Muscle Shoals Sound Studio tour, Alabama, USA: The recording studio tour that makes adults weep with nostalgia

In December 1969, the Rolling Stones flew to Alabama by private jet to spend three days in a former coffin factory. Each evening they would arrive at 8pm and work for 12 hours straight, writing and recording through the night. By the time they left they'd cut Brown Sugar, You Gotta Move and Wild Horses.

In the late 1960s and early '70s, more than 200 albums were recorded in this unassuming concrete building on the outskirts of Muscle Shoals by stars including Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan and Paul Simon. Seventy-five of them went gold and 14 reached multi-platinum.

Clearly, it wasn't the dilapidated venue that lured artists from all over the world; instead, it was the distinctive sound produced by the four session musicians  who owned it. Known as the Swampers, the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section comprised keyboardist Barry Beckett, drummer Roger Hawkins, bassist David Hood and guitarist Jimmy Johnson. Not only did they have a unique, soulful Southern style, but they happily played with black artists at a time when the state was still fiercely segregated.

After nine years they outgrew the space, moving to another studio nearby. The venue fell into disrepair and might easily have been forgotten were it not for filmmaker Greg Camalier. His 2013 documentary about the region's extraordinary musical heritage, entitled Muscle Shoals, inspired Beats headphones founder Dr. Dre to donate $US1 million towards its refurbishment. Four years later, the studio was once again open for recordings and tours.

Our guide today is Terrell Benton, an Alabama native who used to run a record store in nearby Florence. He knew the Swampers personally and even employed their kids in his shop. "They were just four country boys from Alabama," he says, "who happened to be phenomenal musicians."

We begin in the basement, a cosy, low-ceilinged space lined with album covers. The studio's first release was by Cher, who named it 3614 Jackson Highway, based on the building's address. Far from a runaway success, it peaked at No 160 in the charts.

After the Stones visited later that year, more hits followed and soon everyone from Joe Cocker to Cat Stevens wanted to record there. Lynyrd Skynyrd even name-dropped the Swampers in their Top 10 hit, Sweet Home Alabama.

We head upstairs into the '70s-era studio, whose walls are still lined with blocks of polystyrene for sound insulation. "Originally, the building had a tin roof," says Benton, "so bands had to stop playing whenever it rained."

Much of the furniture is original as are the monitors and the baby grand piano. Benton points out the toilet where Keith Richards locked himself away to finish writing Wild Horses and the outdoor porch where Rod Steward would listen to his first cuts.

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Since the tour started in January 2017, more than 40,000 people from 40 countries have visited. For many it's a poignant reminder of their youth. "There was one guy from London who cried the whole way round," says Benton.

Perhaps more importantly, the venue is once again a working studio. The Black Keys and Australian band the Soul Movers have both recorded here since it reopened.

On the way out, Benton pauses and steals one last glance back inside. "I still get goosebumps every time I walk in here," he says. "There's just something special about this weird little room."

TRIP NOTES

Rob McFarland was a guest of Alabama Tourism, Delta Air Lines and Brand USA.

MORE

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FLY

Delta Air Lines flies daily to Birmingham, Alabama via Los Angeles. From Birmingham, Muscle Shoals is a two-hour drive. See delta.com

TOUR

Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, 3614 Jackson Highway, Sheffield, Alabama. Open Monday to Saturday, 10am to 4pm. Tours cost $US15 and run hourly starting at 10:30am. See muscleshoalssoundstudio.org

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