by Connie Pearson
Music lovers across all genres flock to a small corridor tucked into North Alabama each year to learn, to listen, to appreciate and perhaps even to participate in what has been called “the universal language.” From Florence in the west to Huntsville in the east is a distance of only 73 miles, and along that drive, you might pass through Tuscumbia, Muscle Shoals, Rogersville, Athens and Madison, towns that will provide plenty of entertainment, dining options and accommodations for a great weekend.
A few recommendations to consider when making your plans:
1) Tour a famous recording studio. FAME, 3614 Jackson Highway, and Cypress Moon in Florence and Muscle Shoals have produced records for some of the best-known musicians in the world, and all are open on Fridays and Saturdays for tours. Do the names Clarence Carter, Wilson Picket, the Osmond Brothers, Mac Davis or Paul Anka stir up memories? All of those, plus dozens of others, benefited from the magic of producer Rick Hall at FAME Studios. The Rolling Stones, Paul Simon, Rod Stewart, Cat Stevens and others took advantage of the talented producers at 3614 Jackson Highway. And, stars such as Bob Dylan and Julian Lennon made their way to Cypress Moon Productions to create their distinctive sounds. Visitors can literally “stand where greats have stood” during tours of these facilities.
2) Visit the Alabama Music Hall of Fame. This impressive facility at 617 Highway 72 West in Tuscumbia is open Tuesday through Saturday from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. and is divided into sections to help guide visitors to find their favorites. The Hall of Fame Gallery displays plaster casts of Alabama, Sonny James, Lionel Richie and Hank Williams, Jr. The Popular Music section has a wax statue of Nat King Cole at his piano and stage costumes and memorabilia from the Commodores, Jim Nabors and others. A highlight of the Country Music section is an actual tour bus used by the group Alabama that visitors can step inside to get a feel for life on the road. The Rhythm and Blues section has been made to resemble a jazz club, and the Muscle Shoals section gives attention to the recording studios who brought the world’s attention to this part of the country. There is also a Gospel Showcase and a gift shop, but one of the most popular areas is a live recording studio where visitors can record their very own single for a small fee.
3) Take advantage of special music-themed events throughout the year. Downtown Florence hosts First Fridays from March to December, and these consist of live music, arts and crafts displays and shops and cafes with extended hours. Admission is free, and there’s plenty to enjoy.
Athens plays host to the Tennessee Valley Old Time Fiddlers Convention on the campus of Athens State University every fall. This year it will be held on October 6-7. Visitors can stroll through the various staging locations listening or even bring their own instruments to participate in impromptu jam sessions. On the last night, a Fiddle Champion is crowned. Here you will also find plenty of food and crafts vendors.
The W.C. Handy Festival will be held in Florence July 21-30 this year. Music events are held in various locations throughout the city during those days. But, if you can’t make it during that week, you can always tour the W.C. Handy Birthplace and Museum at 620 West College Street in Florence from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. W.C. Handy, of course, is considered to be the “Father of the Blues.”
Panoply Arts Festival is celebrated at Big Spring Park in Huntsville every year in the spring. It was in April this year and featured more than 50 performances on 3 separate stages scattered throughout the park.
4) Listen to live musicians while you eat dinner. Several restaurants and bars along Highway 72/North Alabama corridor keep a full calendar of live musicians performing for dinner guests. Some to consider are Swampers Bar and Grill inside the Shoals Marriott in Florence, The Back Porch in Rogersville and A.M. Booth’s Lumberyard in Huntsville.
5) Check the events calendars for larger, well-known performance venues in the area. The University of North Alabama in Florence has a music and fine arts department which provides plenty of recital and concert opportunities for students and faculty members, and they invite visitors to come and enjoy both young performers and seasoned veterans alike as they take the stage. The Princess Theater in Decatur brings in performers from around the country as well as featuring chorus groups from area schools. The Von Braun Center and the Merrimack Performing Arts Center in Huntsville host Broadway touring companies, theatrical groups and top-ranking musicians. Perhaps you will want to plan your visit with a performance there as the centerpiece.
LOCALLY-OWNED RESTAURANTS FOR TRYING REGIONAL CUISINE
In downtown Florence, you will find great food at City Hardware (yes, that IS the name of a restaurant), Odette and Ricatoni’s.
In Athens, you will see Catfish Cabin on Highway 72 and LuVici’s, Village Pizza and Lucia’s downtown. Be aware that LuVici’s is NOT Italian but rather good Southern cooking. It is open Monday through Saturday for lunch, but only on Thursday, Friday and Saturday for dinner.
A short distance off the beaten path near Madison is Greenbriar Barbecue and possibly the best hushpuppies you’ll ever eat. It’s worth the drive. But, right along that main Highway 72, Terranova’s serves some of the most authentic Italian dishes in the area with lots of locally-grown ingredients. Be sure to save room for the Mount Vesuvius dessert, a chocolate explosion of flavor big enough to share with several friends.
EXTRA-SPECIAL OVERNIGHT ACCOMMODATIONS
The Florence to Huntsville corridor provides many chain options for overnight accommodations, but if you’d like something with unique touches, I have 3 to recommend.
Limestone House Bed and Breakfast is located a block from the campus of the University of North Alabama. You might even be able to hear the roar of the lion mascot early in the morning at Limestone House! There are only two guest rooms, but each has historic significance. They are named for Henry Ford and Thomas Edison, two men who actually spent the night in this house.
Marriott Shoals Hotel and Spa is, of course, a part of a chain, but this one goes WAY beyond expectations. Not only does it have luxurious guest rooms, it also has full spa and fitness facilities, indoor and outdoor swimming pools, and the Swampers Bar and Grill in the lobby that I mentioned earlier with its live music offerings. 360 Grille is a fine dining restaurant on this property serving dinner Tuesday through Saturday while views of Florence and the Tennessee River revolve around you. A visual and gastronomic delight.
Westin Huntsville, once again, is a part of a chain, but this one has kicked things up by many notches. First of all, the location is superb. In a prominent position beside high-end shops and restaurants and steps away from Monaco Pictures, guests can park once and find plenty to do and see. The rooms have recently been completely redecorated, a full-service spa is inside the hotel, and a restaurant with exceptional dishes is inside the lobby.
Music is certainly a common thread in this part of North Alabama, but, as you might imagine, a wealth of beautiful scenery, interesting attractions, great food and comfortable accommodations will add to the enjoyment for music lovers who choose to spend a weekend in this area.