Blues harmonica player at Alley Bar, Montgomery, Alabama. photos by Margie Goldsmith.
Singing the Blues in Alabama
This is “The Year of Alabama Music,” and over 200 music festivals are taking place throughout the state. Help Alabamans recover from the devastating tornados and get a blues history and culture fix you won't find anywhere else in the world.
The first musician to write out 12-bar blues sheet music was Florence, Alabama native, W.C. Handy. Known as the Father of the Blues, he wrote Memphis Blues, St. Louis Blues, and Beale Street Blues. The log cabin where Handy was born has been preserved in downtown Florence along with his original sheet music, trumpet, and piano. Every November 16th
Florence honors him with a birthday party at the museum and a weeklong W.C. Handy Music Festival, which will be held this July 22-31st.
Stroll down the main street of Florence – even in the morning -- and you will likely hear live music, often where you least expect it. When I was there, a live impromptu band was performing at Billy Reid’s, a high-end clothing shop. I walked in, sat on a bench, and found myself foot tapping, hand clapping and bobbing my head up and down among racks of trendy men’s clothes.
The blues may be about loneliness and heartache, sad times and bad times, but they lift the spirit as surely as a Sunday Church service -- and after all, both are about taming the devil.
A local woman tapping her feet and sitting next to me pointed to one of the band members in the store and whispered, “Do you know who that is? David Hood, from the original Swampers Band”
If the word swampers sounds familiar, it’s because in Lynyrd Skynynd’s Sweet Home Alabama, the lyrics include: “Muscle Shoals has got The Swampers, and they've been known to pick a song or two.”
Nat King Cole figure at the Alabama Music Hall of Fame.
The Swampers is the nickname that Leon Russell gave to a Muscle Shoals session band because these musicians, hired by the hour or day, could play anything with anyone.
But it was the distinct Muscle Shoals sound that made musicians flock here, the hillbilly/blues/gospel combination created when black artists added white country to their music and white artists mixed black blues and gospel with their traditional music.
Muscle Shoals is one of the northwestern Alabama Quad Cities, which include Florence, Sheffield and Tuscumbia, all just a short drive from each other. Known as the "Hit Recording Capital of the World” from 1970 until around 1985, just about every major artist recorded here including Aretha Franklin, the Rolling Stones, Paul Simon, Eric Clapton, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and the Allman Brothers.
Legend has it that all music comes from Muscle Shoals, which was named by the Native Americans who called it that because it took so much muscle to portage the heavy canoes across the shoals of the Tennessee River. The Cherokees called the river “The Singing River” because the water passing over the rocks made a melodious sound like a woman singing.
Three girls going to their graduation prom in Florence, Alabama.
There used to be a dozen commercial recording studios in the area, including FAME (Florence Alabama Music Enterprises). Founded in 1959 by songwriter/musician Rick Hall (who was largely responsible for making music happen here), FAME was not only the Swamper’s original home, but the studio turned out countless hits including Percy Sledge’s "When a Man Loves a Woman," Aretha Franklin’s "I Never Loved a Man," Wilson Picket’s "Mustang Sally," and the Staple Sisters "I’ll Take You There."
FAME is still a working sound studio and the ideal place to learn about the history of the blues. Book a tour in advance with Terry Pace, a professor the Department of English at the University of North Alabama, who also teaches courses in the history of Muscle Shoals music.
Pace explained that Gregg Allman came to Muscle Shoals hoping to meet with Rick Hall, who kept ignoring him. For months, Allman camped outside the studios in a tent. They called him Skydog because he was always high and looked like a long-haired shaggy dog. Finally, Hall auditioned him and Allman was hired as a session musician before he created the Allman Brothers Band.
Just then, Rick Hall walked into the room and introduced himself. I asked him about the early days when music was racially divided. “It was no trouble at all. It was like cornbread and buttermilk. The racial issue didn’t prevent any musician from playing at FAME except Ray Charles, who refused to come because of it."
Hall paused, and then said, “Back in the old days, there was a huge chance of coming to Muscle Shoals and having a hit recording. But now,” Hall’s voice dropped an octave, “no music is being made for people over 40. We need something for middle-aged people to buy. The music business is on its knees.”
Alabama Music Hall of Fame
Hank Williams Museum, Montgomery, Alabama.
The Alabama Music Hall of Fame in Tuscumbia has Ella Fitzgerald’s eyeglasses (very thick due to her diabetes), the hippy jeans that Toni Tennille hand-embroidered after recording Love Will Keep Us Together, and the group, Alabama’s tour bus. There’s also a recording booth where I laid down my own vocal to a track of Sweet Home Alabama.
It’s not just the music that makes Alabama so special – it’s also the people who radiate with true southern hospitality. They’re friendly, always smiling, and always ready to stop and answer your questions or even lead you to your destination. One waitress said to me, “We love visitors, and we treat you so many ways you gotta love one of them.”
Then she asked me, ”What are you fixin’ to eat?” (I was fixin’ to eat lip-smacking ribs and grits at Dreamland Bar-b-que). I always thought “Bless Your Heart,” meant exactly what it says, but, depending on how you say it, can also mean, ‘you dumb ___ ‘(add your own word). What I loved best was hearing the contraction, “Y’all” appended to every question or comment. “How’re y’all?” “Where y’all going?” “Y’all come back soon.”
Happily, Alabama is highly affordable. The hotel rooms are reasonable and the gourmet restaurants have down-to-earth prices, such as the Hot & Hot Fish Club with entries including wood oven roasted triggerfish with snap beans, favos, and grilled leeks). Even concert prices are inexpensive.
Meeting The Secret Sisters
One evening, the Alabama Music Hall of Fame was having a fund-raiser and two local musicians, the Secret Sisters, were playing. Though just in their twenties, the sisters have already played with Elton John and Willie Nelson, and T-Bone Burnett produced their first album. I was anxious to see them, but as a New Yorker, I figured fund-raiser seats would be in the hundreds of dollars. Nope – tickets were $30 apiece.
Legendary Henry Gipson, founder of Gip's Juke Joint, Bessemer, Alabama
Not only did I meet the Secret Sisters after the show (and now have their signed CD), but when I returned to the Marriott Shoals Hotel & Spa, I heard more live music. The hotel bar, Swampers, is one of the hottest music bars in town. On stage was a local band that included Jerry Phillips (son of Sam Phillips, who recorded Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins among a ton of others).
Jerry, who can’t be more than five feet tall, was singing, “Six foot, five foot, four foot, three, it don’t make no difference to me.... cuz you’re never too short to rock.” Now how can you not love a guy who sings a song like that?
The last day of my trip, I headed to Gip’s Place, an authentic juke joint in Bessemer, open only Saturday nights. Juke joints were originally ramshackle huts on the other side of the tracks (to keep the white folks and sheriff away). Here, local musicians gathered and played the blues.
Today, there are only a few of these places left, and Gip’s is one of them, a shack on the property of 89-year-old Henry Gipson, known as Gip. Gipson is a grave digger (even though he owns the cemetery); he plays guitar and sings the blues. Around for 50 years, all the great blues musicians from Muddy Walters and Sonny Boy Terry to Ike and Tina Turner have played at Gip’s Place. And though it’s no bigger than a two-car garage, the crowds spill onto the lawn and the music is always sizzling blues.
The night I went, blues musician Lenny Madden (who also runs the place) was onstage playing a cigar box guitar, Gip was singing, and drummer Shaun Isbell (who kept one drumstick in his mouth and one under his armpit) tapped his bare hands perfectly on the faux leopard-skin kit keeping the beat.
Lenny took the mike and said, “There’s only two rules here: “No cussing, and men don’t leave your woman behind.” And then Gip said, “The blues ain’t got no color. Now y‘all have a good time.”
Guitars of the famous line the walls at Swamper's Bar in Muscle Shoals, Alabama
The blues are songs about bad luck and trouble, but the blues are not sad. Willie King, a legendary Alabama musician said, “You gotta participate in the blues, and shake them off you.” And I was shaking them off -- drenched in sweat from dancing, hoarse from hollering, hands red from clapping, and happier and more carefree than I’ve been in ages.
And then, just a week after I returned home, the Alabama tornados took place. I phoned Lenny Madden. Was everyone at Gip’s okay? Everybody was fine, he assured me.
“And Gip’s Place?” I asked. Surely it had to be in pieces.
“Gip’s is fine,” Lenny said. ”Don’t forget it’s already a hole in the ground. It ain’t goin’ nowhere, so y’all come back.”
I will. And if you care about the blues, please head for Alabama soon. Tourism is open for business. Blues are being played everywhere, from Birmingham to Muscle Shoals to Montgomery. So head for the music to clap, tap, and scream your lungs out. Mere weather has never hindered the blues.
FOR MORE INFORMATION ON ALABAMA: www.alabama.travel.
TO HELP ALABAMA: www.servealabama.gov
W. C. Handy Home, Museum & Library 620 West College Street, Florence (256) 760-6434
Muscle Shoals Records/FAME Music Group
603 East Avalon Avenue, Muscle Shoals 256-381-0801 www.fame2.com
Terry Pace (group or private tour of FAME) 256-366-4512 or: firstname.lastname@example.org).
Alabama Music Hall of Fame 617 Highway 72, West,
Tuscumbia (800) 239-2643 www.alamhof.org
Gip’s Place 3101 Ave. C, Bessemer, AL, 35020
Hot & Hot Fish Club
2180 11th Court South
Frank’s Italian Restaurant
104 South Main Street
Tuscumbia, AL 35674-2429
Shrimp and grits from Hot Hot Fish Club.
The Bronzeback Café at the Marriott Shoals
800 Cox Creek Pkwy S
Florence, AL 35630
Dreamland Bar-b-que 101 Tallapoosa St., The Alley, Montgomery
Florence: Marriott Shoals
Birmingham: Renaissance Ross Bridge Golf Resort and Spa
Montgomery: Renaissance Montgomery Hotel and Spa
Margie Goldsmith has hiked, biked, climbed, Deepelled, ZORBed, paddled, test-driven $200,000-cars, done marathons and triathlons, and luxuriated on seven continents and 118 countries and written about them all. She blogs for HuffPost, is Travel Editor for Women’s Running, and writes for publications including Elite Traveler, Robb Report, ForbesLife, Parade, Islands, and many others. Visit her website, mgproductions.com or search her at www.huffingtonpost.com
Read more articles about Alabama on GoNOMAD