Five Fotos (Vol. I): The Shoals in northwest Alabama

Wherein I attempt to capture a destination in five photographs. 

For the first of my Five Fotos series, we visit a region in northwest Alabama along the wide and majestic Tennessee River known as “the Shoals" comprised of four cities—Tuscumbia (birthplace of Helen Keller), Muscle Shoals (home of renowned FAME Studios, which stands for Florence Alabama Music Enterprises), Sheffield (home of Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, founded by the “Swampers” who started out at FAME), and Florence (the largest of the cities that sits on the north side of the river). 

There are many other little towns and unincorporated communities in the region, including Killen where my grandmother was born and raised. 

Even though I was born and raised in Birmingham less than two hours south, my first visit to the Shoals wasn't until the spring of 2023. I have no excuse but I'm glad I finally checked this important box on my travel bucket list.

Here are five photographs from my visit.

  • Muscle Shoals Sound Studio

This tiny, stand-alone concrete building by the side of the highway in Sheffield looks like it might house a hair saloon for trailer park folks, not a recording studio where the most iconic names in the music business have recorded. It's the main reason I chose to take a trip here. The tour of Muscle Shoals Sound Studio did not disappoint. No trip to the Shoals is complete without a stop to learn about the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, aka the Swampers, who ran the studio. A short list of acts that have been recorded in this building includes Cher (whose first solo album was named after the address and inspired the sign above the door), the Rolling Stones (who recorded three hits in three days here. Keith Richards called it rock 'n' roll heaven and polished off “Wild Horses” in the studio's bathroom), Paul Simon, Bob Seger, and Rod Stewart. But the story is incomplete without a tour of nearby FAME Recording Studios where the Swampers got their start and so many other hits of the 1960s and '70s were recorded by Rick Hall. To gain a proper overview before taking a music pilgrimage, the 2013 documentary “Muscle Shoals” is required viewing. 

  • Ivy Green: Helen Keller's Birthplace

Ivy Green in Tuscumbia is where Helen Keller was born and raised. Her indelible story can't be told without including the woman who made her breakthrough possible, Annie Sullivan. As anyone who's seen or read the play/film “The Miracle Worker” knows, the breakthrough moment for a young Helen Keller was at the water pump with Sullivan behind the family home. This is that spot. Helen Keller, with Annie by her side for the rest of her life, would go on to become one of the most famous people of her time.  Visitors to Ivy Green can tour the grounds, gardens, inside the home, and various outbuildings on what was originally a 640-acre estate. An outdoor theater on the grounds stages “The Miracle Worker” each summer. 

  • Belle Mont Mansion

Belle Mont was a pleasant surprise. I'd never heard of it before my visit. It was built in 1828. This hilltop manse is an architecture geek's dream. I'm not an architecture geek and I loved it. It has a lot to do with Thomas Jefferson and his influence on the architecture of the period. It looks like something you'd find in Jefferson's Virginia, not in Alabama. The people who had it built came from Virginia and had some very skilled slave labor. If you visit, your GPS will lead you to the wrong place (this is a remote area a few miles south of Tuscumbia). Drive a quarter-mile down the road from where your GPS takes you and turn left into the driveway. The lady at the manse said it was a problem they're trying to fix with big tech (good luck!). In this pic, you can see wildflowers blooming on the front slope amidst the cedar trees that have been standing for centuries framing the view. 

  • Rosenbaum House

More architecture for the architecture geeks. Apparently, Frank Lloyd Wright was arrogant and difficult to work with, but he designed some amazing structures that were way ahead of their time including the Rosenbaum House in Florence. It was built in 1940 but looks like something from the Space Age. When I showed up these architecture students were sketching the house. They were completely focused on the task at hand and never even gave so much as a side glance to me or the people in my travel group. I talked to the teacher overseeing the students and he told me that the spot where we were standing was where Wright had stood when he made his original renderings of the house that had yet to be built. The inside is even prettier than the outside and I could totally live here despite the low ceilings and narrow passageways. Were people smaller in the 1940s? 

  • Rattlesnake Saloon

I've heard about this place for years. Like Belle Mont, the Rattlesnake Saloon is in a remote, hilly area south of Tuscumbia. Unlike Belle Mont, you can eat and drink and listen to live music in the mouth of a cave here. You park and take a makeshift tram (see the pickup truck in the above picture) down to the saloon. I was here for lunch. They don't serve beer at lunch. You have to wait until after 5 p.m. for the beer. Someone told me that the place is standing-room-only in the evenings, especially when there's live music. Lodging is available in old grain silos and there's a campground. I can't vouch for the accommodations since I didn't stay overnight, but the burger I had was better than most and all the staff, from the tram driver to the servers, were great. Wish I could've had a beer for lunch, though. But, hey, this is Alabama. Sweet home. 

— Blake Guthrie