The New Sound of Muscle Shoals

In a remote corner of northern Alabama, where some of the world’s hottest music was made half a century ago, a fresh crop of bands rises up.
Article: Rachael Maddux
Muscle Shoals

In the crook of the foothills of the Cumberland Plateau, up in northwest Alabama, the land rolls out like a quilt unfurled, a patchwork of farms and small towns pieced together with barbed wire and kudzu. Here, the cities of Florence and Muscle Shoals flank opposite sides of the Tennessee River just before it jackknifes back up into the state from whence it came. Roots run deep here, where families are neighbors and neighbors often seem like family. It’s like so many other rural pockets of the south—except this one also happened to produce some of the most important American music of the past 50 years.

In the decades following the 1959 founding of FAME Studios in Florence and, later, the formation of the Muscle Shoals Sound Studios, the area drew in some of the biggest names in early rock, soul, and country music, among them Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, and The Rolling Stones. These acts all found a musical home in the shoals, but they mostly hailed from elsewhere; the town and its studio space were more traveler’s rest than homestead—until now.

A bumper crop of talent has recently emerged from those wide rolling hills. The new generation of the Muscle Shoals sound includes everything from retro revivalists to backwoods-gothic rockers, but they all share a deep-rooted connection to the corner of the south they call home.

The Secret Sisters 
Just outside Florence stands the little house that Laura and Lydia Rogers’ maternal grandparents built as newlyweds, home to family gatherings that fostered some of their earliest musical memories. “We would eat there every Saturday and sing gospel songs around the holidays,” Lydia says. “Our grandfather was always playing his mandolin and singing old songs.”

These days, the sisters perform sweet, shuffling old-time country as The Secret Sisters, their sound an homage to some gauzy, gingham-checked past. Appearing onstage in crinoline-lifted dresses and bright red lipstick, the sisters seem plucked straight out of the 1950s. Their music is like a time capsule, which seems appropriate: Life in their “itty-bitty sweet hometown” can resemble one too.

Downtown Florence looks much as it has for a half-century or more, with the grand marquee of the Shoals Community Theatre lighting up the corner of North Seminary and Mobile Streets and the old brick storefronts housing local favorites such as Ricatoni’s Italian Grill (home of “the best bread and herbs you’ll ever put in your mouth,” Laura declares).

Their grandparents’ house was sold after their grandfather died a few years ago, but when it went back on the market Laura jumped at the chance to bring it back into the fold. She now maintains the family homestead with her two cats and dog; Lydia’s apartment in Florence is just a few miles away.

It can be hard to leave this close-knit world and hit the road. In April 2011, when a series of tornadoes devastated North Alabama, The Secret Sisters were on tour in Australia. Their families were untouched, but Laura and Lydia felt heartbroken and helpless, so they coped the best way they knew: they wrote a song. “Tomorrow Will Be Kinder” is a gently sorrowful, hymn-like elegy, and it found an unexpected second life on the movie soundtrack for the first installment of the wildly popular Hunger Games series. And the Rogers sisters weren’t the only Alabamians on the roster.