About 3 years ago when I was traveling to Huntsville, Alabama, I went through Muscle Shoals. If I had ever been through there before, I hadn’t noticed it. I remember hearing about Muscle Shoals and the “Muscle Shoals sound” as it related to some of the music I heard when I was growing up. But I couldn’t tell you what that sound was, who made it, or what made it so special. When I got to Huntsville, I did a little research and found out that many of the songs I listened to when I was growing up were recorded in the this little town on the Tennessee River. I had a chance to drive back through and drove by the original building that housed the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio on the Jackson Highway. I knew from my research that they weren’t doing tours. It also looked like the place was practically abandoned. From the research that I did at the time, it seemed like this building was in a constant state of limbo as far as who owned it and what was being done with it. At the time, there was a website that had a lot of information about the recordings that were done at this studio. As of this writing, that website is no longer active. It’s also hard to find a good source of information about the history of this facility on-line. I follow a page for the facility on Facebook. Late last week, they posted information that said the building would be open on Friday and Saturday. I thought this would be a unique opportunity to visit a bit of music history. I was also going to be available to go on Saturday. In my research, I also learned about another historic studio in Muscle Shoals called FAME. Many major artists recorded there as well. I later found out the FAME was the studio that started it all in Muscle Shoals. I also found out that they were going to be doing tours on Friday and Saturday. This would give me even more reason for my trip. This will be the first in a series of posts about my trip to Muscle Shoals and it will focus on the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio.
FAME Studios has a group of session musicians that had success recording with several big name artists. They were known as the Swampers. They are mentioned in by Lynyrd Skynyrd in the song “Sweet Home Alabama”. In 1969, they decided to strike out on their own and opened the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio. Because of the reputation of these musicians, the facility became a hot place to record. The Rolling Stones recorded “Brown Sugar” and “Wild Horses” there when they were on their way to the Altamont free concert. Paul Simon recorded “Kodachrome” and “Loves Me Like a Rock” there. Bob Seger, Rod Stewart, The Staples Singers, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Bob Dylan all recorded hits at this facility. My love of these songs and the music artists made this trip appealing. I also didn’t want to miss an opportunity to visit while I could because the control of this facility has changed so many times.
The trip from my house took just over 2 hours. When I arrived, I didn’t see a place to pull in from the Jackson Highway and actually drove by and turned around. I drove back by a second time, seeing that the gravel driveway was on Tennessee Street, a side street. As I parked, a lady came out of the building to put an “Open” sign in the lawn of the building. I walked in and was greeted by an employee from FAME studios. He was a songwriter, musician and general staff person at FAME. He told me that they were asking for a $5 donation to walk through the facility. I went into the studio area which was a big empty room. The man and woman from FAME didn’t give a tour, but shared a lot of information. There were several keyboards and mike stands in the studio but they told me that none of the instruments were original to the facility. All of these instruments had been brought in from the FAME studios basically for decoration. The woman told me that the only two items that were originally in the building was an orange couch and matching chair. She told me that the Rolling Stones had probably partied on the couch. Of course, I asked if she would take a picture of me sitting on the couch.
There was no equipment in the sound booth. There was a drum set in one of the isolation rooms. There was also a picture of Art Garfunkel in another isolation room. There were a couple of beams in the middle of the room they told me had been added to provide support for the roof. They said the roof was infamous for leaking. There was also burlap on the ceiling. They told me that the bathroom had also been remodeled so all of the names that were originally on the wall there had been removed. I didn’t even step inside the restroom. It looked like the type of restroom you would find at a convenience store that you wouldn’t use. I was also shown a stairwell that went to the basement. They said this was where everyone that recorded there partied between sessions. The stairwell was an addition in the last few years. Originally, you had to go outside to get to the basement. In the basement, I found some floodlights like would expect to see on a work site. There was a table of snack foods there like they were expecting a party later. None of it was opened and I don’t think it was for visitors. I didn’t get any food. There was also a restaurant style sink area down there. I don’t know if it had always been like that. Because of the poor lighting and emptiness of the rooms, it had the feel of the building at the end of “The Blair Witch Project”. It was more creepy than inviting and didn’t look like anywhere I would want to party.
They told me that Beats by Dr. Dre has given some money to restore the facility to return it to a state of the art recording studio. With the recent history of the building, I am hopeful that something positive will be done with it. They told me they were going to try to open it every Friday and Saturday before they start renovations. I don’t know when they will start. If you are interested in music history and would like to visit, I suggest you plan a trip soon.
Before I left, the woman offered to take a picture of me in front of the building. She told me that this is something you see people doing all the time. One of the first albums recorded at this facility was by Cher and was called “3614 Jackson Highway”. This is the address of the facility. The album artwork featured a picture of Cher and the band standing in front of the building. I was happy to get this picture. It was better than the selfie I took before she came outside, although I like that picture too. This was my first stop on the trip. The next stop would be FAME studios.
Singer, Songwriter, Entertainer, Storyteller