Alabama has a truly eclectic history. Ever since Native Americans roamed the land to the first Europeans landing on its gulf shores, to the tragedy and triumph of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, to playing a key role in landing men on the moon, the story of the state has been one long, hard road.
One of the brightest spots in Alabama’s history is not commonly known to many — its musical heritage. Alabama is the birthplace of many legendary singers and songwriters such as Nat King Cole, Hank Williams, Jimmy Buffett, Dinah Washington, and more.
To truly experience the state, one needs to experience this musical heritage and the best way to do that is to take a musical road trip.
This road trip makes one giant 365-mile loop from the Muscle Shoals area to Decatur, Fort Payne, Birmingham, and the town of Red Bay visiting eight historic musical destinations plus one outlier outside the loop that I’ll tell you about that is still well worth the visit.
Pack up the bags, kick up the jams on the car radio, and let’s take a road trip to the music of Sweet Home Alabama.
1. Alabama Music Hall Of Fame
We begin our road trip in northwest Alabama for an overview of the incredible musical legacy the state continues to grow each year at the Alabama Music Hall of Fame.
The museum is overflowing with exhibits of artifacts from Alabama singers and songwriters including Hank Williams Sr, Nat King Cole, Jimmie Rodgers, Big Mama Thornton, Wet Willie, and many, many more.
While In Tuscumbia
After visiting the Alabama Music Hall of Fame, take time to visit Ivy Green, the birthplace of Helen Keller. It’s a fascinating look at the life of the young deaf and blind woman including the black water pump where her miracle began.
Visiting The Hall Of Fame
Always wanted to be a singer? Then book a recording appointment in the Alabama Music Hall of Fame’s recording studio! For only $20, you, your friends, and family can climb into the booth, clamp on the headphones, and sing together!
2. Fame Recording Studio
This is where the Muscle Shoals Sound all began. In 1959, Rick Hall, Billy Sherrill, and Tom Stafford opened the studio and the rest is history. Classic songs like Mustang Sally were recorded there by renowned R&B/Soul singer Wilson Pickett. Other artists who graced the Fame studios include Roy Orbison, Brenda Lee, and Tommy Roe. Add to the list current-day artists like Alicia Keys and Demi Lovato to name only a few.
Over the past 60 years, the studio has recorded records that have sold over 350 million copies.
While In Muscle Shoals
Located on the banks of the Tennessee River at Wilson Dam, the TVA Muscle Shoals Reservation offers visitors some outstanding outdoor recreation opportunities. The park has over 15 miles of dirt roads, paved footpaths, and jogging trails that take you to breathtaking views of the river and waterfall.
There are two tours you can take of the studios. The standard tour includes visits to historic studios A and B. The new backstage tour takes visitors deep inside the studio and offers a chance to see their walls of gold and platinum records and awards.
Tickets and tour times are limited so book them in advance online.
3. Muscle Shoals Sound Studio
The northwest corner of Alabama is known as the Shoals, named for one of the towns that make up the region called Muscle Shoals. In 1969, a group of session musicians called the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, aka The Swampers opened their recording studio that quickly became known worldwide with artists like Etta James, Aretha Franklin, Boz Scaggs, Bob Dylan, and even The Rolling Stones who recorded their hit song, “Brown Sugar” here.
The studio is still in operation and is one of the few open to the public. You never know who you might meet there.
More To Do In The Shoals
One of the most unique dining locations in the area is the Rattlesnake Saloon in Tuscumbia. Talk about a unique dining experience! The restaurant was built under a huge natural rock overhang. After it rains, a waterfall flows across the front of the restaurant. Oh, and the menu is simply delicious American cuisine.
Visiting The Sound Studio
Admission to the recording studio is $20 for adults, $10 for students, and children are free but you need to book your visit and reserve a tour time in advance online.
4. W.C. Handy Museum And Library Of African American Digital Music
Crossing the Tennessee River, we head north to Florence and the W.C. Handy Museum.
The museum houses many of Handy’s personal papers and artifacts including the piano where he used to write his songs and the log cabin where he lived.
While In Florence
Florence has an eclectic array of dining options from Alabama BBQ to down-home Southern comfort food, but nothing is quite like the fine dining experience at the Four Diamond Marriott 360 Grille. Perched high atop a tower, the Grille is the state’s only rotating restaurant offering you breathtaking views of the Tennessee River while you dine.
Visiting The Museum
Adult admission to the museum is $12 and $6 for children 15 or younger. Plan your visit the last week of July for the W.C. Handy Music Festival, and enjoy four days filled with over 300 musical events.
5. Brewer Library
Only 15-minutes north of Decatur in the town of Tanner, the Brewer Library houses the largest collection of memorabilia from one of the most popular bluegrass duos of the 1930s, Grand Ole Opry stars, the Delmore Brothers.
Included in the permanent exhibit are the duo’s awards, photographs, and original recordings.
The library is located on the campus of Calhoun Community College.
While In Tanner
There are many great restaurants in Red Bay to grab a bite to eat but one of my favorites is Swamp John’s. The fried catfish is incredible.
Visiting The Library
The library’s hours are variable so visit their website and contact the office for the latest hours and information about visitor parking on the campus. Admission is free.
6. Alabama Fan Club And Museum
Over 50 years ago, three cousins formed a band that changed country music history. After paying their dues, the band Alabama landed a recording contract and released 21 straight #1 singles including an anthem for the state, “My Home’s in Alabama.”
The Alabama Fan Club and Museum in the group’s hometown of Alabama bring their history to life with rooms full of personal items, awards, videos, and more.
Visiting Fort Payne
High atop Lookout Mountain, Fort Payne is a dream destination for outdoor lovers.
Visiting The Museum
The museum is open seven days a week (closed on major holidays) from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sundays from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Visit the band’s website for special events and concerts with proceeds benefiting local and national charities.
7. Alabama Jazz Hall Of Fame
Many greats in the world of music have come from Alabama and contributed to “America’s original art form,” jazz.
The Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame pays homage to these notables by preserving and illuminating their contributions through fascinating exhibits of memorabilia from Birmingham’s Clarence “Pinetop” Smith who played the first ever recorded piano blues solo, Montgomery’s Nat King Cole, Tuscaloosa’s Dinah Washington, the writer of the song “Tuxedo Junction,” Erskine Hawkins, and many more.
More To Do In Birmingham
When it comes to dining options, Birmingham can’t be beaten with an eclectic array of Southern comfort food, seafood, and barbecue. Here are seven amazing Birmingham restaurants you should try.
Visiting The Museum
Located in the historic Carver Theater, the museum is ready to reopen after renovations with a beautiful lobby, bar, and an expanded theater for concerts. Check their schedule for updates.
8. Red Bay Museum
Round out the circuit of our tour we head back to northwest Alabama and the tiny town of Red Bay and the Red Bay Museum where most of the top floor is dedicated to Mississippi native Tammy Wynette who would stay at the hotel while visiting friends and family in the nearby town of Tremont, Mississippi.
Visiting The Museum
The museum is open Tuesdays and Thursdays from 1:30 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. Admission is $5 for adults, $2 for students, and free for children six or under.
9. Hank Williams Museum
One more stop to make, and it’s a big one. Outside of the loop I just outlined, two hours south of Birmingham in Montgomery, you will find the Hank Williams Museum.
The story of “Luke the Drifter,” Hank Williams Sr., is well known. His songwriting and recordings like “Your Cheating Heart” and “Hey, Good Looking,” have been covered by thousands. Hank is recognized as country music’s first superstar.
The memorabilia included in the museum includes the blue Cadillac that Hank took his final ride in and more.
Visiting The Museum
The museum is a fascinating journey through Hank’s life any time of the year, but make plans to be there September 16-17, 2023, for his 100th birthday celebration.
For more tips on navigating through Alabama, click here: