FLORENCE — A chance meeting at an intimate house concert in Canada once again showed the impact of the Muscle Shoals documentary, and how it led a Canadian folk singer to the Shoals.
But the couple who suggested Linda McRae visit the area said while the movie originally motivated them to come to the Shoals, it was the people who caused them to return multiple times.
McRae, who has lived in Kingston Springs, Tennessee, outside Nashville, since 2007, said she was performing the song “Singing River” at a show in Canada when she noticed a person wearing a “Muscle Shoals” baseball cap. She later met Jim and Bernie Davis, who suggested she and her husband visit the Shoals with them.
Jim Davis said the couple has visited the Shoals five times in the past 20 months. He said April will be the second anniversary of their first visit.
“They’re the reason why we’re down here now,” McRae said of the recent visit she and her husband, James, made to the Shoals.
McRae is originally from Vancouver, British Columbia, and frequently tours Canada.
Their visit took them to many popular Shoals landmarks and a few out-of-the-way places, but the one place McRae had to visit was Tom Hendrix’s wall, where she played “Singing River,” a song about Hendrix’s great-great grandmother, Te-Lah-Nay, a Yuchi Indian who was forced to leave her homeland during the 1830s forced removal of Native Americans known as the Trail of Tears.
Once she arrived in Oklahoma, McRae said, Te-Lah-Nay realized she could no longer hear the songs of “the Singing River,” which we know as the Tennessee River. So Te-Lah-Nay began a five-year journey back to the land of the Singing River.
McRae never had met Hendrix, who is known for building a stone wall at his Lauderdale County home to honor his great-great grandmother, a feat that has taken him 35 years to complete.
She learned about his story in the “Muscle Shoals” documentary she watched during her stay at Escape to Create, a multidisciplinary creative retreat in Seaside, Florida.
“While I was there, I had a copy of ‘Muscle Shoals,’ and I watched it about five times,” McRae said.
She was so taken with the story of Te-Lah-Nay, she began Internet research on her and on Hendrix’s wall.
“I wrote the song from what I was able to find,” McRae said. “I was so taken with the story, I ended up writing the song.”
McRae said she was able to visit the wall and Hendrix for about three hours during her seven-day visit to the Shoals. She also played “Singing River” for Hendrix in a little amphitheater at the wall.
“Tom was really warm and really welcoming,” she said. “We were all in tears more than a few times. It was so amazing.”
The song also appears on McRae’s latest album, “Shadow Trails,” released in September in Canada on Borealis Records.
“We heard the song, and she really captured the essence of Te-Lah-Nay’s story,” Jim Davis said.
McRae, who plays guitar, banjo, bass, accordion and porchboard, has been in music about 25 years. She has released six solo albums and played on eight albums with the Canadian Celtic rock band Spirit of the West. The band has played the Glastonbury Festival in England, and performed with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra.
“The song really resonates with people,” she said.
McRae, who has received many invitations to return to the Shoals, said she and her husband will continue to visit from time to time.
“The movie is what hooked us,” Jim Davis said about why he and his wife visited the area.
But it was the people like Johnny Belew at Claunch’s Cafe in Tuscumbia, and Dennis Sherer at the Colbert County Tourism and Convention Bureau who kept them coming back.
Bernie Davis said McRae and “Singing River” is what brought them back to the Shoals this time around.
Jim Davis said he was surprised by the size of the area during his first visit. Davis said he envisioned a smaller town based on what he saw in the documentary, rather than four towns in two counties that comprise an area of more than 100,000 people.
Bernie Davis still has the list Belew gave them of places they should visit, and artists like Kerry Gilbert and Max Russell who they should see while they are here. She said he took time out during work to write the suggestions. She keeps it in a plastic bag tucked away in a fanny pack.
Belew said he does what he does because he loves the area he’s called home for the past 20 years. He loves to talk to people, and wants to point them to places they might not find in a shiny tourism brochure.
“We live in an area where there’s a lot of givers,” Belew said. “I found out a long time ago God gave me a talent to cook things people would like. I like to meet people and musicians, and they like to eat. It’s a way I can give back to them.”
Belew said while Sherer gets it, he’s tried to convince other tourism officials it’s people like the Davises who should be promoting the area.
“These are the real people who come here because they want to, not because they’re getting paid,” Belew said. “There’s something very special about them. They didn’t have to come back to this area that many times.”