Nestled in the northwest corner of Alabama, the Muscle Shoals National Heritage Area (MNSHA) consists of the six northwest Alabama counties—Colbert, Franklin, Lauderdale, Lawrence, Limestone, and Morgan—that border the meandering Tennessee River. World-class fishing lakes and challenging golf courses combined with a thriving music industry and a fascinating local history attract thousands of visitors to the region every year.
Leaders in these counties established the MSNHA in a true grassroots effort to preserve and promote the area’s historical, natural, and cultural heritage. Congress approved the creation of MSNHA in 2009, the only national heritage area in Alabama (one of 49 in the country). And while the MSNHA supports and encourages projects as diverse as food-to-table initiatives, local art galleries and digitizing historic documents, it focuses on three themes: the Tennessee River, American Indian heritage, and music, including the world-famous Muscle Shoals sound that produced some of the most celebrated R&B music in the nation and continues to produce hit-making records and stars.
“There is so much music, history, and natural beauty in northwest Alabama that people who have never been here before are amazed when they visit,” said MSNHA executive director Judy Sizemore. “Plus, we have talented people with creative and entrepreneurial spirits who are making this area a must-see destination.”
That creative spirit was recently featured in the documentary Muscle Shoals. The film explores the funky and gritty style that brought music industry’s best to such studios as FAME and Muscle Shoals Sound beginning in the 1960s. The Muscle Shoals soundtrack was nominated for a Grammy, and premiers of the film sold out across the country.
As word continues to spread about the documentary, subsequent publicity is reinvigorating local efforts to develop a comprehensive music-tourism experience. The state legislature reopened the Alabama Music Hall of Fame after a brief hiatus, headphone company Beats is partnering with the non-profit Muscle Shoals Music Association to update and restore FAME and the iconic 3614 Jackson Highway studio, and MSNHA is working with the National Trust for Historic Preservation to create a cellphone tour called the “Roots of American Music Trail.”
“For years, people would come here because they wanted to see where Muscle Shoals music comes from, but there wasn’t anything for them to see,” Sizemore said. “Now, we’re poised to offer ways visitors can learn about, and celebrate, this fascinating music heritage.”
Besides music, another MSNHA draw is its seven National Parks Passport stations, with unexpected treasures in each of the six counties:
- The University of North Alabama, Florence. The main office of MSNHA.
- W.C. Handy Home, Museum and Library, Florence–birthplace of the Father of the Blues. The annual ten-day W.C. Handy Music Festival includes concerts, performances, a second-line-style street strut, and gospel singing in Handy’s childhood church.
- Ivy Green, birthplace of Helen Keller, Tuscumbia. Reserve your seats for the annual outdoor production of “The Miracle Worker,” performed on the exact spot where the famous story actually unfolded.
- Red Bay Museum, Red Bay. A glimpse into the past of a small Southern town, with historical displays and memorabilia from country music star Tammy Wynette, who was born nearby.
- Pond Spring, home of Confederate Gen. Joe Wheeler, Courtland. A fierce cavalry leader in the Civil War, Wheeler was determined to reunite the country as a member of Congress. He also fought in the Spanish-American War under Teddy Roosevelt.
- Mooresville. The first town incorporated by the Alabama Territorial Legislature on Nov. 16, 1818 is today a charming village of restored homes
- Old State Bank, completed in 1833, Decatur. A stately building that’s an integral part of the town’s history.
Learn more about MSNHA and its many other destinations on the heritage area’s website. Y’all come on over!
This story is part of our series on national heritage areas, the large lived-in landscapes managed through innovative partnerships to tell America’s cultural history.