantina in Florence, Alabama. Photo credit: Christine Tibbetts

Rosie’s Mexican Cantina, Florence

Rosie’s is a big, bold, lively place serving enormous portions of Tex-Mex in downtown Florence. They handle big group tables with ease.

Either ask for a table across from the tortilla maker, or walk around a bit to find her. Open kitchens are one thing; tortillas by the thousands is quite another.

A two-block walk to Wilson Park afterwards is a very good plan to balance the abundance of fine flavors. The fountain in the center is lovely and the life-size sculpture of the father of the blues depicts W.C. Handy playing his trumpet.

Statue of W.C. Handy in Wilson Park, Things to do in Muscle Shoals
Look down at the sculpted sheet music by his feet when encountering the statue of W. C. Handy in Wilson Park. Important that he was the first to write down the notes of the blues. Photo credit: Christine Tibbetts

Rattlesnake Saloon, Tuscumbia

This lunch or dinner is as much experience as it is food. Imagine lunch in a wide-open cave. Perfect for fans of geography and geology. ”Under the rock” is the visual.

SheBuysTravel Tip: Plan some time to enjoy instead of feel frustration. That way the couple of hours will be pleasure. You can walk to the restaurant from the parking lot, or wait for a farm-style lift. The walk involves incline and steps.

Food was satisfying and generous—-burgers, fries,

Others dining under that cave  roof were also spending the night, in Seven Springs Lodge or a silo converted to accommodation.

Rattlesnake Saloon, Things to do in Muscle Shoals
Nothing quite like dining in a cave named Rattlesnake Saloon, especially one with plenty of fresh air. Photo credit: Christine Tibbetts

Swampers Bar and Grille and 360 Grille, Florence

Both are in the Marriott Shoals Hotel & Spa in Florence.

Big Bad Breakfast, Florence

Breakfast can be lunch because the downtown restaurant is open from 7:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. Walk through to connect to the boutique Stricklin Hotel.

BBB as it’s known is part of a group of 10 throughout the south.

Bishop Hog (and sometimes Hawg) House in Cherokee, near Tuscumbia

Luther Owens Bishop is the man to know behind this barbecue and its sauce . He’s been perfecting his recipe for 47 years. The slogan:

“Shake me a lot and I’ll be hot.

Shake me not and I’ll be cool.

Shake me a little and I’ll be gentle.

Shipping is a popular part of the business. Expect to see L. O. Bishop at Coon Dog Cemetery too; he’s fond of the place.

Where to Stay

Pools at the Marriott Shoals Hotel and Spa, Things to do in Muscle Shoals
Marriott Shoals Hotel & Spa has pools indoors and out. Photo credit: Christine Tibbetts

Marriott Shoals Hotel & Spa, Florence

This is a big hotel option with 196 guest rooms (and three with their own spacious parlor), two restaurants and a coffee shop, a spa named fifth in a list of America’s 100 best spas and easy access to the Robert Trent Jones golf course.

It’s on the banks of the Tennessee River at Wilson Lake.

Guest room in the boutique Stricklin Hotel, Things to do in Muscle Shoals
The boutique Stricklin Hotel in downtown Florence reflects the 1946 architecture with 24 guest rooms. Photo credit: Christine Tibbetts

The Stricklin Hotel, downtown Florence

This is a little boutique hotel option with 24 guest rooms in downtown Florence. The 1946 building has a four-lane bowling alley. Deluxe and standard are the room choices; all have original paintings by local artist Natalie Wester.

Seven Springs Lodge, Tuscumbia

Bring your horse if you like, or RV, camper or primitive tent.

Cabins for two or four people are available, and so are two furnished grain silo for up to six people.

Rattlesnake Saloon is the on-site restaurant.

Christine Tibbetts believes family travel is shared discovery — almost like having a secret among generations who travel together. The matriarch of a big blended clan with many adventuresome traveling members, she is a classically-trained journalist. Christine handled PR and marketing accounts for four decades, specializing in tourism, the arts, education, politics and community development.  She builds travel features with depth interviews and abundant musing to uncover the soul of each place.
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