Celebrated in the Lynyrd Skynyrd song “Sweet Home Alabama,” Muscle Shoals, Alabama, is located in the Northwest corner of the state, on the Tennessee River. The area held by a Yuchi Indian tribe until the 1800s has long-established connections to music. The natives who were removed from the land and sent to Indian Territory of Oklahoma called the river the Singing River because they believed a woman who lived along the bank sang to them.
Across the river, Florence, Alabama, is the birthplace of “Father of Blues” W.C. Handy. You can still visit the simple log cabin where he lived and see original sheet music and other memorabilia. Every July the 10-day W. C. Handy Music Festival draws rock, pop, gospel, R&B, and jazz musicians for more than 250 performances at venues throughout the Florence, Sheffield, and Muscle Shoals area.
The rural area was an unlikely location for the recording mecca it became. Almost equidistant from Nashville, Memphis, Chattanooga, and Birmingham, Muscle Shoals music blends rock, pop, R&B, funk, gospel, and other southern influences. It’s a place where black artists began playing “white” country sounds, while white musicians borrowed influences from black blues and gospel music.
The “Muscle Shoals sound” first became famous through two iconic recording studios during the 1960s. Florence Alabama Music Enterprises, known as FAME Studios, was founded in Florence. It moved to Muscle Shoals in the early 1960s, where FAME recorded the first of many hit records: “You Better Move On” by Arthur Alexander. Word of the studio spread, and over the years, musicians from Otis Redding to Lynyrd Skynyrd to The Osmonds arrived to record there.
A huge part of the creation of the Muscle Shoals sound was thanks to FAME’s session musicians, The Swampers, who can be heard on hit records from greats like Wilson Pickett and the Staple Sisters. In 1969 the musicians left FAME and started their own rival studio, Muscle Shoals Sound Studios, changing their name to the Muscle Shoals Sound Rhythm Section.
The Rolling Stones, Elton John, Boz Scaggs, Willie Nelson, Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, and Julian Lennon have all recorded in Muscle Shoals Sound Studios. More recently, The Black Keys recorded their Grammy-winning album Brothers in the studio that is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
While the original Muscle Shoals Sound Studios is currently closed for restoration, Cypress Moon Studios, a former location of Muscle Shoals Sound Studios, conducts tours by appointment. Dr. Dre’s Beats Electronics is working with the Muscle Shoals Music Foundation to revive the original studio.
“Magic is a word that’s too often misused in the recording industry. Muscle Shoals is different, it’s one of the rare places where it really exists,” says Beats co-founder Jimmy Iovine. “Anytime you can capture such a distinct and authentic sound over and over again, that’s something worth protecting.”
Once the studio is fully functioning again, it will be used to train the next generation of aspiring musicians, producers, and engineers. The experience will be offered free of charge to applicants who best fit the program’s objectives.
There is always live music every evening at Swampers Bar and Grill in Florence. Musicians with extra cash can book a recording session weekend through Muscle Shoals Dream Team (www.muscleshoalsdreamsessions.com). The $10,000 price tag includes a studio recording session, choice of musicians from a lineup of world-class session players, red carpet accommodations at the Marriott Shoals Hotel and Spa, meals, and transportation within the city.
For a thorough overview of Alabama musicians and its music history visit the Alabama Music Hall of Fame, located in Tuscumbia, Alabama, and open Tuesday through Saturday.
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-And check out this article about Setting Up Your Own Home Recording Studio.