Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Lynyrd Skynyrd Trail

We recently started a new ‘Historic Trail’ road trip tradition. Rather than following the Lewis and Clark Historic Trail or the Historic Oregon Trail we decided to create our own tradition based on place names in rock songs. Muscle shoals Alabama qualified as our first based on two criteria; Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama” of course - “Now Muscle Shoals has got the Swampers/and they’ve been known to pick a song or two”, and it was relatively close. I expected a wide place in the road to explore for a couple hours but discovered the legendary “Muscle Shoals Sound” instead.

The journey began with a drink in the hotel bar on arrival and gazing at their wall of fame depicting artists such as Wilson Pickett, Paul Simon, Little Richard, Bobbie Gentry, Rod Stewart, and Bob Dylan. Since I knew Bob Dylan was not from Alabama I figured it wasn’t about locals making it big. A brief read of town history on the back of the bar menu clued me in that Muscle Shoals was churning out a bunch of hits in the 60s and 70s. The “Swampers” is actually Barry Beckett (keyboards), Roger Hawkins (drums), Jimmy Johnson (guitar), and David Hood (bass); founders of the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in 1969 and also called the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section. If you do not recognize them just think of songs like “Mustang Sally”, “Kodachrome”, and “When a Man Loves a Woman”. They played on them all and hundreds more. Apparently many people hearing their music were surprised they were white and I guess I’m one more.

Armed with newfound knowledge, we headed off to find FAME Studios, one of the prominent studios of the eight running at the peak. Turns out it is an unassuming 50s looking building and I walked into the front office asking about tours. “Nope, this is a working studio, man, and there is a session going now.” They are still turning out hits; how cool is that? They let us look in one of the open recording rooms and we then headed off to the Alabama Music Hall of Fame for more music appreciation and education (including being about the billionth people to record Sweet Home Alabama in the museum's sound studio just behind a group of Germans). 

Overall we ended up spending two days exploring. One lesson learned in all of this is do not take what you hear for granted as it is easy to imagine music is pumped out of generic factories. There’s a story behind everything; "wide spots in the road" rarely turn out to be so.


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