FLORENCE, Ala. _ Bing Crosby once described Louis Armstrong as the “beginning and the end of music in America.’’ Indeed, the great Satchmo is in many ways the father of American music. Armstrong’s legacy, however, has long resided here in northern Alabama in an area known worldwide as “the Shoals.’’
Father of the Blues W.C. Handy, composer of “St. Louis Blues,’’ who undoubtedly had an influence on the young Armstrong, was born here in 1873; record producer Sam Phillips, who gave a young truck driver named Elvis Presley a chance to sing a song for his mama and in the process changed the face of American music and culture, was born here in 1923; it’s also here in this rolling country along the Tennessee River that music icons such as Little Richard, Clarence Carter, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Allman Brothers, Bob Seger and Wilson Pickett came to record at Rick Hall’s FAME studios in Muscle Shoals. Percy Sledge’s classic “When A Man Loves A Woman’’ was produced at the FAME studio and remains the quintessential Shoals sound.
And it’s here that the Retirement Systems of Alabama has opened the Marriott Shoals Resort & Spa featuring two 8,000-yard-plus golf courses _ the Fighting Joe and the Schoolmaster.
The 200-room resort is the centerpiece of the Shoals’ revitalization efforts and the northernmost point on the RSA’s Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail that stretches to Mobile Bay on the Gulf of Mexico. The hotel’s “Swampers’’ Bar and Grill is dedicated to the session musicians (called Swampers) who played on such hits as the Stones’ “Brown Sugar’’ and Dylan’s “Slow Train Comin'’’ album. In the late 1960s, a young Swamper guitarist named Duane Allman, who had played with such greats as Pickett and Aretha Franklin, met bass player Barry Oakley here at the Shoals. The Allman Brothers Band _ and Southern Rock _ was born.
A few years later, a Jacksonville, Fla., band named Lynyrd Skynyrd, searching for a record contract, came to the Shoals to record some demo cuts. One of those was a tribute to Duane Allman in a song called “Free Bird.’’
Evidence of the Shoals’ music heritage is found all over the walls of the Swampers Lounge, where musicians jam almost nightly and the area’s growing list of composers try out new material.
The Marriott Shoals Resort & Spa is providing a big boost to the Shoals’ area, whose largest employer _ the Tennessee Valley Authority _ operates nearby Wilson Dam that backs up the Tennessee River to make Wilson Lake one of the world’s great small mouth bass fishing destinations.
Off the water, guests can visit the W.C. Handy home _ a log cabin on College Street _ and Helen Keller’s home. Keller was born in nearby Tuscumbia in 1880 and remains one of the Shoals’ most revered natives. Two of the Marriott Shoals’ suites are named in honor of Keller and Handy.
Oh yes, and golf, too. The Fighting Joe, named after Confederate General Joe Wheeler, is a links-style course that with its natural tall grass framing the fairways, hints at the look of the acclaimed Sand Hills Golf Club in Mullen, Neb. At 8,072 yards, par 72, the Fighting Joe was the first of the RTJ Trail’s courses to break the 8,000-yard barrier.
Want to know what it’s like to play a 716-yard, par 5? That’s the 12th hole on the Fighting Joe, which played from its tips offers a good news/bad news proposition. The good news is that the tee shot is downhill; the bad news is that regardless of how good your drive is, chances are you’ll have a third shot of 200 yards or more.
While the 12th is memorable for its length from the tips (it can be played as short as 441 yards), the Fighting Joe’s 18th hole, a 200-yard, par-3, is equally as memorable as its green overlooks Wilson Lake, offering perhaps the Trail’s most dramatic finishing hole.
The Schoolmaster (named for President Woodrow Wilson, the man responsible for getting Wilson Dam built), actually plays to 7,971 yards, par-72 on the card, but who’s quibbling about a few yards? More narrow than the Fighting Joe, the Schoolmaster (Wilson was known as The Schoolmaster of Politics) takes advantage of northern Alabama’s abundant trees as it, too, plays along the Tennessee River.
The Native American tribes that lived along its banks called the Tennessee River “the Singing River,’’ because the water rushing over the shoals sounded like the voice of a woman. The great inland waterway still calls today.
Just keep one thing in mind. Instead of yelling “Fore!’’, yell “Play Free Bird!’’