SHEFFIELD, Ala. (AP) — Wild horses couldn’t keep them away … from getting married at the actual place where The Rolling Stones recorded the song “Wild Horses.”
Since September, four marriages have been held inside Muscle Shoals Sound, the funky little studio known for recording classic hits by stars like The Stones and many others. Three more weddings have been booked there for later in 2021 so far.
For couples, getting married at Muscle Shoals Sound is a way to give their special day a unique and musical twist. For the studio, it’s a new revenue stream, crucial during the ongoing pandemic.
John Weimer and Stefanie Adkins were the first couple to get married inside the studio, which has the iconic address of 3614 Jackson Hwy. in Sheffield. Weimer and Adkins are Athens residents who both work on Huntsville’s Redstone Arsenal. Last year, they happened to see a Facebook post Muscle Shoals Sound was now available as a wedding venue. Before then, they’d planned to get married at the local courthouse.
“We just thought that would be so different and fun,” Stefanie tells me. “It’s just a really fun space that came with so much personality, I didn’t even need to decorate. Everyone that came has been raving about it.”
Cookeville, Tenn.’s Allie and Greg Ledford were the second couple to have their wedding at Muscle Shoals Sound. Visiting the studio had been on Allie’s late father’s bucket-list, but alas he never made it there. After Allie and Greg began dating about two years ago, Greg got her to watch the 2013 documentary film “Muscle Shoals,” about the Shoals area’s rich studio legacy. She then realized she had to visit Muscle Shoals Sound someday.
“When COVID hit we decided we wanted to do something very intimate and special, just the two of us,” Allie says. “And I think Greg said something off-handedly about, ‘Hey, let’s see if we can get married inside Muscle Shoals Sound Studio.’ I googled it and saw that they could do it for us, and we got very excited about the prospect.”
Muscle Shoals Sound’s business model relies heavily on studio tours and merch sessions. Recording sessions, which began again in 2018 after renovations, and fundraisers also provide funding.
Since reopening for tours in 2016, the studio had been welcoming an average of 14,000 visitors per year. In 2020, that number took a nosedive, like most other tourism ventures. Particularly since the pandemic has significantly impacted international travel and around 30 percent of Muscle Shoals Sound visitors are from other countries.
Judy Hood, wife of iconic Swampers session musician/Muscle Shoals Sound co-founder David Hood, had been doing “Swampette” tours of local music landmarks for seven years. The tours were a response to the increase in Shoals music tourism after the documentary sparked interest. For the last couple years, she and Muscle Shoals Sound executive director Debbie Wilson had been discussing “Swampette weddings” as a possible concept.
Around summer 2019, Alabama law changed, from requiring a person to be ordained to marry a couple to just a notarized contract needed. This freed Muscle Shoals Sound to move ahead with the idea.
“We’re just trying to be creative because we don’t what to lose our mojo,” Hood says. “Before the pandemic we were incredibly busy at the studio. We’ve managed to keep tours going on a limited level, but like everything else we’ve had to make adjustments.” Hood makes it a point to note, “I am not, by any stretch of the imagination, a bona fide religious leader.”
When she officiates weddings at Muscle Shoals Sound, Hood dons a black robe decorated with silver moons and stars. The satirical inspiration being the studio - housed in a humble cinderblock building formerly a coffin factory - is, as Hood puts it, “a magical place.”
The pricing to get married at Muscle Shoals Sound, which still looks like the 1970s inside, depends on the details. Number of guests. If there’s catering. Duration of the ceremony. That kind of stuff. The base price for the studio rental/Swampette marriage ceremony is $400.
Some couples have booked the venue with just a week out, others a year in advance. It all comes down to if the studio and Hood are available for the requested date. The weddings take place in the studio’s main room, which is about the size of a large two-car garage.
Before a wedding takes place at Muscle Shoals Sound, the studio’s assistant director Aja Hyde meets with that couple to plan the event and finalize details. For the Weimer/Adkins wedding, Hyde set-up a Zoom video meeting so family unable to attend the ceremony could watch online.
Hood works with couples in advance to personalize their vows. For the Ledford wedding, that included working in some traditional Celtic verbiage. Allie Ledford says, “First thing Judy asked us was whether we wanted something traditional or more fun. When we told her that we wanted fun she paused and said, ‘Oh, I can do fun.’ It was fantastic.”
Vows can also reflect the site’s history. As when Hood said during the Weimer/Adkins wedding, “Beautiful things happen in this room and today one more beautiful thing is about to happen.”
Telling Muscle Shoals Sound’s story is Hood’s passion, on her tours and, now, weddings. Enduring songs like Paul Simon’s “Kodachrome” and The Staple Singers’ “I’ll Take You There” were cut in the studio. “I can’t imagine a more soulful place to begin a marriage,” Hood says.
Hood’s own wedding was unique. Thirty three years ago, she and David Hood were married on April Fool’s Daty in a ceremony performed by Atlantic Records record producer Jerry Wexler, a Swampers mentor, on a paddleboat in Sarasota, Florida.
For the Weimer/Adkins wedding at Muscle Shoals Sound, the bridesmaids wore pandemic masks printed with “Rock on, John and Stefanie.” Guests wore concert T-shirts and jeans. During the ceremony, Stefanie walked out to The Stones ballad “Wild Horses,” cut during 1969 Muscle Shoals Sound sessions, played by cousin Ben Short on the studio’s grand piano.
John Weimer says, “With everything that has been created in that building and between those walls, it really gave an amazing energy to the ceremony. When you think about it, back in the day it was a bunch of kids creating music that has continued to touch people and enrich lives for decades.” The couple’s wedding music also include “I’d Rather Go Blind,” the Etta James soul-ballad cut at nearby FAME Studios back in the ’60s.
Like a legendary recording studio, couples have backstory too. John and Stefanie first met about nine years ago in Maryland, where they were first neighbors, then friends and then more than friends. On one of their first dates, John took Stefanie for a ride on his scooter. Allie, who works in customer service, and Greg, a barbershop owner, initially got together through one of those friend-of-a-friend scenarios. For their first date, they went to the movies to see “Bohemian Rhapsody,” the biopic about Queen frontman Freddie Mercury.
Greg first became aware of Muscle Shoals Sound after seeing a Rolling Stones documentary. Besides The Stones sessions, including blues-rocker “Brown Sugar,” some of his favorite music recorded at the studio include the early Lynyrd Skynyrd track “Trust” and 2010 Black Keys album “Brothers.” However until his wedding day, he’d never been to Muscle Shoals Sound before. “It makes it that much more special,” Greg says, “that I got to experience it with my lovely new wife.”