Being from the northeast and having lived a fairly sheltered middle-class white life, Alabama was synonymous, in my mind, with Gov. George Wallace, Rosa Parks, and Jim Crow laws. Alabama always seemed to be trying to suppress one group or another, and as recently as 2019 they attempted to take away a woman’s right to make decisions about her own body. The state has done little to recommend itself, and I frankly had little interest in visiting. As the universe would have it, Bob’s friend Mike Shaw moved to the Birmingham area, so we decided to visit on our way back from Florida last winter. We discovered a beautiful part of America with gentle rolling hills, lakes, caverns and museums. On our way north from Mike’s house, we passed the NASA rocket facility in Huntsville and wished we had included a stop in the northern part of the state. So, this year we returned!
When looking at the map of Alabama, I discovered that the town of Muscle Shoals sits just an hour or so west of Huntsville, so we located ourselves midway between the two and started our visit with a tour of the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio. I admit that I really didn’t know about Muscle Shoals until I met Bob, but I’m sure my cousin John Paul has known all along that it is one of the most famous recording studios for rock music of the 1970’s. It’s a tiny place, just one big room with a small foyer, tiny bathroom and a closet. The studio was started in 1969 by four session musicians in their mid-twenties who left another studio in town to start their own. They originally called themselves the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section. They had a unique sound that hadn’t been heard before, and they were so tight that they could record a song in only three takes when most session groups were taking 30-40 takes … the big name musicians loved it and wanted these guys on their recordings. They became known as “The Swampers” when Leon Russell recorded there, as he said they had a southern swamp sound. Lynyrd Skynyrd made the name stick when they wrote and recorded Sweet Home Alabama.
“Now Muscle Shoals has got the Swampers
And they’ve been known to pick a song or two (yes they do)
Lord, they get me off so much
They pick me up when I’m feelin’ blue, now how ‘bout you?”
The list of artists who recorded at this tiny studio in this little town is amazing: Boz Scaggs, Aretha Franklin, Lulu, Leon Russell, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Simon & Garfunkel, Linda Ronstadt, The Rolling Stones, Cher, Bob Dylan, Duane Allman, Bob Segar, The Staples Singers, Rod Stewart, Willie Nelson, Cat Stevens, Dr. Hook … and I can’t even remember them all. The Swampers played on more than 200 albums, with more than 75 gold and platinum records. They had a nine-year run in this little building before moving into a larger space. After several years housing a couple of other businesses and finally being abandoned, a group of local folks raised money to purchase and restore the building as a museum and active studio. In 2009, The Black Keys was the first group to record an album in the restored studio.
Our tour guide was a woman who grew up nearby. She played recorded riffs from various songs that are so recognizable to us today and told us how they were improvised in the studio. One of the best stories was this: Bob Segar had already made several recordings at MSSS and had brought them some lyrics he had written … just lyrics, no music. The Swampers spent a little time with it, writing the music and recording some tracks. While this was going on, there was a knock at the door. A teenage boy had shown up with his guitar. He dreamed of being a rock and roll star and asked if the Swampers would show him how records are made. They invited him in and let him play along while they recorded this new song while his parents waited in the car. When Segar heard the song, he brought the Silver Bullet Band in to record it. In the end, he felt that The Swampers had done it better, so they stopped recording, dubbed Segar’s vocals onto The Swampers instrumentals and released the record: Old Time Rock and Roll. Because Segar didn’t write the music itself, he didn’t put his name on the song; The Swampers own the publishing rights. The kid got paid for his time, but his name is nowhere to be found on one of the most famous and recognizable rock songs of all time. (The kid’s name is Forrest McDonald, and he’s now a musician in his own right living and performing in North Carolina.)
Our visit to MSSS was a highlight of the trip so far.
One town over from Muscle Shoals is the little town of Tescumbia where Helen Keller grew up. I read a book about Helen’s life when I was young, followed that with a couple more books, including her autobiography, The Story of My Life. I was so fascinated by her story that I even taught myself to finger spell and considered learning sign language. I had to visit her birthplace in Tescumbia. There, a docent told us her story and we saw the rooms and cottage where her teacher, Annie Sullivan, made history. If you have never seen the movie The Miracle Worker with Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke, you have missed one of the most fantastic true stories of all time. After living ten years in a world of darkness, silence and ignorance, Ms. Sullivan was able to break through and teach Helen. In the long run, Helen graduated from Radcliffe (at the time, the women’s side of Harvard University) with honors and her IQ was supposedly tested at 160.
The following day, we traveled the opposite direction to the US Space Center in Huntsville. Here is housed a Saturn V rocket, the class of rocket that propelled man into space and ultimately to the moon. It’s incredible to stand beneath the Saturn V and take in it’s enormity at 363 feet long, to see the engineering inside components and wonder “who the heck is smart enough to build something like that?” They also have capsules, a quarantine unit, moon rover, landing module and lots of interactive exhibits for kids and adults alike. This is the home of Space Camp, from which many NASA employees and astronauts have grown. Since we had visited Johnson Space Center in Houston two years ago, we wondered if we’d just see a repeat of exhibits. The two are completely different and both are worth visiting!
Our three days in northern Alabama were busy! We sort of needed a little downtime, so we headed to Memphis, the northernmost end of the Mississippi Blues Trail. Doesn’t sound very restful, does it? Stay tuned!