be still my heart in Muscle Shoals (part 1)

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.

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…

There’s more. But I’m going to break this post into two parts, lest I overwhelm you.

Montgomery’s richness

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).

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).

After a full day, Hops and I were grateful to crash out in this comfortable and comforting little space.

good night

art in Ocean Springs, Mississippi

I’d read about this little beach town/artist community, and knew I was interested, even before a mountain biker I met the other day recommended it to me. The first place I stopped when I rolled into town, however, was not an art sight.

Thus begins a new chapter: I’m going to be visiting a series of civil rights monuments in the next weeks, I think. I was glad to see this, even if the park was just pocket-sized.

Then I did a partial art walk, guided by a handout from the visitor’s center, and poked my head in a few shops.

I bought some beautiful postcards, but otherwise enjoyed the free version of Ocean Springs.

Moving right along, I visited Whole Foods in Mobile…

Goin’ Coastal pineapple IPA, Sweetwater Brewing

(I missed the Welcome-to-Alabama sign, y’all. The trials of travelin’ alone [Hops does not count in this instance because he doesn’t use cameras].)

And onward…

New Iberia & James Lee Burke

Leaving Lafayette, I felt very strongly about visiting New Iberia, a little town right there in the neighborhood and one of the main locations of James Lee Burke’s life and fiction. While it has been an unreasonable number of years since I’ve read any JLB, his books figure prominently in my personal reading life, going way back. I think I was just a kid when I first discovered him, from my mother, who is also a fan. Many of his books are set in New Iberia, where fictional detective Dave Robicheaux is based. And the author has a family history rooted there as well.

So, using this handy little tool I found online, I visited a few sites. You can see more about each at that link.

And then, this.

Port Arthur, TX

I met up with a friend for a few days in Port Arthur, on the Texas Gulf Coast and on the Louisiana border. It’s not a famously beautiful town; it’s an oil town, which makes for the stinky smells and a somewhat one-note local culture. One would not normally travel to Port Arthur for pleasure, but this is where we were able to meet up (seeking, among other things, warmer temperatures than the ones I’d been finding in northeast Texas). I set us a challenge: to find something beautiful in Port Arthur.

And we found lots to do and learn. We started our one long full day with a few paying-of-respects trips to a few artists.

at Janis Joplin’s birthplace (the house behind the marker)

Janis Joplin is the town’s most notable person.

Next we drove into the town of Groves, where Mary Karr comes from. There’s no childhood home to visit here (for one thing, her mother burned it down; also, location unknown), but we visited the neighborhood, and the American Legion post that might be the one where her father spends so much time in The Liars’ Club.

Next, we drove around the old downtown, which is decidedly rundown. But we found some gorgeous – and tragic – old buildings to photograph.

We visited the Museum of the Gulf, which was a surprisingly large place with a surprisingly wide range of stuff: history including geology, biology, and human war and industry, and the modern story of Port Arthur, including local and regional notable figures. Janis Joplin, of course, figures significantly.

We moved on from there just a few blocks to the campus of Lamar State College, contiguous with the library and Lions Park.

And then the Sabine Pass Battleground State Historic Site, where Hops was relieved to stretch his legs. (He may have had a few fried crawfish tails for lunch. It was a good day for Hops.)

Hops runs wild with munitions magazines and drilling equipment

It was quite a long and satisfying day… so we finished up at a local brewpub.

Sippin’ Pretty, by Odell Brewing, and some live music



The next morning, I rode up the Sheep Pen trails in the state park and took in some outstanding views. The trail itself I would not recommend for mountain biking, actually, but I’m glad I got to see this.

After the ride, it was time for Hops’s bimonthly toenail clipping. Those of you who have known Hops to have his toenails clipped will know that this damn near ruined our day. Luckily he gets over offenses quickly.

We then headed north for the town of Monahans, birthplace of Guy Clark. I checked with the author of the only book-length biography of the man, and she tells me that nothing is left in Monahans of the Clark family except this: the gravesite of Jack Prigg, star of the song “Desperadoes Waiting for a Train” (popularized by Jerry Jeff Walker, written by Guy Clark) and boyfriend of Clark’s grandmother, who ran a hotel where Guy did some of his growing up. The grandmother is buried beside Prigg, but her grave is unmarked. In the absence of a more substantial monument to this man whose legacy I so appreciate, I visited the double gravesite.

Please, take the next five minutes out and listen to this song.

For the night, I stayed just outside town at Monahans Sandhills State Park.

As I write these words, we’re snug in the van. I’m sipping whiskey and working on book reviews; Hops is snoring comfortably at my side. I wish I had some Old Crow and hot 7Up, to make it perfectly appropriate, but Guy, I’m thinking of you all the same.