On my way out of town, just let me reflect on what I’ve missed. I drove by the Helen Keller birthplace, which of course was closed,
and that’s a shame, because I figure there’s lots to learn in there. I remember reading about Helen Keller when I was little and being moved. There’s always more to learn… Also in Muscle Shoals I missed a Frank Lloyd Wright house. I’ve yet to visit one, and I do have some interest, but there can just be so much to choose between. One of these days.
On my way out, I crossed a few state lines
on my way to Memphis, where I’m crashing for the night at T.O. Fuller State Park. I’m a bit weary of cities, and hope after this one I can find some forests on my way to the next friend I’m heading for: see you soon, Larry!
After leaving FAME I was really losing my mind, you guys. I had to go park and have some quiet time before I could move on, to Muscle Shoals Sound Studio. David Hood, Jimmy Johnson, Roger Hawkins, and Barry Beckett started their careers as studio musicians at FAME, but left in 1969 to open their own studio, where they served as both owners and studio musicians; this is where they became known as the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section (inducted into the Alabama Hall of Fame as such). They were hailed as some of the finest studio musicians out there, with acts as big as the Rolling Stones coming into town to record in their studio. An anecdote from the documentary:
Paul Simon called Stax Records, said “Hey, man, I want those same Black players that played on ‘I’ll Take You There.'” They said, “That can happen, but these guys are mighty pale.”
(The joke here is that the four of them are white.)
I first learned about the Muscle Shoals Sound from a song.
Here, the tour was $15, and presented in a style much more suited to beginners: where Spencer at FAME is a sound engineer and apt to speak a bit over our non-professional heads (though happy to explicate where asked), the unnamed young man at Muscle Shoals Sound expected much less expertise. By this time, at my third stop of the day (and having some pre-study time put in, as a fan of these bands and having watched the documentary), Spencer’s style suited me a little better. But being in the place was, again, heady and nearly overwhelming. Here we talked a lot about the Swampers (nickname for the Rhythm Section, as immortalized in “Sweet Home Alabama” – go listen again and you’ll hear it), as well as Cher, the Stones, and Linda Ronstadt, among many others. I was amazed to hear we’d just missed David Hood, who’d been in recording just this week.
Jerry Wexler and Willie Nelson
The Stones’ Sticky Fingers: three tracks recorded here, including “Brown Sugar”
Muscle Shoals Sound Studio
foreground to back: Wurlitzer; Rod Stewart photo; control room
original studio lounge/speakeasy, from when this was a dry county
Cher’s handwritten note on her album 3614 Jackson Highway (after the studio’s address) – first album recorded here
David Hood’s corner
On my way into and out of town, I saw signs for places I’ve been hearing about in Truckers and Isbell songs for years: Russellville, Tuscumbia, Seven Mile Island; Lauderdale, Colbert, and Franklin counties. Wilson Dam, immortalized in a pair of Truckers songs by Cooley (“Uncle Frank“) and Isbell (“TVA“), respectively.
“all that backed up water had to have someplace to go”
I’ve seen some birds, particularly around the dam: American white pelicans, great blue herons, Canada geese, a few Eastern bluebirds, and throughout the area, lots and lots of American robins.
I am now exhausted and reeling from this brush with greatness. How will I recover? I just feel so lucky that there’s such good music in the world, and that I get to know about it.
If I have not entirely killed my audience with these two gushy posts, let me leave you with a Jason Isbell Tiny Desk Concert that you will not regret.
Whew. What a place for me to visit. I can scarcely say in a little ol’ blog post what this all means to me, but the Drive-By Truckers and Jason Isbell are some of the most important artists to me in the world. And their world to a large extent begins in a little town called Muscle Shoals, Alabama.
Muscle Shoals is also the nexus and birthplace of a huge amount of great music – seriously, if there’s music you love in the world, I’d bet money some of it originated in this little town. And the roots of so much good music. Again, I won’t attempt to tell you the whole story myself. You should check out an excellent documentary titled, yes, Muscle Shoals to get the scoop.
I knew that I had to visit on this trip, as a paying of respects.
I started my day at the Alabama Music Hall of Fame, which has not yet inducted any of my most personally held favorite Alabama musicians, but boy are there some good ones in there, though: Hank Williams, Emmylou Harris, Lionel Richie, Tammy Wynette, Percy Sledge, Sam Phillips, Nat King Cole, Rick Hall, Wilson Pickett, Eddie Hinton, Spooner Oldham, and the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section including David Hood (father to Patterson Hood, frontman of the Truckers). And so many more.
As a destination, the Hall of Fame is a bit run-down, but full of history and artifacts and lore. If you’re a fan of even a couple of these guys, I think it’s worth a visit. The $10 entry feels a hair steep, maybe, but I’m glad this place is here so I shrug and I pay it. I got some shots.
Isbell is not inducted – YET – but he got a mention right by the front door.
dress worn by Emmylou Harris
“This odd looking steel guitar, called ‘The Contraption,’ enabled Pappy Neal McCormick to change tunings rapidly while performing on network radio and television shows. Each neck would be tuned to a different key, and he could rotate the instrument quickly to the appropriate neck so as to avoid the need to retune.”
Eddie Hinton, hero to the Truckers and to me. he didn’t get much of a display despite being an inductee.
Next I visited FAME Studio, the fabled beginning of the famous Muscle Shoals sound. Rick Hall and two partners opened FAME in 1959; by 1961 he was solo, and immediately making history. I took a $10 tour that was worth every penny and then some – don’t ask what I then spent in the gift shop on a book, an album, a couple of stickers and a t-shirt. Tour guide Spencer was entertaining and chock-full of names and stories; it was a lot to take in and I couldn’t stop grinning. I was star-struck just being in the same room where so many greats have recorded. Aretha Franklin, Etta James, Percy Sledge, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Truckers, Isbell, Spooner Oldham, Band of Horses, Phish, Gregg Allman, Steven Tyler…
art on control board by Steven Tyler, who turned out to be a really cool guy, they say
Isbell’s handwritten lyrics, “Decoration Day”
the Wurlitzer where Spooner Oldham added the licks to hits by Percy Sledge and Aretha Franklin
Isbell’s handwritten lyrics, “Outfit”
control board with Rodney Hall (Rick’s youngest son) at work
where all the magic has happened: Studio A
Studio B, the newer, larger space, is a mess right now as they bring in some new equipment
they’re very proud of Isbell, who recorded his first three solo albums here
piano that Alicia Keys recorded on
There’s more. But I’m going to break this post into two parts, lest I overwhelm you.
True peace is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice.
–Martin Luther King, Jr. (on a wall at entrance)
This was one of the very first landmarks I put on a list, before I made a map, before I bought the van, when I first started thinking about taking this trip. There was no question, when I realized my mistake, that I’d go back to Montgomery.
This is the new lynching memorial that opened last year, and naturally it is also just a few blocks away from those other monuments and landmarks I visited a few days ago. (I’m still pretty frustrated with myself.) I did find the practicalities quite a bit more daunting, though. It’s a new place; they’re still figuring some things out, like signage. Because it’s outside, I thought I could walk Hops through the memorial (we have so appreciated being able to do some of these sites together), but no. So back to the van to put Hops up. Then back to the front gate for my ticket. No, have to go back across the street (back to the van) to get the ticket at a different location (why no signage for this?). Then into a long line as a school group showed up, and metal detectors – they have metal detectors at the Civil Rights Memorial Center, too (though not at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, for whatever reason). By the time I got in, twenty minutes or so had passed. Still worth it.
The memorial consists of metal pillars for each county in which a confirmed lynching took place between 1877 and 1950, along with the dates of the lynchings and the names of the victims (sometimes, unknown). These are hung (no coincidence, I’m sure) in a grid that encircles (ensquares?) a central square space, reminiscent of the kinds of public spaces where some lynchings took place: courthouse lawns, city centers, parks. You begin by walking among the pillars, but eventually the earth drops away, the monuments elevate, and you crane your neck upward to read them. County names are also etched underneath.
A few sculptures punctuate the experience, arranged around the main monuments but inside the security perimeter. A “Monument Park,” likewise within the perimeter, lays out a duplicate of every county’s monument, in the stated hope that those counties around the country will claim their own history and display these pieces on their own ground. So far, all appear to remain here in Montgomery. We need to own this, y’all…
“Invocation,” Elizabeth Alexander
Raise Up, Hank Willis Thomas, 2016
women of the bus boycotts
my home county
the grounds also include these lovely gardens, as if to give us a breath of life after all that death
they just go on and on
As you see, there’s also a beautiful and sweet-smelling flower garden, this time outside the security fencing (and accessible to Hops), presumably to refresh the senses.
Again, a somber thing, a difficult thing to contemplate. But we must!
Birmingham’s main draw was another landmark: the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. This is a newish museum dedicated to the civil rights movement generally, with an emphasis on Alabama’s role, and Birmingham’s in particular. I appreciated a number of timelines that put in perspective events in Alabama alongside national and international events – mostly within the realm of the movement, but with a few outliers, too. I recently wrote something about the importance of an interdisciplinary approach to education and, well, to life. This fit what I was thinking about.
Featuring heavily were certain local events: the Children’s Crusade, in which thousands of minors marched and were arrested, and had dogs and water hoses turned on them. MLK’s arrest and subsequent “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” And the bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church, when four little girls were killed, one lost an eye, and many more were wounded – two boys were killed that day on the streets of Birmingham, too, in the aftermath.
The museum was lovely, and nicely multimedia, with lots of audio recordings available as well as pictures and captions and artifacts and sculpture. It was a bit overwhelming, though (especially with different audio tracks going simultaneously). After nearly two hours, I was relieved to head outdoors. Across the street is Kelly Ingram Park, where the Children’s Crusade marchers were attacked. This city block is filled with sculpture – a rich museum in its own right, and outdoors (so, dog-friendly).
Catty-corner from the park, and so across the street from the Institute, is the 16th Street Church. Down another street, behind the Institute, is the Gaston Motel, an early model Black-owned business and center for the local movement, where MLK took up residence for a time while strategizing. The motel, unfortunately, is boarded up and falling down; but it is part of the National Monument, and hopefully they’ll figure out how to save it.
“this sculpture is dedicated to the foot soldiers of the Birmingham civil rights movement.”
model of MLK’s cell in Birmingham City Jail
“This original window from the balcony of the 16th Street Church was not damaged in the bombing. The missing panes were removed to repair other windows.”
I don’t know what words to add to these pictures. Please visit sites like these yourself when possible. If you want to do more, a decent start might be giving some money. I like the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Because every day is mixed, I had to step out of my museum-goer mode at one point to sit in the van (while parked for free! at Kelly Ingram Park, with free! city! wifi!) and conduct an author interview via Skype, for work. (Check out pagesofjulia for that sort of content.) It was a delightful interview, and I’m so grateful to get to do this sort of work while on the road. I’m a lucky woman.
To book-end my day of reading about small children bombed and water-canoned and attacked by dogs, I am reading a book (also for work) about domestic violence and intimate partner homicide and familicide, and the dire state of such things in this culture. It’s an excellent book, and the civil rights monuments are terribly important. But, whew. So…
I’m lucky to have happened upon this place as I looked for camping spots along my route. The name was familiar because, oh yes, Oak Mountain is some famed mountain biking! (Site of the Bump-n-Grind race, and home to an IMBA epic trail.) The camping here was not cheap, which I regret. But the facilities were excellent – there was even coin-op laundry, which I took advantage of – and the park was enormous, just going on and on, always more to see. I highly recommend it, but $$$.
I mountain biked some truly rad trails, Hops and I did some hiking – the deal we’ve developed is, every time I leave him to ride, I owe him a hike.
above “Lightning” trail
Hops heads uphill
We also checked out a short trail that advertised “live raptors!” Are you kidding, yes! This was a very cool series of cages – big ones, in the woods – holding nonreleasable birds: red-tailed hawks, great horned owls, turkey vulture and a rare albino turkey vulture, barn owls, black vultures, and barred owls. All of my pictures came out pretty poorly, what with the mesh; but here’s an albino turkey vulture for you.
We later visited the Alabama Wildlife Center, where I saw the largest bird I’ve ever seen that wasn’t an emu or an ostrich: a Eurasian eagle-owl.
We drove around for hours. The park is almost 10,000 acres! We visited multiple lakes, obviously multiple trails, encountered surprise birds of unusual size, sat in the sun and hid from the rain. A beautiful spot. If it weren’t so spendy I’d circle back. Hey, those trails are so worth it, y’all. Leaving a little bit of my heart in Oak Mountain…
After Tuskegee, I hit Montgomery. The main goal here was civil rights monuments and memorials. My parents took me on a road trip the summer I turned ten – between fourth and fifth grades, then? – all over: my father’s notes say “Alabama, Appalachia, DC, Plymouth, Boston, Caper Hill July 4 reunion, VT etc., Port Gibson.” It was a full and rich outing, but perhaps too much for me to take in: I remember a small number of events/people very clearly and have forgotten much of it. But one of the lasting images I have is of the then newly-opened Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery. It was designed by Maya Lin, who also designed the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., and improbably I recall knowing that detail at the time, too (we visited the latter memorial on the same trip, of course). I remember the flat marble table-top with its carved names and running water, and the water-wall with Martin Luther King, Jr.’s words inscribed. It’s odd what we remember. Clearly, this place made an impression.
The Southern Poverty Law Center describes the memorial:
A circular black granite table records the names of the martyrs and chronicles the history of the movement in lines that radiate like the hands of a clock. Water emerges from the table’s center and flows evenly across the top. On a curved black granite wall behind the table is engraved Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s well-known paraphrase of Amos 5:24 – We will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.
So I returned, nearly thirty years later. I left Hops in the van catty-corner to the memorial center. I started out outside, at the Lin-designed memorial I remembered: it seems smaller now, because I’m bigger, and the names are harder to read; there are chinks and chips in the lip of the table-top. But it’s the same, still there. I walked up a short walk to enter the memorial center, which I don’t remember at all, although surely we would have gone inside when I was small? My two-dollar entry fee was waived because I am a member of the Southern Poverty Law Center, like my father before me (he remembers our fees waived back then, too), so I made a small donation instead.
The forty-one names that are inscribed on the memorial – forty-one men, women and children killed for their civil rights work, or simply for being Black – are given a bit more backstory inside, on plaques. There’s a short film (twenty minutes?), which is well worth watching, about those deaths and others, and the continuing need for movement. There’s the opportunity to sign one’s name to the Wall of Tolerance.
It is a somber place to visit. Some of the names were familiar (Emmitt Till, Medgar Evers, MLK); some told familiar stories even if the names were not familiar (four girls killed at a Birmingham church bombing: Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley. three civil rights workers killed and buried in an earthen dam: James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Henry Schwerner). A number of names and stories, of course, were new to me. And yet somehow not new: individual faces on a problem I’ve learned about before, since at least the summer I turned ten. It’s a problem we’re not done with yet. You can read all the names and brief stories here.
From the center, I wandered on through the neighborhood. Something else I did not recall from my last visit to Montgomery was how rich and densely-packed were the civil rights landmarks in this neighborhood. From the center (Hops and Foxy still waiting on that corner), I walked just a few blocks to the Freedom Riders Museum, in the former Greyhound bus station where Freedom Riders were attacked (closed, but with a very good stretch of educational signage outside that I’m most grateful for); Rosa Parks’s bus stop (on Court Square, once site of one of the largest slave markets in the South); Martin Luther King, Jr.’s church (now Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist); and the Alabama State Capitol (where the Selma to Montgomery march concluded). I was floored that all these major sites were packed so closely together. It was a heady little walk I took. I’ve made one photo gallery here for you of Montgomery’s richness (including additional historical markers, on practically every street corner, it seemed).
civil rights martyrs, Civil Rights Memorial Center
Civil Rights Memorial
streets of Montgomery
Freedom Riders Museum
Court Square (Rosa Parks’s bus stop is across the way)
slave trade at Court Square
Alabama State Capitol
Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church
I’m left a little muddled in my impressions of this city, which was the first capitol of the Confederacy and the site of the start of the Civil War, as well as the birthplace of important parts of the civil rights movement. It’s a lot to take in.
I finished my day with a few artists: the graves of Hank and Audrey Williams, and the Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald Museum, in a former residence (also closed, but I walked the grounds).
Audrey Williams (left), Hank Williams (right)
is that supposed to be Zelda in the window? scared the shit outta me
Hops really wanted to go in
After a full day, Hops and I were grateful to crash out in this comfortable and comforting little space.
Our first day driving north in Alabama was a mixed bag. I tried no fewer than four spots to spend the night (luckily starting at 11am), before finally landing at a Walmart (never my first choice but, I confess, becoming a reliable backup plan). A variety of factors freaked me out at each location, ending with a final, beautiful one that I wanted, but we were not there 3 minutes before a man showed up who wanted to see inside my van, asked me personal questions, and then told me all his horror stories of camping in the spot where I was parked. This place was both remote and, apparently, close enough for him to easily access. He also commented on the fact that I was a woman traveling alone. As soon as he left, so did we. I’m not particularly easily frightened, but this was too much.
On the other hand, an impromptu stop at the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site was a bright spot. Unfortunately we visited on a Sunday, and they are closed Sundays. But the outdoor didactics and views were satisfying; and Hops got to do the whole thing with me. (What we missed at the indoor exhibits and bookstore, I can’t know.) It was a beautiful day to walk around outside and learn about the Tuskegee Airmen, here at Moton Field, where the first African-American pilots trained in the 1940s. Several buildings are still standing or have been carefully restored; as one sign said, where plans were not available to allow faithful restoration, they built “ghost” structures instead, to stand in. The result let me get a pretty good feel, I think, for what the grounds looked like. There’s still an active airfield for small craft next door, too.
On our way out of town, we couldn’t resist stopping at “Little Texas.”
I’m sorry we didn’t get to sleep in Tuskegee National Forest, but I’m so glad we saw the site. Better luck next time.
We were a little disgusted to learn that Alabama does not allow dogs on beaches at all, anywhere. Luckily Hops does not care for water (though he likes to run in the sand); I’m just glad Ritchey was not here to see this. So we crossed another state line.
We stayed a couple of nights at the Bear Lake campground in Blackwater River State Forest, which was lovely but not so cheap; I had work to do and it turned out to be worth it to have a stable base for a bit. We hiked and I rode my bike, but I apparently fell down on the picture-taking. Maybe because my mind was on work.
Next we drove down to visit Destin/Fort Walton, where I’ve heard the beaches are lovely. And they were – beautiful white sand – but it didn’t seem an area too well suited for vandwellers with dogs. We moved on fairly quickly. I could see myself enjoying this place when I had some human company and a dogsitter, but this will have to wait for another trip.
So we turned north again…
And saw the sights at the state line, a lovely little park.