72 Hours in Muscle Shoals, Alabama

A couple weeks back, John and I took part in American Songwriter Magazine's Live & In Person weekend getaway to Muscle Shoals. Since I work at the magazine, the decision to attend was easy. Regardless, three days in this Alabama oasis made it clear this was something that should not have been missed. Enjoy our recap of the first Live & In Person below.

John Branam Photography

After a scenic 2-hour drive from Nashville, our Friday evening began with a ride on the historic city-wide trolley to Florence's first craft brewery, Singin' River. I recommend tasting the Handy's Gold: a blonde ale based on the Munich Helles style but fermented with a classic British ale yeast. From there, we headed to the Billy Reid flagship store where we met three of the original Swampers. After feasting on Whole Hog Express BBQ with 30 other guests, we settled in for an intimate evening of songwriting and storytelling with Spooner Oldham, Jimmie Johnson and Will McFarlane. We also got our first taste of the cheerful and always darling Judy Hood, honorary "Swampette" and wife of Swampers bassist David Hood. This night alone could have quenched our thirst for a musical weekend, especially after hearing Will McFarlane's story about getting tattoos with Tom Waits.

Saturday began with a morning at the Alabama Chanin Factory, a "lifestyle company producing well-designed and thoughtfully-made goods." Designer Natalie Chanin curates a heavenly location with 100% organic cotton jersey fabric, hand-sewn masterpieces, kind-hearted workers, and sustainable quality. She also incorporates a Southern-style kitchen, sourcing only local and regional ingredients. The entire room agreed this was the best breakfast any of us had ever had. Hands down.

We happily dragged our full bellies back onto the trolley for a full day of Muscle Shoals history. Judy Hood took us deep inside the world so few had ever known before the famous 2013 documentary. We toured Fame Studios, where producer Rick Hall and his skilled team recorded hits by Etta James, Jimmy Hughes, Clarence Carter, Wilson Pickett, Candi Station and more. We stood inside 3614 Jackson Highway, Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, where star musicians like The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Cher, Elton John, Paul Simon, and many others created some of the most memorable music to date. 

For our final stop, we peeked inside the Alabama Music Hall of Fame and met Rick Hall himself. His gold rings sparkled from a mile away. Shaking his hand really brought everything full circle. You hear about these places, and you know how important they are to American music. But, you can't understand how humble this beginning truly was until you stand on the same broken tiles as artists you admire. Judy even explained how seeing these locations in person has made grown men cry. I wouldn't doubt it for a second.

After heading back to the Marriott Shoals Hotel & Spa, John and I met up with the guests for dinner at Odette, a "neighborhood eatery serving elevated American fare with southern and international influences. The menu features locally and sustainably-sourced ingredients in a contemporary, inviting and comfortable atmosphere." We started with tomato & chickpea toast with goat cheese and pickled turnips, followed by deviled farm eggs with red curry, white cheddar pimento cheese and bacon. Try the tortilla-crusted Alabama catfish with sea island red peas, smoked sweet potato relish and red mole. Don't leave a single morsel on your plate. You're welcome. Pictured is the toffee creme brûlée with dark chocolate-hazelnut toffee bark and brown sugar cheesecake with gingersnap and maple-roster pineapple compote.

Through the kitchen and out the back alley brought us to 116 E. Mobile. A musical weekend isn't complete without a concert, and Single Lock Records delivered. Single Lock is Florence's own independent record label owned and operated by Will Trapp, Ben Tanner, and John Paul White of the Grammy Award-winning duo The Civil Wars. Packed into the label's candlelit venue, we enjoyed the sounds of The Kernal, Daniel Elias + Exotic Dangers, The Pollies, Belle Adair, and Dylan LeBlanc. Once again, this night could have sufficed for the entire trip. Donnie Fritz crooned with John Paul White, and I died happy somewhere in that room that night.

Sunday morning featured a filling hotel breakfast and storytelling session with legendary songwriter Gary Baker. We huddled on the hotel's porch to hear him sing snippets of internationally-renowned songs like "I Swear." Another morning with a bacon-filled stomach and music filling our ears woke us up just enough for the short drive home. On your way out of town, stop at Tom's Wall. This memorial to Tom Hendrix's great grandmother commemorates her emotional and inspiring journey. After her Native American tribe was forced to walk to Oklahoma from their Alabama home, one Yuchi girl could no longer hear the singing waters she had grown to love in Muscle Shoals. Her journals tell the difficult story of her 5-year walk back home, all to hear the music she held so dear. Tom created the largest un-mortared wall in the United States and the largest memorial to a Native American woman with stones from over 120 countries. It's not to be missed.

John Branam Photography

We hope to host another Live & In Person event in the coming months, furthering this intimate experience of music history with the American Songwriter audience. Stay tuned for updates and the announcement of the next location with American Songwriter Magazine.

Video by Mountain. Click here to see more photos and beautiful portraits by photographer Jason Myers.
Click here to learn more about American Songwriter's Live & In Person.