See Rock City

See Rock City

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Muscle Shoals, AL

Muscle Shoals is a city in Colbert County, Alabama, United States. As of 2007, the United States Census Bureau estimated the population of the city to be 12,846. The city is included in The Shoals MSA. It is famous for its music and contributions to American popular music.


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 many theories of 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, therefore, 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.” The Shoals area, including Florence, Sheffield, and Tuscumbia, was first known as the Muscle Shoals district.

In the early 1900s, Muscle Shoals 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 the 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. There were also 23 mess halls, a school for 850 students, an 85 bed hospital, and 3 barber shops.

Municiple Building

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 as part of the New Deal. Although Ford’s plans did not materialize, they did lay the foundation for the city of Muscle Shoals.

As the area became more populated, there became a desire by men of the area to incorporate. On March 7, 1923, a petition was presented to the Probate Judge of Colbert County to incorporate the town of Muscle Shoals. The petition was signed by 45 men and women that resided in the boundaries of the proposed area. An election was held on March 31, 1923. The inspectors, Lewis Gusmus, George A. Lehbert, and R.H. Huston, gave the final vote count at 361 votes for “Corporation” and 6 votes for “No Corporation.” The list of inhabitants residing within the town of Muscle Shoals, which were enumerated by the above inspectors under a decree entered by N.P. Tompkins, Judge of Probate of Colbert County, included 460 white and 267 colored making a total of 727 people in Muscle Shoals. The incorporation of the “Town of Muscle Shoals” was made official on April 24, 1923. An order also called for the election of a Mayor and five Aldermen for Muscle Shoals. On May 28, 1923, George McBride was elected as the first Mayor of Muscle Shoals with a total of 26 votes. The Aldermen elected were Henry Green, George Harris, Robert Huston, George Vaughn and R.F. Tucker.

During the first 20 years of incorporation, the town development was very slow, having only 1,113 people in 1940. By this time some of the residential property had been sold for taxes and some at the local market value. This change to local ownership opened the way for growth and development of the new city. In the 1950s, under a commission form of government and a recognized area Chamber of Commerce, an industrial growth began. Reynolds Metals and Union Carbide Metals were quick to convert to peace time production. Diversification came with Diamond Shamrock, Ford Motor Company, and many others locating in Colbert County.

In the 1960s, Rick Hall brought FAME Recording Studios to Muscle Shoals. Famous bands and singers, including Aretha Franklin, The Osmonds, Mac Davis, and Duane Allman, came to Muscle Shoals to record hit songs at FAME. In 1998, it was added to the Alabama Register of Landmarks and Heritage.

Fame Studio

FAME (Florence Alabama Music Enterprises) Studios are located at 603 East Avalon, Muscle Shoals, AL. in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. They have been an integral part of American popular music from the late 50s to the present. Artists who recorded there included Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Joe Tex, The Allman Brothers Band, Clarence Carter, Candi Staton, Mac Davis, Paul Anka, Tom Jones, Etta James, Andy Williams, The Osmonds, Shenandoah, and many others.

Founded by Rick Hall, Billy Sherrill and Tom Stafford in Florence, Alabama, in the late 50s, the studio was first located above the City Drug Store in Florence, AL. The facility was moved to a former tobacco warehouse on Wilson Dam Road in Muscle Shoals in the early 60s, when Hall split from Sherrill and Stafford. Hall soon recorded the first hit record from the Muscle Shoals area, Arthur Alexander's "You Better Move On."

Hall took the proceeds from that recording to build the current facility on Avalon Avenue in Muscle Shoals, and in 1963, Hall recorded the first hit produced in that building, Jimmy Hughes' "Steal Away."

As the word about Muscle Shoals began to spread other acts began coming to Muscle Shoals to record. Nashville producer Felton Jarvis brought Tommy Roe and recorded the Rick Hall and Dan Penn song "Everybody." Atlanta Music Publisher Bill Lowery, who had mentored Hall through his early days, sent The Tams. Nashville Publisher/Producer Buddy Killen brought Joe Tex, whileAtlantic Records' Jerry Wexler brought Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett to record.

The session musicians who worked at the studio became known as the "Muscle Shoals Horns" and the "Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section". In 1969, members of the rhythm section left to found a rival studio, the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio.

As the hits kept coming, Hall expanded into the area of teen pop hits with The Osmonds, a vocal group from Utah, featuring the younger brother Donny Osmond. The collaboration resulted in the hit "One Bad Apple," among others, and helped Hall to become named "Producer of the Year" in 1971.

As the decade of the 70s rolled in, Hall began moving into country music, first with vocalist Bobby Gentry who recorded the album "Fancy", and then with singer/songwriter Mac Davis, who topped both the Pop and Country charts with "Baby, Don't Get Hooked On Me". Davis recorded four gold albums at FAME, with the singles "Texas In My Rear View Mirror" and "Hooked On Music" becoming hits on both the country and pop charts.

Hall continued producing country hits in the 1980s, including Jerry Reed's #1 records, "She Got The Goldmine" and "The Bird". He also started Gus Hardin's career with the popular "After The Last Good-bye" and had a smash album with Larry Gatlin and The Gatlin Brothers, Houston To Denver. Hall's productions on T.G. Sheppard's LPs include Livin' On The Edge, It Still Rains In Memphis and One For The Money. Top 20 singles during included "Fooled Around And Fell In Love". Top 10 singles included "In Over My Heart" and "Doncha?". Top 5 singles include "Strong Heart", "One For The Money" and a #1 single, "You're My First Lady".

Hall then returned to the way he did it in the beginning, developing new artists. A local country band that was playing in a club down the street from FAME Studios came to his attention and he and Robert Byrne co-produced an LP on the group Shenandoah. Hall made a record deal with CBS Records and the group thereafter had top 10 singles with "She Doesn't Cry Anymore" and "See If I Care" , top 5 singles with "Mama Knows" and "The Moon Over Georgia", and six number 1 singles with "The Church On Cumberland Road", "Sunday In The South" , "Two Dozen Roses", "Next To You, Next To Me", "Ghost In This House" and "I Got You".

The 1990s brought major change to the city of Muscle Shoals. In 1992, Muscle Shoals became the last city in the state of Alabama to abandon the commission form of government for the mayor/council form of government. The city also made significant progress in public works with a new post office, a new city library, a comprehensive flood control plan, a state-of-the-art early warning weather siren system, and a new multi million dollar high school. In more recent years, the city has constructed a new fire station and city hall.


The city is one of four municipalities known as the Quad Cities, the others being Florence, Sheffield and Tuscumbia, all of them in Alabama. Muscle Shoals is known for recording many hit songs from the 1960s through today at FAME Studios, where Aretha Franklin recorded many of her signature works, and Muscle Shoals Sound Studio which developed work for Bob Dylan, Paul Simon and countless others. While the music from the area is often referred to as the "Muscle Shoals Sound", all four of the Quad Cities have significantly contributed to the area's impressive musical history. Without question, Muscle Shoals is among the world's most unassuming "music capitals" in that it remains unspoiled by the music industry. It can be said that the same attraction that artists such as Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon and The Rolling Stones felt to the area remains intact today. The famed southern hospitality is still present and, at first glance, one may assume that everyone in residence is a part-time songwriter or musician. The community's contribution to American popular music during the 1960s, 70s and 80s is staggering, and the tradition continues to the present day.

A number of artists have made successful pilgrimages to Muscle Shoals in an effort to escape the limelight and write/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.

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 alongside the Tennessee River and often perform in area nightclubs, typically rehearsing new material to an audience of honest locals. Among the musical celebrities with homes in the area are George Strait, Tim McGraw and Faith Hill.

The music written and recorded in Muscle Shoals is typically regarded as unique because of the frequent combination of soul/gospel, country and rock influences. During the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, the area was a hotbed of creative talent as both white and black artists worked side-by-side. While this "desegregation" of artists is usually praised for its innovation, it was nothing new for most artists in North Alabama. In fact, the common practice of white and black musicians working together in Muscle Shoals can be traced as far back as the 1930s, regardless of racial tensions elsewhere in the American South.

What is most unusual, musically speaking, about the area is the cross-pollination of musical styles that originated in Muscle Shoals. Black artists from the area (Arthur Alexander and James Carr being ideal examples) utilized White country music in their work and White artists from the Shoals frequently borrowed from blues/gospel influences of their Black contemporaries, creating a generous melting pot of music.

Sam Phillips, founder of Sun Records, lived in the area and directly related in his autobiography that Muscle Shoals (primarily radio station WLAY (AM), which played 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.

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 a lot of 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. (Actually "The Swampers" were a session band in Muscle Shoals.)

The Construction of Wilson Lock and Dam

Towering in size, incomparable in scale and ambitious in design, the Wilson Dam project, constructed from 1918-1927, established a standard for the nation for future waterways improvement. The largest mass concrete United States lock & dam yet built, it was the first federal hydroelectric project as well as the first Corps of Engineers multipurpose effort. Congress, noting the combined benefits of flood control, aid to commercial navigation and the production of hydroelectric power in a single project, soon mandated these elements be evaluated in all new investigations. In 1933, the completed project amazed and inspired newly elected President Franklin Roosevelt to create the Tennessee Valley Authority. This act revitalized a region and provided a blueprint for development of water resources nationwide.

Wilson Dam marked the first successful attempt to tap the potential of the Tennessee River. Efforts to develop the river for economic purposes dated back to the 1830's. Inadequate, they failed to achieve significant results. The barrier of the Muscle Shoals continued to divide the residents of the Tennessee Valley geographically and socially. Poverty stricken, the region led the nation in grim categories like illiteracy, lowest per capita income, infant mortality and the availability of electricity and running water. Initially authorized for national defense, the completion of Wilson Dam paved the way for a period of development that harnessed the river. Rapid industrialization and economic diversification swept the valley.

Based on a survey report submitted by Nashville District Engineer, Major Harry Burgess, the Wilson Dam was the most ambitious American public works project of the period. The massive structure, 137 feet in height and more than 4,500 feet long [world record] required the excavation of nearly 1.5 million cubic yards of earth and rock and consumed 1.3 million cubic yards of concrete. At 94 feet, its lock lift established another world record and remains the highest on the system. At peak construction, more than 4,000 men labored at the site, requiring the construction of a small town to house them and their dependents. After 75 years Wilson, at 630,000 KW is still among the highest capacity hydroelectric plants in the nation. At a total cost of nearly $47 million, it truly was an extraordinary project for its time.

Simultaneous with Wilson's construction, Nashville District conducted a comprehensive survey of the economic potential and future improvement of the Tennessee River. The final report, advocating power-navigation dams on the main stem and power storage dams on the tributaries, became the foundation of multipurpose development in the valley. When created in 1933, the Tennessee Valley Authority, using Wilson as a model, implemented these advance plans.

The construction of six multipurpose dams and the pressing of other initiatives gradually awakened the region from its torpor. Flood damages fell, barge traffic, barely a million tons a year in 1930, surged and the availability of affordable electric power transformed everyday life in the valley. In 1933, Muscle Shoals became the first community to receive electric power via the facilities at Wilson Dam; within a few years, more than one hundred other municipalities would join it. This new development, as one economist noted, gave the residents "universally high standards of living, new jobs, leisure, freedom and an end to drudgery, congestion, noise, smoke and filth." Much of this remarkable transformation has its roots in the Wilson Dam, the pathfinder federal multipurpose project that unlocked the potential of a dynamic, but isolated region.