The Shoals is a two-county region located in Northwest Alabama along the Tennessee River.
Shoals area, including Florence, Sheffield, Tuscumbia, and Muscle Shoals, was first known as
the Muscle Shoals district. Because each city shares so much history and commonality, it is
hard for me, as an outsider, to know exactly where the city limits of each town start.
The Shoals area is known worldwide for its music recording industry. It is the birthplace of W. C. Handy, Father of the Blues, and home to the Alabama Music Hall of Fame, Florence Alabama Music Enterprises (FAME) Studios, and Muscle Shoals Sound Studio. In addition, the Shoals is the birthplace of Helen Keller and the location for the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Wilson Lock and Dam, and the nearby Coon Dog Cemetery.
TVA's Environmental Research Center, The Public Power Institute and the International Fertilizer Development Center, all nationally and internationally recognized institutions, are located in the Shoals. If that is not enough, the University of North Alabama is also located here.
There are many annual events in the Shoals area attracting numerous visitors each year. Annual events include the Trail of Tears Motorcycle Ride, Recall LaGrange, Helen Keller Festival, W. C. Handy Music Festival, Alabama Renaissance Fair, and many holiday season events. Did I mention the world famous annual Labor Day Coon Dog Fest at the Coon Dog Cemetery?
The Shoals area is rich in recreational opportunities and is home to the latest edition of the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail. Surrounded by Pickwick Lake, Wilson Lake, and Wheeler Lake, the Shoals offers some of the best fishing opportunities in the nation. Native Indians first inhabited the lands bordered by the Tennessee River.
There is no record of when the name Muscle Shoals was first used for the area. However, there are several theories as to where the name originated. One theory is that at one time there were piles of mussel shells found along the shoals of the Tennessee River. Another theory is that the shape of the river looks like the muscle in a man's arm, hence the name 'Muscle' Shoals. The last theory comes from several booklets that were published before Muscle Shoals incorporated. This theory states: "Muscle Shoals, the Niagara of the South, derives its name from the Indians, who, attempting to navigate upstream, found the task almost impossible because of the strong current." Thus, came the word muscle, symbolic of the strength required to "paddle a canoe up the rapids."
In the early 1900s, the Shoals area was farm land with houses scattered among the cotton fields. In 1918, a year after the United States entered World War I, the building of Wilson Dam began. The United States needed nitrates for ammunition and explosives, prompting President Woodrow Wilson to approve the building of two nitrate plants and a dam to supply needed electricity for those plants. At its peak, the building of Wilson Dam employed more than 18,000 workers, including some from what is now Muscle Shoals. The construction site consisted of 1,700 temporary buildings, 236 permanent buildings, 185 residential units, and 685 miles of electrical cable.
In 1921, automotive tycoon Henry Ford, accompanied by Thomas Edison, came to Muscle Shoals with a vision of transforming the area into a metropolis. The instant rumors of Ford's plan caused a real estate boom, and speculators began buying up land and parceling it out in 25 foot lots. During this time, people from all over the United States bought lots sight unseen. Mr. Ford's offer to buy Wilson Dam for $5 million was turned down by the United States Congress. (The initial cost of the construction of the dam was $46.5 million.) Instead, Congress, under the influence of Senator George Norris of Nebraska, later formed the Tennessee Valley Authority to develop the dam as well as the entire river valley. This plan was made a part of the New Deal. Although Ford's plans did not materialize, they did lay the foundation for the city of Muscle Shoals.
In addition to being home to country music band Shenandoah, a number of artists have made successful pilgrimages to Muscle Shoals in an effort to escape the limelight, and write and record their signature works. Both FAME Studios and Muscle Shoals Sound Studios are still in operation in the city. While famous for classic recordings from Rod Stewart, Aretha Franklin, Eric Clapton, Lynyrd Skynyrd and The Allman Brothers, recent hit songs such as "Before He Cheats" by Carrie Underwood and "I Loved Her First" by Heartland continue the city's musical legacy. George Michael recorded an early, unreleased version of "Careless Whisper" in Muscle Shoals in 1983, which was produced by the late, legendary Jerry Wexler, a fixture at the studios throughout the 60's and 70's.
Additionally, fans of Muscle Shoals music frequently make trips to the area to visit local landmarks. While most of the city's esteemed recording studios are still active, the majority will allow tours with an appointment. Further, a number of rock, R & B and country music celebrities have homes in the serene, mountainous rural area surrounding Muscle Shoals (Tuscumbia), or riverside estates along the Tennessee River, and often perform in area nightclubs, typically rehearsing new material to an audience of unjaded locals.
Among the musical celebrities with homes in the area are George Strait, Tim McGraw and Faith Hill. Former home of George Jones whose #1 song "He Stopped Loving Her Today" was voted #1 sad song for the last Century!
Sam Phillips, founder of Sun Records, lived in the area and stated in his autobiography that Muscle Shoals (primarily radio station WLAY (AM), which had both "white" and "black" music on its playlist) influenced his merging of these sounds at Sun Records with Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash.
The picture to the right is a statue of Chief Tuscumbia carved in a tree.
Muscle Shoals remains a fascinating study of American music, and today is at once a landmark and distinguished contributor to popular recordings. Muscle Shoals has received attention from the lyrics in Lynyrd Skynynd's "Sweet Home Alabama," stating "Muscle Shoals has got The Swampers, and they've been known to pick a song or two." This is an example of a line in a song that is well known, but little understood. The Swampers are a session band in Muscle Shoals.
The next picture was taken at the historic Tuscumbia Train Depot, now a museum.
On January 6, 2010, Muscle Shoals was added to the Mississippi Blues Trail. The Mississippi Blues Trail, created by the Mississippi Blues Commission, is a project to place interpretive markers at the most notable historical sites related to the growth of the blues throughout the state of Mississippi. The trail extends from the border of Louisiana in southern Mississippi and winds its way to Memphis, Tennessee.