As a finale to your time discovering Alabama, consider exploring The Shoals—the quad cities of Florence, Muscle Shoals, Sheffield, and Tuscumbia—rich in musical and cultural history and noted for having a magnetic feel and incredible connection with water. Learn how landscape influences life and life reflects landscape.
Tour studios where some of the greatest hit records were recorded by legends, including Aretha Franklin, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Rod Stewart, Etta James, Paul Simon, Linda Ronstadt, Clarence Carter, Willie Nelson, Steve Winwood, and Little Richard. Learn about the influential and talented "Swampers," the nickname of the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section providing the country-funk magic heard on popular cuts as Aretha Franklin's "Respect," Bob Seger's "Old Time Rock and Roll," and Wilson Pickett's "Mustang Sally."
At the Alabama Music Hall of Fame—a must-visit for music fans—check out the exhibits and personal memorabilia of inductees Nat King Cole, Hank Williams, Percy Sledge, Jim Nabors, and many more.
Honor the "Father of the Blues," W.C. Handy, by touring his home and museum that features the world's most complete collection of Handy's personal papers and artifacts. Creator of beloved songs including "St. Louis Blues" and "Beale Street Blues," this musical prodigy was influenced by sounds found in the natural world here, listening to Cypress Creek and visualizing birdcalls as notes on a scale.
Stop by inspirational Ivy Green, the birthplace of one of history's most remarkable women, Helen Keller. Stricken with a severe illness at the tender age of 19 months, she was completely deaf, mute, and blind. Communicating with the world through gestures, fittingly, the first word she learned here in the Shoals was "water." Touch the actual well pump where Keller, at age seven, made her breakthrough. See mementos, including Keller's Braille typewriter, and discover her amazing life of trials and triumphs dedicated to improving the conditions of blind and deaf around the world.
Day 5: Birmingham / The Shoals / Florence
Welcome to Florence! The city was surveyed for the Cypress Land Company in 1818 by Italian Ferdinand Sannoner who named it after the capital of the Tuscany region of Italy. Florence is home to several museums, historical sites, and numerous parks to serve residents and guests.
Arrive early evening to check in to the hotel.
Dinner is at leisure, with a wide range of options from elevated dining, to delicious barbeque, to sandwich shops. Those wishing to relax and stay "in" may explore the hotel's upscale gaming space called The Boiler Room for entertainment and an assortment of sandwiches, salads, and a full bar.
Overnight: The Stricklin Hotel
Day 6: Florence / Muscle Shoals / Florence
Begin the day with a hearty meal at Big Bad Breakfast, a restaurant adjoining the hotel. Experience chef and founder John Currence's love affair with the "most important meal of the day," and gain a greater sense of the role food plays in the culture of the South. Currence won the James Beard Award in 2009, and is the author of two cookbooks, including the title, Pickles, Pigs and Whiskey: Food from My Three Favorite Food Groups and Then Some. Savor southern staples, such as fresh biscuits, preserves, and locally roasted coffee.
The Athenian philosopher Plato said music "gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and charm and gaiety to life and to everything." Celebrate music by embarking upon a journey visiting one of the most influential areas in American music history. People often associate such a lofty description with Nashville or Memphis, but equally deserving are a grouping of towns dotted along the Tennessee River—Muscle Shoals, Sheffield, Tuscumbia, and Florence—known collectively by locals as simply, "The Shoals."
To appreciate the depth and vitality of music here, one must understand its rich and fertile roots. Archaeological evidence suggests music played an important role in the lives of Native American peoples who inhabited these lands before the arrival of the first European settlers. Legend holds the Tennessee River was referred to as the "singing river," home to a spirit who sings louder when the water is flowing quickly, and softer when the body is peaceful. The Cherokee were one of the three major nations residing in the Tennessee Valley before the abominable Indian Removal Act. For some Native Americans, the voice of the river was said to be a guide back home.
Later, many of the white settlers who moved into the region were of Scots-Irish descent, and brought with them Celtic traditions and a love of the fiddle. Meanwhile, African slaves working the cotton fields of area plantations exhibited their own musical traditions, including chants and spirituals. The resulting sound of this "melting pot" as described by Florence native and Sun Records founder Sam Phillips perhaps explains it best: "When I was growing up, we heard it all… in the fields we heard the black man’s blues, in the churches we heard black spirituals and white gospel, and on the radio we heard the Grand Ole Opry… out of that we created a sound that’s hard to define... because it includes the best elements of all those tremendous sources."
Step aboard the Florence trolley for a unique and fun musical odyssey. Experience the enduring and powerful legacy of this local sound visiting the recording studios that shaped some of the greatest music ever made. In the 1960s, notable hits like "When a Man Loves a Woman" were recorded with black and white artists coming together when the rest of the country was divided. With the power of music able to leap across barriers and unite people of different cultural backgrounds, learn why Irish band U2's frontman Bono has described the Muscle Shoals area studios as "humble shells ... [that] contained an empire that crossed race and creed ... It was revolutionary." Discover the stories of songwriters and musicians whose work earned this area of Alabama the nickname as the "Hit Recording Capital of the World."
Still a working facility, FAME Recording Studios was co-founded by pioneer Rick Hall and host to artists such as Percy Sledge, Tom Jones, Wilson Pickett, Mac Davis, and Candi Staton among many, many others. In late 1961, Hall produced Muscle Shoals' first hit record with Arthur Alexander. Hall also produced Etta James' acclaimed Tell Mama album. Aretha Franklin, after being dropped from her music label because no one knew what to do with her amazing voice, cut a song here and found her essence that became a turning point in a career on the way to becoming the "Queen of Soul." In the last 50 years, FAME recorded or published music selling over 350 million copies.
Following FAME, tour a small, nondescript building in Sheffield known as the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio at 3614 Jackson Highway. Not your typical hands-off museum, guests are encouraged to play the piano here where rock and roll was recorded, such as the Rolling Stones' "Brown Sugar" and "Wild Horses."
The house band known affectionately as the "Swampers" (who originally formed to play for FAME studios) is widely regarded as one of the most important American recording studio bands in the golden age of rock and soul. Artists who have collaborated with these talented musicians and benefitted from the area's lack of distractions include a "who's who" of rock and roll and rhythm and blues: Dire Straits, Big Joe Turner, Carlos Santana, Joe Cocker, Gregg Allman, Jimmy Buffett, Melissa Etheridge, Johnnie Taylor, and Bobby "Blue" Bland. Hear interesting tidbits about favorite songs here you won't learn anywhere else! Bob Seger's nostalgic song "Mainstreet" was recorded with the Swampers, as was a demo of "Old Time Rock and Roll." Did you know Seger recorded "Old Time Rock and Roll" with his own band, but didn't feel it had the same sound? He bought the demo from the Swampers and laid his vocals over it. Paul Simon came to Alabama planning to record one song for his album There Goes Rhymin' Simon. But the Swampers' chameleon-like ability to blend with differing artists meant they picked up on Simon's music quickly and ended up recording five songs, including the well-known "Kodachrome." The Swampers are referred to in the lyrics of "Sweet Home Alabama" by Lynyrd Skynyrd and appear on the cover of Cher's 1969 album, 3614 Jackson Highway.
Lunch is at leisure today before rounding out the studio visits with Cypress Moon Studios. Located on the beautiful Tennessee River, the Swampers moved here in 1977 after outgrowing the building on Jackson Highway. Step inside where Dr. Hook, The Commodores, and Julian Lennon, son of John Lennon, have found inspiration. Lennon penned his lyric "Sitting on a pebble by the river playing guitar" for the song "Valotte" after spending time in the Shoals. Today Cypress Moon is a concert venue, recording studio, and film production facility. Movies produced by the studio include When I Find the Ocean, recipient of five Dove Awards, and The Story of Bonnie and Clyde.
Afterwards, return to the hotel to rest and refresh before relishing an afternoon of independent exploration. With its own unique brand of southern charm, Florence is a welcome haven for musicians, artists, designers, chefs, and entrepreneurs. Fashion designers Billy Reid and Natalie Chanin both have flagship stores here. Guests never know who they might encounter! The city offers guests the opportunity to mingle with locals and enjoy a craft beer or two, delve into Native American heritage at the Florence Indian Mound Museum, inspect a plethora of antiques and Civil War artifacts at Pope's Tavern, search a Frank Lloyd Wright designed property known as the Rosenbaum House, or get back to nature with croplands, rolling grasslands, and wildlife at Key Cave National Wildlife Refuge.
Overnight: The Stricklin Hotel (B)
Day 7: Florence / The Shoals / Birmingham / Depart Birmingham
Enjoy a final breakfast at Big Bad Breakfast before heading out to discover more lives of Alabama natives who have changed the world.
At the home of educator and humanitarian Helen Keller, learn how she overcame the adversity of being blind and deaf to graduate cum laude from college and co-found the American Civil Liberties Union. Did you know at age 75 she embarked upon a 40,000-mile, five-month trek across Asia? Feel uplifted witnessing the well pump where teacher Anne Sullivan miraculously reached into the dark and silent world of young Helen Keller's mind in this remarkable life story of determination. Stroll the home's grounds nestled beneath a canopy of English boxwoods, magnolia, and mimosa trees accented with flowers and English Ivy (from which the estate receives its name).
Next honor the legacy of Florence native William Christopher Handy, the Father of the Blues, by stopping at the W.C. Handy Home and Museum. Born in 1873, as the son and grandson of Methodist ministers, he showed his love of music at an early age. While his father was staunchly opposed to secular musicianship for his son, W.C. held fast and became a bandleader in 1896, traveling the U.S. and Cuba to perform. Delight in the opportunity to behold Handy's original sheet music, famous trumpet, and personal piano on display. His work continues to shine in music today, with his songs continually reinterpreted in idioms of blues, jazz, and pop.
Lunch is at leisure. Check out nostalgic shops such as Trowbridge's, which has been open for over a hundred years, and is the state's oldest ice cream parlor. Perhaps try the orange-pineapple ice cream included in the guide, "100 Dishes to Eat in Alabama Before You Die" produced by the Alabama Tourism Department.
Round out this musical adventure with a trip to the Alabama Music Hall of Fame. Honoring all styles of music and dedicated to the preservation and celebration of Alabama's musicians, this facility showcases talented individuals and their accomplishments. View the interesting and informative collections that include the tour bus for the band named Alabama. For a small fee, live the life of a music star (if only momentarily) by creating your very own demo recording in the studio!
Guests will then take the complimentary group transfer to Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport for flights home. (B)
B = Breakfast
This post-tour is not escorted by an Orbridge Travel Director. Included sightseeing is accompanied by a local guide. Space is limited, so it's recommended to reserve early for best availability.
It is our expectation that guests on this program are able to walk a mile at a moderate pace, get in and out of a motor coach, and walk up a flight of stairs without assistance.
The Stricklin Hotel
Relaxed, air-conditioned rooms featuring wooden floors and exposed brick walls provide guests of the Stricklin Hotel in downtown Florence, Alabama an inviting place to unwind and re-charge. While dining at the restaurant for breakfast, guests may choose among such rich staples as homemade biscuits, grits, and chicken and waffles, or opt for leaner options including avocado toast, steel-cut oatmeal, and sun-dried cranberry and almond granola. Guests will find entertainment in the basement of the building at The Boiler Room—an upscale gaming space with vintage-style bowling lanes, foosball, skeeball, shuffleboard, darts, live music on select nights, and more for a fun option to cap off the day.
Room Amenities: Individual climate control, writing desk and chair, cable/satellite TV, complimentary Wi-Fi, alarm clock, phone, coffee and tea maker, mini-fridge, minibar, safe, iron and ironing board, and en suite bathroom with sundries and hair dryer.
Post-tour rate is per person based on double occupancy except where noted as Single, in U.S. dollars. Single availability limited. Airfare not included.
- 2 nights accommodations at The Stricklin Hotel with a Southern-style breakfast each morning
- Admission and fees for included activities
- Gratuities to local guides and drivers
- Private transportation
- Airport transfers for guests departing during the suggested times