A couple of years ago my Dear Wife and I drove 350 miles or so up to Sioux Falls, South Dakota to see Rosanne Cash and her band play one of the most sublime shows either of us has ever seen. For the first set she played her album about the American South, The River and the Thread, start to finish, complete with stories about the history of each song. (Note – If you have Amazon Prime, you can listen to the album through their streaming service.
The album opens with one of my favorites – “A Feather’s Not a Bird.” The song starts this way:
I’m going down to Florence, gonna wear a pretty dress
I’ll sit atop the magic wall with the voices in my head
When I decided to head to the South this year for my annual motorcycle trip with the Biker Bishop, I knew I had to make a stop in Florence. One of the things I do on motorcycle trips is collect National Park Passport Stamps. When I did my last round of stamp collecting about four years ago, I got to Tupelo, but didn’t make it to Florence. So this year I had to get there.
As I came in from the West, I really entered the South in Mississippi, hooking up with the Natchez Trace Parkway in Tupelo, the birthplace of Elvis. For those of you not familiar with it, the Natchez Trace is a roughly 400 mile long national park controlled access road that meanders through Mississippi, Alabama, and Tennessee, running from Natchez to Nashville. Riding a motorcycle up that road puts a person in a musical frame of mind.
There’s never any highway when you’re looking for the past
The land becomes a memory and it happens way too fast
I took the Trace from Tupelo up to the exit that leads to Florence. But before you get to Florence, you go through Muscle Shoals. To me, and so many of my age, Muscle Shoals means FAME Recording Studio (FAME stands for Florence Alabama Music Enterprises) and the incredible Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section. They brought such a great sense of soul to so many classic songs. The National Park Service noticed that, too, and designated that general area of Alabama the Muscle Shows National Historic Area. Which means that there are a host of passport stamps to be had in the area.
This morning I headed to the O’Neal House Museum where there was a stamp to be had. I’m not sure whether the museum was open, but I followed the sign to the Heritage Area office and found a charming pair of Southern ladies, Judy and Clair if I’m not mistaken, who were thrilled to give me the stamp. I mentioned that Rosanne’s song was what sent me there. And at that Judy really lit up. She said, “You know that place she sings in about in A Feather’s Not a Bird, well they have a stamp! You have to go there.” And unfortunately my writing doesn’t capture her lovely Alabama accent. (And no, all southern accents are not the same.)
So that set me off to Alabama Chanin, where they maintain the art of southern quilt sewing, but apply it to making clothes. Judy said that the duster Rosanne wore during the show DW and I saw was likely made there. The shop, known as The Factory, was full of shirts, dresses and other items, all showing the distinctive quilt stitching.
So there’s a lesson here, that small things aren’t always the same as the bigger things they are a part of. I was collecting stamps, and I was hoping for one from Florence, but I got something so much more. I got to meet interesting people, hear stories about one of my favorite singers, and see a place where old arts are being used in new ways.
A feather’s not a bird
The rain is not the sea
A stone is not a mountain
But a river runs through me.