I recently visited Alabama and took a Cook’s tour of some of the major music sites including Muscle Shoals, Florence, Birmingham, and Montgomery, where diversity as well as African-American contributions to American music and culture are celebrated. My first stop was the Alabama Music Hall of Fame in Tuscumbia. Long a dream of the Muscle Shoals Music Association, the Hall of Fame opened in 1990. Inside, portraits cover the walls of all who have been inducted here, from Dinah Washington, W.C. Handy, Hank Williams and Sam Phillips to name just a few. Mightily impressed by this assemblage of musical greats, it brought home the important role Alabama has played in our musical heritage.
Among the Hall’s fun memorabilia is the tour bus for the group Alabama; I clambered aboard and got a true feeling for their life on the road. Then a group of us were given copies of the words to “Sweet Home Alabama” and ushered into a recording studio. To the actual Lynrd Skynrd music, we shamelessly belted out this wonderful song. I don’t know if we should have been grateful or dismayed, but we were each given a DVD of our efforts.
That evening, I returned to the Hall to see The Secret Sisters perform. The duo, Laura and Lydia Rogers, were discovered by T Bone Burnett. They charmed the audience with classics such as “Don’t Ya Love Me?” and “Why Baby Why?” with their effortless harmony. The music is of rural America, roots-filled and timeless. By the end of this amazing concert, we were all on our feet applauding the sisters before one could utter the words Bless your heart.
A visit to FAME Recording Studios, whose founder was the late renowned Rick Hall, was exciting as I toured the very studio where such iconic music as Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman” and the Rolling Stones’ “Wild Horses” album was recorded. I was captivated by intimate stories of Aretha Franklin, Duane Allman, The Osmonds, and Little Richard, all who recorded at FAME.
The Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame in Birmingham is an art deco museum honoring great jazz artists with ties to the state, including Nat King Cole, Duke Ellington, Lionel Hampton and Erskine Hawkins. Here I met a most charming gentleman, Dr. Frank Adams, (himself a Hall of Fame inductee). Now in his 90s but embodying the verve and joie de vivre of someone decades younger, Dr. Adams entertained with tales of the greats he’s performed with. He told of a lifelong crush he harbored on Ella Fitzgerald and though the lady wouldn’t give him the time of day, this never dampened his ardor.
Montgomery is the home of the great Hank Williams. I toured his museum and found it a most moving experience. One of the first things I saw upon entering was Williams’ baby-blue 1952 Cadillac on whose very backseat he died at the age of 29 (!)on his way to an Ohio gig. Hank Williams Jr. wrote a song called “This Country Boy Can Survive.” As I listened to the plaintive words, I couldn’t help but wish that his father – a sweet country boy - had survived much longer, and then the world would have had the benefit of more years of his incredible talent. The collection of Williams’ memorabilia is vast and complete – his rhinestone and spangle-decorated cowboy suits, his albums, his guitars and photographs. My Hank Williams’ homage ended at his gravesite in Oakwood Cemetery. The grounds surrounding the grave are covered with Astroturf, four tons of concrete and a cowboy hat resting forlornly atop his grave.
My Alabama visit was made all the more delightful as I guested at Birmingham’s own esteemed 103-year-old gem, The Tutwiler Hotel. It is located in the heart of Downtown Birmingham, and comes with its own history of several resident ghosts. For instance, there are accounts of knocking on doors in the middle of the night – loud, rapid knocks, only to quickly open and find no one sanding there. This particular ghost is known as the knocker and it’s believed to be a male spirit because he only knocks on the doors of women! I’m happy to report that during my stay – no knocks but still a lovely, mystical mood prevailed throughout.
For sure, Alabama had its seductive way with me. I left with a deep acquaintance with the talented musicians of yesterday as well as the very-much-alive musicians enhancing the music scene there today; and not least, I was warmed and charmed by the kindness I felt from Alabamians everywhere.
The philosopher/poet Santiz wrote: “Music speaks what cannot be expressed, soothes the mind and gives it rest, heals the heart and makes it whole, flows from heaven to the soul.” In Alabama, music does that and so much more!
If you go:
Alabama Tourism Department