Nestled in northwestern Alabama along the banks of the Tennessee River, the Shoals — also known as “the Quad” or “Quad-Cities” — encompasses the towns of Florence, Sheffield, Tuscumbia and Muscle Shoals. Home to about 200,000 people, the Shoals may be small in size, but it is a big travel destination, thanks to a bounty of attractions that celebrate the area’s history and famous natives.
The area’s biggest claim to fame is music. Opened in 1990, the 12,500-square-foot Alabama Music Hall of Fame in Tuscumbia showcases the state’s musical heritage. Among the notable inductees are Hank Williams, Nat “King” Cole, Sam Phillips, Dinah Washington, Emmylou Harris, Lionel Richie and The Blind Boys of Alabama. The hall’s recording studio is stocked with a selection of music and lyrics, and visitors can add their voices to make a take-home memory.
Florence-born W.C. Handy, dubbed “The Father of the Blues” for his contributions to the genre, has a prominent spot in the Hall of Fame. But the prolific composer also has his own museum in Florence. The W.C Handy Birthplace Museum & Library is located in the log cabin where he was born in 1873. Hand-written originals of many Handy works are on display, along with personal papers and artifacts.
The author of “Beale Street Blues” and “St Louis Blues” is celebrated annually during the last week of July when the W.C. Handy Music Festival kicks off with a New Orleans-style street parade and continues with live performances in more than 300 venues. At press time, plans to hold the festival this year in light of the COVID-19 pandemic were full steam ahead. Events taking place July 17-26 include songwriter showcases, a three-day bike ride, a car show, a Handy Hookah Block Party, dinner parties and performances by The Beat Daddys, The Midnighters, The Tennessee Valley Strummers, Thompson Trio and more.
Music also takes center stage at the Muscle Shoals Sound Studios in Sheffield. The small structure, built in 1946 as a coffin showroom, was reconfigured into a studio in 1969 by four highly sought-after studio musicians known as the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section. They played on some of the biggest rhythm and blues hits of the ’60s and ’70s. A roster of musical royalty recorded here, including Percy Sledge, Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, The Rolling Stones, Paul Simon, George Michael, Willie Nelson and Rod Stewart. After 10 years, the destination became so popular, owners relocated to a larger facility. It was in operation until 2005, when it became Cypress Moon Studios. Today it hosts tours and concerts open to the public.
The original Music Shoals Sound Studios has been restored and is now managed by the Muscle Shoals Music Foundation. Public tours are offered 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday-Saturday.
Music lovers will also want to stop at the FAME Recording Studio, home of FAME Publishing founded in 1959. The FAME music label artists included Clarence Carter (“Slip Away”) and Wilson Pickett (“Mustang Sally”).
Not all the famous folks from the Shoals are musicians. Tuscumbia was the birthplace of Helen Keller, an author, activist and lecturer born in 1880 who defied expectations as the first deaf and blind person to earn a bachelor of arts degree.
The Helen Keller Birthplace, called Ivy Green, is a museum located in her childhood home. It contains original family furnishings and many of Keller’s personal items, including her Braille typewriter, as well as gifts and awards presented to her during a lifetime of advocating for women and the disabled, including the Theodore Roosevelt Distinguished Service Medal (1936) and the Presidential Medal of Freedom (1964).
Traditionally the Helen Keller Festival is held every June in Spring Park in Tuscumbia. A highlight is a production at the Helen Keller Birthplace of the beloved play about Keller’s life, “The Miracle Worker.” Unfortunately, this year’s festival has been canceled due to COVID-19. Next year’s festival is scheduled for June 24-27, 2021.
Native American heritage also has deep roots in the Shoals. The Florence Indian Mound and Museum preserves grounds still considered sacred to many Southeastern indigenous tribes. Visitors can explore the 42-foot mound, which dates back to AD 100, and learn about ancient cultures at the museum.
The natural beauty of the Shoals shines through in three must-see locations. The 300-acre Shoal Creek Preserve north of Florence abounds with waterfalls, woods and trails for hiking, mountain biking and horseback riding. Visitors who call ahead to the private Cane Creek Canyon Nature Preserve in Tuscumbia will be welcomed by owners of the 700-acre property featuring a waterfall, 15 miles trails and natural beauty as far as the eye can see. There’s also a 48-foot waterfall in the heart of Tuscumbia’s Spring Park, a popular spot for outdoor performances and picnics. On most evenings, a choreographed water and light show is staged at the foot of the falls. Kids (and grownups, too) can hop a ride on a small roller coaster, a carousel or a train that meanders through the grounds.
Architecture lovers will want to visit the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Rosenbaum House, constructed between 1939 and 1940 for owners Stanley and Mildred Rosenbaum. It became the city of Florence’s property in 1999. Today, the public can tour the architectural gem that features multilevel roofs, cantilevered eaves and an open interior that connects to the natural world beyond the glass, brick and cypress construction. Among the furnishings are several original pieces also designed by Wright.
With all the Shoals has to offer, it’s worth putting off the return drive to Atlanta to take it all in. Along with a number of national hotel chains, including an expansive Marriott Resort and Spa, the Shoals offers some quaint overnight options. The Stricklin Hotel in downtown Florence is one such boutique property with 24 rooms on the second and third stories of a 1940s-era building. The first floor is home to Big Bad Breakfast, where mornings kick off with Anson Mills steel-cut oatmeal and strips of the house-cured Tabasco and brown sugar bacon. The bottom floor is The Boiler Room, a pub equipped with a bowling alley and games of darts, shuffleboard, Skee-Ball and more. A short stroll away is the Historic Zodiac Playhouse, a renovated 1948 space affectionately known as “The Z” where community theater productions and events are staged.
Just remember: The Shoals are in the Central Time Zone, so you’ll gain an hour when you go there, and you’ll lose it when you return home.
If You Go
Alabama’s Shoals region is about 260 miles from Atlanta along I-20 west.
What to see
Alabama Music Hall of Fame. 617 Hwy. 72 West, Tuscumbia. 256-381-4417, alamhof.org
Cane Creek Canyon Nature Preserve. 251 Loop Road, Tuscumbia. 256-381-6301
Cypress Moon Studios. 1000 Alabama Ave., Sheffield. 256-335-6961
FAME Recording Studio. 603 E. Avalon Ave., Muscle Shoals. 256-381-0801, famestudios.com
Florence Indian Mound Museum. 1028 S. Court St., Florence. 256-760-6427, www.facebook.com/FlorenceIndianMoundMuseum
Frank Lloyd Wright Rosenbaum House. 601 Riverview Drive, Florence. 256-718-5050, wrightinalabama.com
Helen Keller Birthplace. 300 N. Commons Street West, Tuscumbia. 256-383-4066, helenkellerbirthplace.org
Muscle Shoals Sound Studios. 3614 Jackson Hwy., Sheffield. 256-987-5151, muscleshoalssoundstudio.org
Shoal Creek Preserve. Wildwood Park Road, Florence. 256-740-4141
Spring Park. 1 Spring Park Road, Tuscumbia. 256-386-5655
W.C. Handy Museum. 620 W. College St., Florence. 256-760-6436, wchandymuseum.org
W.C. Handy Festival. July 27-26. Various venues. Tickets vary; many events are free. wchandymusicfestival.com
Zodiac Playhouse. 415 N. Court St., Florence. 256-768-5586, historiczodiacplayhouse.com
Where to stay
Marriott Shoals Hotel & Spa. $169.10 Hightower Place, Florence. 256-246-3600, marriott.com
The Stricklin Hotel. $159-$189.317 N. Court St., Florence. 256-248-9982, thestricklin.com
Where to eat
Big, Bad Breakfast. $4-$14.315 N Court St., Florence. 256-415-8545, bigbadbreakfast.com
City Hardware. $9-$19.105 N. Court St., Florence. 256-275-3666, cityhardwareflorence.com
Odette. $12-29.120 N. Court St., Florence. 256-349-5219, odettealabama.com
Colbert County. 256-383-0783, colbertcountytourism.org
Visit Florence. 256-740-4141, visitflorenceal.com
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