February 28, 2019
For fans of 20th century popular music, nothing compares to a pilgrimage through the American South
The classic road trip itinerary includes Nashville, Memphis and New Orleans, perhaps with a stretch of Mississippi’s Highway 61 for good measure, or a quick Texan detour to experience Austin’s legendary live music scene.
But Alabama often flies under the radar, despite a profound role in the history of American popular culture. Hank Williams was born here, as was ‘father of the blues’ W.C Handy. In the northwest corner of the state, two tiny recording studios produced some of the most important, life-changing music of the last century. Further south in Birmingham and beyond, you’ll find rowdy Southern rock and soul-stirring gospel alongside one of the last-standing juke joints in the United States. To miss out Alabama is to miss a vital part of the story of American music.
Fly to Atlanta with Virgin Atlantic and Alabama will be on your doorstep. You can easily discover our musical highlights on a two-night side trip from ATL, or make them your first port of call on a wider journey through the Deep South.
From downtown Atlanta it’s a straightforward three-hour drive to Birmingham, a former railroad and industrial hub. The largest city in Alabama is best known for its pivotal role in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, but today it’s undergoing something of a renaissance, with award-winning restaurants, new parks and public art, and a small but booming craft beer scene.
While there’s plenty to occupy our time in Birmingham, we’re here for something slightly off the tourist trail. Our destination is around 30 minutes southwest of the city in the small town of Bessemer, where in a scrappy backyard one of the last authentic blues joints in the nation has been opening its doors to musicians and fans since 1952.
The ramshackle roadhouse is not easy to find, and unless you’re a hardcore blues fan, not even that well known. Turning off the busy highway onto pitch black streets, it’s hard to imagine it actually exists. But just as we’re about to give up, a line of pick-up trucks appears in the distance and the sound of a twangy guitar fills the air. We’ve made it.
For Americana-seeking Brits, Gip’s Place is the stuff of road trip dreams. The rickety abode belongs to 98-year-old singer, blues guitarist, cemetery owner and gravedigger Henry “Gip” Gipson, who’s been inviting musicians to play at his Saturday night sessions for more than 65 years – an incredible run considering his various run-ins with the authorities over traffic, noise and liquor laws.
Down a dimly lit driveway, the venue announces itself through a haze of barbecue smoke and the plod of a twelve bar blues. A small crowd of people gathered outside share beers from personal coolers (it’s bring your own booze), while 60 or more are crammed hip to hip into Gip’s converted outhouse where a local band are playing on a plywood stage. Down at the front, some are jiving hard: young, old, black, white. Others stay seated but foot-stomp in time, mopping sweaty brows and erupting into appreciative cheers at the end of each song. The atmosphere is joyous.
When the band take a break, a dapper figure in a white fedora takes a chair at the side of the stage. He picks up his guitar and starts to sing, eyes fixed straight ahead. Gip’s voice is a little shaky now, but at two years shy of 100 years old, his fingers can still find a tune. Whatever he sounds like at 98, he’s long since acquired the status of legend around these parts. Just ask Keith Richards or Jimmy Page – both have made unscheduled appearances in his soulful tin-roofed shack.
Next to us at the back, a man holds a cowboy hat to his chest and cranes for a better view. His name is Elliott and he’s a college student in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, from where he’s driven more than 800 miles to be here tonight. “It took about 13 hours,” he said. “My dad always talked about this place. He wanted me to come and experience it before it’s too late. So I finally did it. You never know how long these things are going to last, you know?”
Gip’s Place, 3101 Ave C, Bessemer, Alabama 35020. Saturday nights only, 8pm.
A two-hour drive north towards the Tennessee border brings us to Muscle Shoals, the self-proclaimed Hit Recording Capital of the World.
The area has long been sacred ground in musical circles, but it was brought to wider prominence in 2013 with the release of an acclaimed documentary about the extraordinary string of hits recorded here in the 1960s and 70s, including Aretha Franklin’s I Never Loved a Man (the Way I Love You), Etta James’ I’d Rather Go Blind, Percy Sledge’s When a Man Loves a Woman and Brown Sugar by the Rolling Stones.
Record producer Rick Hall is known as the ‘father of the Muscle Shoals Sound’. Overcoming multiple tragedies and relentless poverty in his early life, he founded FAME Recording Studio in 1959 and put together a supremely talented rhythm section known as the Swampers, who went on to become one of the most sought after in-house session bands in the world. Early wins included hits by Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett and Aretha Franklin, who credited Hall for taking her on as a moderately successful artist and turning her into the ‘Queen of Soul’.
Lured by funding from Jerry Wexler, the head of Atlantic Records – who had fallen out with Hall – the Swampers parted company with FAME at the end of the sixties and established Muscle Shoals Sound Studio nearby, setting up an intense rivalry in the process. Over the next few years the two studios between them turned this out-of-the-way corner of northern Alabama into a hotbed of talent, luring stars like Percy Sledge, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Elton John, Rod Stewart, Cher and the Osmonds away from more established recording locations in Los Angeles, Detroit and New York.
How did they do it? The Swampers themselves were of course a major draw, but according to Hall one of the main reasons for their success, especially in the early years, was because the studios paid no attention to the repressive racial segregation laws of the time. Blacks and whites could write, play and record together in harmony, which led to a culture of trust and creativity that gave birth to some of the most life-affirming music of the century.
Rick Hall died in 2018 but his legacy lives on in the Muscle Shoals area, where both studios continue to operate to this day.
Separate guided tours of the two studios are led by industry professionals with encyclopaedic knowledge of American music history.
Once a coffin showroom, Muscle Shoals Sound Studio has appeared on many album covers, and was restored in all its vintage glory in 2017 after a major investment by rapper and producer Dr. Dre. A working studio at night, the building can be toured at hourly intervals during the day, starting off in the publishing offices housed in the basement before heading up to the live room and mixing desk. Look out for the humble toilet where Keith Richards apparently locked himself away to finish writing Wild Horses before it was recorded in this very room in December 1969.
Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, 3614 N Jackson Hwy, Sheffield, Alabama 35660
FAME Recording Studios is also a working studio, and tours take place twice daily at 9 a.m and 4 p.m weekdays to fit around recording commitments, or from 10 a.m until 2 p.m on Saturdays.
FAME Recording Studios, 603 Avalon Ave, Muscle Shoals, Alabama 35661
If time is short, it’s a four-hour drive from Muscle Shoals back to Atlanta, or two hours to Nashville if you’re continuing your journey through America’s great music cities.
Check out some of the area’s other highlights while you’re on the road:
One of Birmingham’s must-sees is the excellent Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, across the street from the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church where a bomb blast killed four young African-American girls in 1963, marking a turning point in the Civil Rights Movement. Both are stops on the wider US Civil Rights Trail. Tours of the church are available throughout the week, or head to the Sunday morning service at 11am to hear the uplifting gospel choir.
Sit down, New York and L.A. Birmingham’s elegant Highlands Bar & Grill was voted America’s Most Outstanding Restaurant in the prestigious James Beard Foundation Awards last year, considered the ‘Oscars’ of the restaurant industry. The long-running venue in the historic Five Points South district also claimed a nation’s best award for its self-taught pastry chef Dolester Miles, whose signature coconut cake is the “superstar” of the entire French-infused Southern comfort food menu, according to our enthusiastic waiter.
Occupying the stately Empire Building in downtown Birmingham, the Elyton Hotel opened in 2017 and instantly became the most desirable digs in the city. Part of Marriott’s Autograph Collection, the 16-storey skyscraper is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, though its interior spaces have been re-imagined in a bold contemporary style. Book one of the bright, compact rooms complete with graphic print murals and marble showers, or tuck into pizza and mimosas at the low-slung rooftop terrace bar Moon Shine.
The trendy college town of Florence, Alabama is the most interesting place to stay when visiting the Muscle Shoals area. Hippest of all is the music, art and fashion-themed boutique hotel GunRunner on Tennessee Street – somewhere far removed from the chain hotels mostly found round these parts. The ten individually themed suites are huge – you could probably fit five people in the shower – and most have sofa beds, wet bars and bluetooth sound systems to boot, along with personal touches like bespoke artwork and guitars. They’re arranged around a seriously cool common area with polished wood floors and an industrial vibe, anchored by a central illuminated bar and cosy sitting areas.