From the North Alabama banks of the Tennessee River, known by Native Americans as “the river that sings,” have come hundreds of hit songs and numerous creative people and ideas. The Shoals is a destination filled with championship golf courses and happy bass fishermen, but it is also a university town with restaurants and entertainment options galore.
The cities of Florence, Muscle Shoals, Tuscumbia and Sheffield comprise the area known as The Shoals. Each town makes distinctive contributions and benefits from the proximity and the unique attributes of the other three. You can find luxurious accommodations, history, shops of every kind, and even a multi-million dollar lion habitat. From the modern Visitors’ Center to the largest memorial to a Native American woman, there is plenty to enjoy in The Shoals.
Recording studios brought recognition to The Shoals
A legend is told that the unique sound of music produced in Muscle Shoals comes from the Tennessee River. Rick Hall would disagree. He would say the sound came from his hard work. Hall started FAME Recording Studios at 603 E. Avalon Avenue in 1959 and put together a talented group of studio musicians later called “The Swampers.” They are the real creators of the unique sound. During an unfortunate incident in 1969 when Aretha Franklin was in town making a recording, Rick Hall and The Swampers parted ways. The Swampers moved a few miles down the road and established Muscle Shoals Sound Studio at 3614 Jackson Highway. Between the two studios, hundreds of recordings were made. Hit performers such as Wilson Pickett, Percy Sledge, the Rolling Stones, Cher, Clarence Carter, Linda Ronstadt, Simon and Garfunkel, the Oak Ridge Boys, and Jimmy Buffett, all the way to the more recent Alabama Shakes, Civil Wars, and The Secret Sisters have made their way to The Shoals to make their music.
FAME Studios are open for guided tours from 9:00-10:00 a.m. and from 4:00-6:00 p.m. Monday through Friday and from 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. on Saturdays. Tickets are 10 USD each. The original location of the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio is undergoing extensive renovation but should be open by spring, 2016.
Other venues for hearing music in The Shoals
The birthplace and museum of W.C. Handy, known as the “Father of the Blues,” is at 620 West College Street in Florence. A week-long festival is held in his honor every summer. In 2016, it will be July 22-31. The Alabama Department of Tourism considers it to be a Top 10 event. From March through December, downtown Florence hosts First Friday with local musicians being one of the key attractions. The hours are 5:00-8:00 p.m., and admission is free.
The University of North Alabama Music Department schedules a full calendar of recitals and concerts, and Swampers Bar and Grill, located in the lobby of the Marriott Shoals, has local musicians performing nightly.
Helen Keller was also born in The Shoals, and a music-filled festival is held every summer in her honor, too. This year it will be June 23-26. Each night, an outdoor production of “The Miracle Worker” will be presented. It is especially significant since it takes place within steps of where the actual story happened.
Shopping in The Shoals
If you prefer predictable chain stores in a mall setting, then you will be satisfied at the Florence Mall on Cox Creek Parkway in Florence and the Southgate Mall on Avalon Avenue in Muscle Shoals. If unique and boutique are favorite words in your shopping vocabulary, then head to English Village on Darby Drive in Florence to peruse its collection of specialty stores or park your car on Court Street in downtown Florence and stroll from shop to shop. One of the most notable on Court Street is Billy Reid, an upscale flagship store of this award-winning clothing designer. The decor incorporates Reid family heirlooms, and you will find both men’s and women’s clothing and accessories.
Attractions found only in The Shoals
Under the category of “Only in The Shoals,” there are several attractions in diverse categories to recommend. For one-of-a-kind clothing and home decor, visit Alabama Chanin on Lane Drive in Florence. In addition to shopping, you can take a tour of the factory, attend a sewing workshop or have lunch at the organic cafe. For furniture pieces that you will not be able to find anywhere else, check out Robin Wade Furniture, most of which has been carefully created from trees harvested sustainably within a 20-mile radius of his workshop and showroom.
For those who love architecture, visit the only Frank Lloyd Wright-designed home that is open for tours in the southeastern United States, the Rosenbaum House located on Riverview Drive in Florence. Even the furnishings were designed by Wright.
If Native American history fascinates you, then visit Tom’s Wall, which is the largest memorial to a Native American woman in the United States - an unmortared stone wall made up of 8.5 million pounds of rocks Tom hauled from the Tennessee River and from nearby fields over a period of 35 years. “Tom” refers to Tom Hendrix, and the Native American woman was his great-great-grandmother, Te-lah-nay.
Eating and Sleeping in The Shoals
Chain hotels and restaurants abound, but if you’re looking for local flavor and true Southern cooking or barbecue, there are plenty of cafes and diners with names like Mama Jean’s and Chat N Chew. Trowbridge’s is a well-known sandwich and ice cream shop which has been in its same location on Court Street in downtown Florence since 1918. The prices are surprisingly inexpensive, and the ice cream flavor choices are mouthwatering.
However, if a special occasion is on your calendar, then 360 Grille, the revolving restaurant adjacent to the Shoals Marriott, can be the setting for a memorable experience. It is only open for dinner, and reservations are highly recommended.
For lodging, there are two outstanding choices. One is the Limestone House Bed and Breakfast near the campus of the University of North Alabama. If you choose this, you will be treated to a sumptuous breakfast and sleep where Thomas Edison and Henry Ford once slept. There is also a 4-diamond Marriott property in The Shoals with luxurious bedding, full fitness and spa facilities, numerous convention and conference rooms, and both indoor and outdoor pools.
The Shoals has a wealth of history, a banquet of delicious food, and a wide variety of attractions
For lovers of Native American or music history, The Shoals can satisfy your desire to know more. For outdoor enthusiasts, you can play golf, catch fish or watch a wide range of University of North Alabama sports. From barbecue to organic menus, there are restaurants to suit every taste. If you are a collector of unique places, then you will not be disappointed with a visit to The Shoals. Stay a week or a weekend. Your days can be as full as you want them to be.
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