Sounds of the South

Whether you attribute the distinctive Muscle Shoals sound to a group of creative, driven people who were passionate about music or you believe the folklore about a Native American girl who sang with the Tennessee River as it flowed through the region, the legendary studios in the Shoals became ground zero for some of the biggest hits ever recorded. Aretha Franklin recorded her unforgettable “I Never Loved a Man (the Way I Loved You)” there in 1967. And she was soon followed by artists such as The Rolling Stones, Rod Stewart, Cher, Bob Seger, Willie Nelson and Percy Sledge.

FAME Studios and Muscle Shoals Sound Studios worked magic in the ‘60s and ‘70s — the Stones’ Keith Richards called it ‘Rock and Roll Heaven’ but by the 1980s, the studio at 3614 Jackson Highway was no longer in use and the building was deteriorating.

The magic never really left the Shoals and the area once again gained worldwide attention when the Muscle Shoals documentary was released in 2013. Soon after, Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine created a charitable division of Beat Electronics. Their first project was the restoration of Muscle Shoals Sound Studios to the authentic state of the its heyday.

“The documentary was the catalyst that reignited the spark that made this area the hit recording capital of the world,” says
Judy Hood. “The documentary rocked our world in the best possible way.”

Judy grew up in Sheffield and has been a marketing and communications leader for more than four decades, working with the TimesDaily newspaper, Alabama Music Hall of Fame, Coffee Health Group and International Paper before creating her own consulting company.

Her personal ties to local music history run deeper than her professional relationships in the region. Her husband is Swamper bassist David Hood and her stepson is Patterson Hood, co-founder of the band Drive-By Truckers.

When the award-winning documentary brought a renewed interest to Muscle Shoals, the Florence-Lauderdale Tourism Center began receiving requests for tours of local studios and the Alabama Music Hall of Fame. The tourism center staff turned to Judy for help and the Swampette Tours were born.

“Since I’m married to a Swamper, I have always jokingly called myself a ‘Swampette.’ That’s why we called them the Swampette Tours,” Judy says.

The interactive tours are about sharing the magic of the music. You’ll get an insider’s look and behind-the-scenes perspective of the iconic studios where singers and musicians like James Brown, Paul Simon, Jimmy Buffett, Duane Allman and Mavis Staples worked.

The tour begins at the Florence-Lauderdale Tourism Center with the Muscle Shoals movie trailer. Then, you’ll travel by trolley bus to the FAME recording studio, the original Muscle Shoals Sound Studio at 3614 Jackson Highway and the Alabama Music Hall of Fame. Thousands of people from across the U.S. and around the world have taken the tour.

“It’s always interesting to see the reactions from people when they step into Studio A at FAME or when they walk through the door at 3614 Jackson Highway. Sometimes they get a bit emotional. It’s not unusual for grown men to shed tears when they enter these sacred spaces,” Judy says. “The music that was recorded here was the soundtrack of so many lives.”

The tours are small (less than 40 people per group) which makes the experience more intimate. While the tours have been given only on a few dates per year in the past, that may soon change. Judy says more Swampettes have been recruited and she plans training sessions so tours can happen more often.

Muscle Shoals is a 5-hour drive from Dothan so plan for a weekend getaway. To learn more about the Swampette Tours or to find lodging recommendations, go to www.visitflorenceal.com. The critically acclaimed documentary about Muscle Shoals is available through online streaming services.