our rockin’ road trip through Muscle Shoals and Memphis

We saw the film “Muscle Shoals” earlier in the summer and decided we needed to go, much like we did with Yosemite after “Free Solo” last summer. On Friday of Labor Day weekend, we headed west on I-20 to Alabama.

We pulled off I-65 in Cullman to see something I’d seen on billboards for years but never stopped to see: Ave Maria Grotto. It’s where a Benedictine monk designed miniatures of cathedrals and other landmarks from all over the world out of unwanted recycled materials like shells, broken plates, stones, etc. It was about 45 minutes of walking among the little worlds he created nearly 100 years ago. We bought some fresh “monk bread” for the road and headed to Florence, arriving at the Rosenbaum House–the only Frank Lloyd Wright house in Alabama–an hour before it closed.

After checking into our hotel (we’d planned to camp along the Tennessee River but I couldn’t get my luggage rack to fit into my new car’s trailer hitch–something I probably should have tested before the morning of our trip), we went into downtown Florence, where I really wanted to see the “alpha chapter” of my favorite clothier, Billy Reid. I’d planned to just look around, but they were having a 70% off sale, so I left with a new sport coat, dress boots, and 2 short-sleeved shirts. The person tending the store was Billy’s daughter, Abba, and we enjoyed talking to her about Florence, the annual “Shindig” party that Covid cancelled, and all the clothes that surrounded us. Here I am in one of the 2 new shirts plus some shorts I got at his Atlanta store last year:

We went up into the 360 Grill above the Marriott, where I can vaguely recall going when we visited Florence once in the ’80s (and is Alabama’s only rotating restaurant), and had dinner at Odette, a restaurant recommended by my friend Jody’s wife, who grew up in the area (it’s owned by a lady I met years ago in Atlanta at Gunshow; she went to school with my friend Angela; the world is small). It was great, but I’m glad we sat outside, as the next day, it was shut down after an employee tested positive for Covid.

At dusk, we went to Mcfarland Park (where we’d planned to camp) and let my son fish a bit while the rest of us watched the sun set over the Tennessee River. Then, the children swam in the Marriott’s pool while the parents enjoyed local beers. Once the little people were in bed, the two of us went to the hotel bar, called Swampers Bar and Grille, where the walls are covered with photographs of musicians who’d recorded in Muscle Shoals, and a couple guys with guitars sang covers for the socially distanced patrons until closing time. It was the first live music I’ve heard since seeing The Eagles at State Farm Arena in February, and I loved it, despite longing to exchange all the Ticketmaster refunds 2020 has given me to get back the experiences I thought I’d have this year.

Saturday morning after the impressive Big Bad Breakfast, we started our tour of Fame Recording Studios at 10am. An hour and a half later, we toured Muscle Shoals Sound Studios, which began when the Swampers, the session players from Fame, branched out to start a studio down the street.

Touring these places and hearing their lore was the highlight of the weekend. I loved seeing the piano Bob Seger played and where the roadie for Lynyrd Skynyrd composed “Free Bird,” the toilet where Keith Richards wrote “Wild Horses,” and where such acts as the Allman Brothers, Percy Sledge, Aretha Franklin, Paul Simon, and many, many others recorded some of their greatest hits or their break out hits (or both!).

The tours were very different, even if the subject matter was nearly identical. The guide at Fame was younger, and was certainly passionate about music and all the history of the still-active recording studio (in fact, someone was mixing in the upper room behind glass as we toured), but he seemed a bit tired or hung over during his tour, as he struggled to find his words at times. That said, I loved when he played some of the more recognizable tracks that were recorded where we stood in Studio A as the artists looked down from autographed photos on the walls above. It was magical.

At the next studio, the guide was an older gentleman who actually knew the Swampers and witnessed their storied decades of producing hit after hit after hit. In fact, 70% of the records recorded there made it to the Top 40, whereas other studios consider 20% a success. He also had a great sense of humor, and anecdotes such as the one about Keith Richards’ writing from the bathroom were plentiful.

The recording studios in Muscle Shoals are hallowed ground. Watch the film. Take the trip.

After our studio tours, we got ice cream at Trowbridge’s, which has been serving sandwiches and ice cream since 1918, and they still taste great on a socially distanced Labor Day weekend. We tried to hit the Alabama Music Hall of Fame and the W.C. Handy Museum, but both were closed for Covid/Labor Day weekend.

We were able to go to Helen Keller’s childhood home and see where she learned from Annie Sullivan (whom my bride played in a 7th grade performance of “The Miracle Worker”), and it was an inspiration to us all.

Then, we pressed westward to Memphis, checking into the historic Peabody Hotel and walking a half block for some famous Rendezvous ribs, which were every bit as delicious as I remembered them being.

After the children went to bed, the grownups walked over to Beale Street, which I’d last experienced on New Year’s Eve 1997. It was…different. There was a decent crowd, but they were in masks, and dozens of mounted policeman on horses flanked the crowds as if they expected something bad to happen. The bars had to stop serving at 10pm, which was only a few minutes after we stepped onto the street, so our time was limited and more reserved than I’d hoped for.

The next morning was Sunday, and we surprised our son (a couple weeks before his birthday) with getting to be honorary “Duckmaster” for the famous procession of mallards from the roof of the hotel, onto the elevator, and across red carpet leading to the fountain in the middle of the hotel lobby. He loved it.

Then, we were off to Graceland to expose our children to 1970s decor and wonderful amounts of kitsch.

We loved learning about Elvis and touring the expanded museum and artifacts they’ve added; we bought lots of souvenirs at the myriad gift shops. Dinner was more BBQ at Blues City Cafe, and then the 5 of us walked across the street to B.B. King’s Blues Club for awesome live music on Beale Street. Later that evening, the adults went to a speakeasy called Blind Bear.

On Monday, we toured Sun Studio as soon as it opened, and we saw where Johnny Cash, Elvis, U2, and many other artists recorded. The tour guide was excellent, and when our time there was finished, he suggested Sunrise for breakfast, which was delicious (and worth the wait in line).

We went into the Memphis Pyramid, which is now a giant Bass Pro Shop, and took the elevator to the observation deck to look out at the mighty Mississippi before beginning our drive back toward Atlanta.

We stopped at Natchez Trace Parkway and let the children complete its junior ranger program, hiked a bit of the scenic trail, made a brief stop at the Tupelo National Battlefield so I could justify the cancellation in my national parks passport book, and then headed east on I-26 to Birmingham, where we met Jim Bob and his family for dinner at Back Forty Beer Company. Other than killing a coyote on I-20 toward Atlanta several hours later, the trip home was pleasant, as we listened to “Coraline” and “When You Reach Me” on Audible.

This was an awesome road trip. We only planned it a couple months before leaving, and aspects of it were certainly limited by the pandemic, but it made me want to return to Florence next summer for “Shindig” if everything’s open again to see the places that were closed and enjoy more live music, great food, and the magic that created the famous “Muscle Shoals sound” when crowds can gather once again.

If you’re anywhere in the Southeast, this rock and roll road trip is a great way to spend a holiday weekend!

One Comment

  1. Deborah Moebes

    This was one of those road trips that definitely over-delivered. It was way, way cooler + more rewarding per mile than expected. Also: Graceland deserves its reputation as a pilgrimage destination.

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