There are special hotels and then there are special hotels. Put the Marriott Shoals Hotel & Spa in Florence, Ala., in that latter category. A walk in the front door and into Swampers Bar and Grill is all you need to know about this extraordinary area of North Alabama.
Helen Keller, champion of the disabled, was born in Florence in 1880. WC Handy, the “Father of the Blues’’ was born here in 1873. One of the hotel’s suites is named in Handy’s honor. Sam Phillips, the founder of Sun Records who saw potential in a young Memphis truck driver named Elvis Presley, was born in Florence in 1923. In 1960, Rick Hall founded FAME Studios in nearby Muscle Shoals and created a sound that bears the city’s name.
Music – and music history – is woven deep in the fabric of North Alabama. Its showroom is Swampers, which is named after the legendary studio band at FAME.
Swampers can best be defined as part music gallery and part art gallery mixed with a bar and restaurant.
“We originally just wanted to build a bar by musicians for musicians,’’ said Marriott Shoals General Manager Larry Bowser. “The idea was to have guitars that people could pick up and play. And then artists started signing them and it just kind of took off from there.’’
Swampers’ walls are lined with pictures and memorabilia from some of the musicians who have passed through to record to FAME and at Muscle Shoals Sound Studio over the Tennessee River Bridge in Sheffield. There’s Duane Allman, who in the late 1960s camped out in the parking lot outside FAME Studios while he sought a job as a session guitarist with the Swampers. It was at FAME Studios where Allman met fellow guitarist Barry Oakley and formed the Allman Brothers Band. Standing in that spot in Studio B gives you goosebumps.
Aretha Franklin, the future “Queen of Soul,’’ who resurrected her career at FAME Studios, is on the wall at Swampers; Bob Dylan is on the wall. Mick Jagger, Wilson Pickett, Linda Ronstadt, Clarence Carter, Percy Sledge and Gregg Allman, too.
Little Richard played on the Swampers’ stage not long ago after a recording session at FAME Studios.
“I grew up in Pennsylvania and had always heard of Muscle Shoals,’’ said Bowser, who has been GM since the hotel opened in 2005. “But I never thought it was a real place. I’ll never forget driving up here and seeing the sign that reads ‘Muscle Shoals 28 miles’ and thinking ‘It is real.’’’
As real as the adjacent tower (with 360 Grille rotating on top) that dominates the skyline. Located on the banks of the Tennessee River, the 200-room hotel is the northernmost property on the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail, which this year is celebrating its 25th anniversary.
The Trail here has a pair of outstanding golf courses – the Schoolmaster and Fighting Joe – that are among the best it has to offer. But there’s no doubt what this area is truly all about.
“The music aspect is really what gives this hotel its soul,’’ Bowser said. “We’re blessed to have the legacy of the Muscle Shoals music and it’s really cool to tell that story. Some of the original Swampers still come here. It’s just a great story to tell.
“The music that you hear all through the hotel is really what gives the hotel it’s heart and soul.’’