KC Wedding – Natchez Trace, Part Four

April 27 – May 9

As planned, we spent the morning taking care of errands leaving the afternoon free to do the one thing we’d come here for, that is to tour one of the famous sound studios in the area.  There are three available, but the two worth visiting are: FAME Studios and Muscle Shoals Sound Studio.  FAME (standing for Florence Alabama Music Enterprises) was founded by Rick Hall, Billy Sherrill, and Tom Stafford in the late 1950s, has produced many hit records and was instrumental in what came to be known as the Muscle Shoals sound.

FAME Studio

The studio, owned by Hall until his death in 2018, is still actively operating and was added to the Alabama Register of Landmarks and Heritage in 1997 and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2016.  The 2013 award-winning documentary Muscle Shoals features Rick Hall, the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, and the Muscle Shoals sound originally popularized by FAME.

We decided to visit the second of the two, Muscle Shoals Sound Studio as we are most familiar with the artists who recorded there.  In 1969, the four founders of the studio, Barry Beckett, Roger Hawkins, Jimmy Johnson, and David Hood were session musicians at FAME Studios; they were officially known as the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section but widely referred to as “The Swampers,” who were recognized as having crafted the “Muscle Shoals sound” in conjunction with Hall. 

The Swampers in 1976

The Swampers (Lynyrd Skinner refers to them in their song Sweet Home Alabama in this line: “Muscle Shoals has got the Swampers, they’ve been known to pick a song or two) attracted noted artists from across the United States and Great Britain including but not limited to The Rolling Stones, Aretha Franklin, George Michael, Wilson Pickett, Willie Nelson, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Joe Cocker, Levon Helm, Paul Simon, Bob Seger, Rod Stewart, Tamiko Jones, Cher, and Cat Stevens.

The Studio

The first hit to the studio’s credit was R. B. Greaves’ “Take a Letter Maria”.  By December 1969, the Rolling Stones were recording at this new location for three days and Cher’s sixth album was titled 3614 Jackson Highway (1969) and this became the informal name for the studio.  Several successful years followed, so much so that the Swampers moved to a larger facility in 1979 and continued to operate there until 1985, when they closed the business, selling it to their longtime friend Tommy Couch, owner of Malaco Records.

The original studio building on Jackson Highway, which had become an audio-visual retailer and then an appliance store until 1999, changed ownership, the subsequent owner completing some renovations and retaining the old recording equipment, allowing for tours of the property.  The building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in June 2006.

In 2013, the documentary Muscle Shoals raised public interest in a major restoration of the studio, and in June that year, the owner sold the property (without the historic recording equipment) to the Muscle Shoals Music Foundation, an organization that had been formed earlier that year with the goal of establishing a music museum in the historic building.  A large grant from Beats Electronics provided an essential $1 million.  The building closed when major restoration work began in September 2015 and reopened as a finished tourist attraction operated by the Muscle Shoals Music Foundation on January 9, 2017.  Offering tours during the day, the studio is a working recording studio at night.  

Vocal Booth

And a very informative tour it was, hosted by a gentleman named Terrill whose knowledge of the studio, its founders, the area, and most of all the musicians who recorded there made for an entertaining hour. 

Our Guide Terrell

We left the studio and with a little bit of time remaining in the afternoon, drove over to Ivy Green, the birthplace of Helen Keller.  Built in 1820, Keller who was born there 1880, and became well-known after overcoming deaf-blind conditions to become an author and public speaker.  It is designated as a National Historic Landmark and is now operated as a museum honoring and interpreting Keller’s life.

Helen Keller’s Birthplace

As it was later in the afternoon and neither of us could muster up enough enthusiasm to pay what seemed like a pretty stiff admission fee, we instead wandered around the exterior of the house and through the adjacent gardens before returning to the Best Western for some downtime and then to head to nearby Florence, across the Tennessee River about eight miles away) for dinner at Odette, which had garnered good reviews in Trip Advisor. 

Florence has a charming downtown which we observed as we walked from where we parked the car to enter the restaurant and sit at the bar, which would be a good decision as we had a delightful time interacting with the bartender there.  Joanna started with a special cocktail of the day, the Last Word (Tanqueray, Green Chartreuse, Luxardo, and Lime) and I a Rhone Grenache Blanc to go along with our first course, the Tempura Cauliflower, which was without a doubt a great way to start the night.  Pan fried to perfection and seasoned with a just right sauce; each bite urged one to take another.

Next up was the English Pea and Ham soup, completely different than we thought it would be, not a heavy soup but instead thin and light with a delicate flavor offset by small chunks of country ham.  About this time, I ordered a glass of the Sangiovese, and it would compliment our final course, the Small Crispy Gnocchi in a Beurre Blanc. 

It’s hard to say which of the three courses was our favorite so let’s just say it was a tie.  And that would finish our trek north as we killed time before returning to Galveston for Joanna’s checkup.  We’d spend one night on the road and one night in Galveston, hopefully get good news the following morning and begin heading towards Kansas City and the wedding.  Although we had been forced to change our itinerary, we managed to make the most of it and in the end, it had been a good short detour. 

Crispy Potato Gnocchi


Muscle Shoals Documentary: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TZsiOKAS2BY

FAME Studios: https://famestudios.com/

Muscle Shoals Sound Studio: http://musictrail.una.edu/?page_id=614

Ivy Green: https://www.helenkellerbirthplace.org/

Odette: https://www.odettealabama.com/

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