Muscle Shoals is located in the northwest corner of Alabama and is the largest city in Colbert County. It has a mayor/council form of government and was the last city in Alabama to change from a commission form of city government in 1992. Muscle Shoals is world-renowned as an important center of music production and musical history. The origin of the city’s name is uncertain. One theory holds that it is named for piles of mussel shells found along the shoals; another suggests that the shoals are shaped like the muscle in someone’s arm. A third suggests that it came from the difficulty involved in trying to paddle upstream against the powerful current.
Muscle Shoals Canal The area that Muscle Shoals now encompasses was largely farmland prior to the construction of Wilson Lock and Dam on the Tennessee River in 1918. Pres. Woodrow Wilson ordered the dam to be built to supply electricity to two nitrate plants that were part of the war effort during World War I, and housing for construction workers quickly sprang up in the area. The dam was still not finished at war’s end, and automaker Henry Ford announced plans to buy the dam and create an automobile manufacturing center nearby, setting off a short-lived land boom. Congress rejected the sale of the dam to Ford, but the population continued to grow. The city was officially incorporated on April 24, 1923, and a mayor and five aldermen were elected on May 28. Muscle Shoals and the surrounding region benefitted from creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority in 1933. The nitrate plants were converted to produce fertilizer for area farms, and the new agency initiated construction of a series of locks to make the Tennessee River more navigable.
Muscle Shoals gained worldwide renown with the opening of FAME Studios in the late 1950s and Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in 1969, and the town soon became a center of the recording industry. Musical icons such as Aretha Franklin, Cher, and the Rolling Stones recorded songs and albums at the studios, and the “Muscle Shoals Sound” became well-known throughout the world. Alabama-born musicians such as Arthur Alexander, Percy Sledge, Wilson Pickett, Dan Penn, and Spooner Oldham also became known for their work in Muscle Shoals. The city’s musical heritage has earned it a place on the Mississippi Blues Trail.
According to 2020 Census estimates, the population of Muscle Shoals was 14,379. Of that number, 80.7 percent identified themselves as white, 13.5 percent as African American, 4.4 percent as Hispanic, 1.6 percent as two or more races, and 0.9 percent as Asian. The city’s median household income was $54,620, and per capita income was $27,908.
The workforce in Muscle Shoals, according to 2020 Census estimates, was divided among the following industrial categories:
- Educational services, and health care and social assistance (21.6 percent)
- Manufacturing (17.2 percent)
- Retail trade (14.4 percent)
- Arts, entertainment, recreation, accommodation, and food services (9.4 percent)
- Other services, except public administration (9.0 percent)
- Construction (5.6 percent)
- Public administration (5.2 percent)
- Professional, scientific, management, and administrative and waste management services (4.9 percent)
- Transportation and warehousing and utilities (4.7 percent)
- Finance, insurance, and real estate, rental, and leasing (3.6 percent)
- Wholesale trade (2.0 percent)
- Information (1.5 percent)
- Agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting, and extractive (0.8 percent)
Schools in Muscle Shoals are part of the Muscle Shoals City School District; the city has one preschool, three elementary, one middle, and one high school. Northwest-Shoals Community College is a two-year institution of higher education.
Muscle Shoals is intersected by U.S. Highway 43 (northeast-south) and U.S. Highway 72 lies just south of the city (east-west). County Highway 184 runs east from the city. The Northwest Alabama Regional Airport with two runways is located east of the city, and the Big River Airpark Airport is located to the south.
Events and Places of Interest
MuscleShoals Sound Studio The original Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, located on Jackson Avenue, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. FAME Studios, located on East Avalon Avenue, is listed on the Alabama Register of Landmarks and Heritage. A history museum, Pathways, is located in the Muscle Shoals City Hall and features exhibits on the history of the town and Wilson Lock and Dam. The W. C. Handy Music Festival takes place in the area each July, and each October, the city hosts the Muscle Shoals Music CityFest.
Muscle Shoals is home to The Shoals resort complex, one of the stops on Alabama’s Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail. The Shoals has two 18-hole championship-level courses: The Fighting Joe course is named after Gen. Joe Wheeler, and The Schoolmaster course is named after Pres. Woodrow Wilson. The associated Marriot Shoals Hotel & Spa is located across the river in Florence.
The city has three municipal parks and two sports complexes, featuring baseball, softball, and soccer venues, a swimming pool, basketball courts, picnic areas and pavilions, and walking/running tracks.
The Heritage of Colbert County, Alabama. Clanton, Ala.: Heritage Publishing Consultants, 1999.