Behind every great song is an even better story.
The music of the South — from Louisiana zydeco to Nashville country, Mississippi blues and the mountain sounds of Kentucky and North Carolina — is full of heartfelt tales of life, labor and love. And the musicians, songwriters and others who work hard to make the music have stories of their own.
Here are six personal stories from people whose lives are immersed in Southern music, as well as their tips on where your groups can have great music experiences when traveling South.
Muscle Shoals, Alabama
When Judy Hood was a high school student in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, in the 1960s, she used to hear rumors about famous musicians being seen around town. She didn’t believe them.
“People would come into homeroom and say, ‘Mick Jagger is down at the studio,’ and we would say ‘No, he’s not,’” Hood said. “We thought it was an urban myth.”
But it wasn’t a myth. During the golden age of rock ’n’ roll, the small town of Muscle Shoals was at the center of the recording industry. The biggest names in music, from the Rolling Stones to Bob Dylan and Aretha Franklin, came to the small town to record with a quartet of studio musicians collectively known as the Swampers, who quietly shaped the soundscape of a generation.
After she grew up, Judy married David Hood, the bass player for the Swampers, and had her own career in corporate America. She retired at 55, but eight months after she left her job, the documentary film “Muscle Shoals” debuted, bringing a tidal wave of interest to her town.
“The universe had another plan for me,” she said. “It became incumbent on me to step up and coordinate all this. So I started doing Swampette Tours. I would take people to the studios and the Alabama Music Hall of Fame.
“On my tours, it’s not unusual for a grown man to break down and cry. Keith Richards referred to the original Muscle Shoals Sound Studio as rock ’n’ roll heaven. People go into that room and have an emotional experience. It’s a small studio, but it became one of the most influential recording studios in the world.”
Today, the studio has been renovated and serves as both a recording space and a museum. More than 34,000 people have visited since it reopened in 2014.
Ashville, North Carolina
For more than 40 years, David Holt has studied the music of North Carolina and the surrounding mountain regions. But the four-time Grammy-winning recording artist and television personality was introduced to Southern mountain music in an unlikely place: California.
“I heard Ralph Stanley play a concert when I was going to UC Santa Barbara,” Holt said. “I fell in love with the old-timey style of banjo that he played, the old claw-hammer style he learned from his mother. I went to talk to him at the end of the concert, and he told me to go to North Carolina, Virginia, Kentucky or Tennessee to learn.”
So in 1973, Holt moved to Asheville, North Carolina, and began learning traditional music from people in the area, working odd jobs to support himself. Eventually, he got connected to legendary musicians such as Grandpa Jones and Roy Acuff, and ended up touring with Doc Watson for 14 years before launching his own solo career.
“The flavor of music throughout the mountains is a combination of English, Scotch-Irish and African-American,” he said. “It’s everything from bluegrass to blues. Each area from Kentucky to North Carolina and Virginia has a sound all its own because most of these places were isolated until the 1960s or ’70s.”
When friends come to visit, Holt takes them to jam sessions in private homes around the Asheville area. For groups, he recommends attending the Shindig on the Green series, which takes place between July 4 and Labor Day at Pack Square Park.
“Every weekend, musicians come down,” he said. “Some play onstage, and some are just sitting around playing in little groups. You can stand next to them and talk about what they’re doing. It takes place on Saturdays, and they say it starts ‘long about sundown.’”
Growing up in Church Point, Louisiana, Chubby Carrier thought he was going to be a football player. But after a back injury ended his sports career, he turned to an art form that had run in his family for generations: zydeco music.
“My grandfather played this music,” he said. “My daddy played this music. There were musicians in our house, and that was a blessing. So I chose music after the football thing didn’t work out.”
Carrier took the family affinity for zydeco, recruited some fellow musicians and hit the road as Chubby Carrier and the Bayou Swamp Band in 1989. The group has toured every state in the country, much of Europe and even South Africa. In 2010, they won a Grammy for the year’s best zydeco album.
Today the group has “slowed the pace down a bit,” he said, playing about 100 dates a year. Wherever they go, they introduce people to the unique zydeco, which is more upbeat than other Cajun music, and the culture that it comes from.
“Zydeco music tells our stories,” he said. “People hear about the guys who were working in the bean fields and rice fields. They hear about the sharecropper culture. They hear about the sugarcane worker who works all day and plays music all night. The music touches the heart because you hear people singing about the hard times in their lives while still having a happy moment.”
Carrier now lives near Lafayette, Louisiana, and recommends that people come to that area — as opposed to New Orleans — to hear authentic Cajun and zydeco music at restaurants and local clubs.
“We have festivals in the spring and fall,” he said. “The spring festival is the Red Beans and Rice Festival, which has a gumbo cook-off. Every festival we have is pertaining to our food, but that’s also where you’ll hear our music.”