FLORENCE — Jason Isbell said he remembers living in the Shoals and having to travel outside the area if he and his friends wanted to see a national touring rock band.

So about two years ago, he and his manager, Traci Thomas, began seriously kicking around the idea of bringing a full-fledged music festival to the Shoals, the type someone would normally have to travel to Birmingham, Nashville or Memphis, Tennessee, to enjoy.

"I thought it would be nice to drive into Florence to see someone play that normally plays places like Chicago or New York," Isbell said.

And so was born ShoalsFest, the one-day music festival that will be held Saturday at McFarland Park. 

The festival will feature performances by Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit, Sheryl Crow, Mavis Staples and Amanda Shires, who is Isbell's wife.

Also appearing on a second stage sponsored by Single Lock Records is Rob Aldridge and The Proponents, The Prescriptions, Caleb Elliott and The Kernal.

"I've built a relationship over the past couple of years with Sheryl Crow and Mavis Staples," Isbell said. "I've played all of Mavis Staples' birthday celebrations. It just so happened we got them early enough and they were free."

He said Staples said she has not been back to the Shoals since The Staples Singers recorded at Muscle Shoals Sounds Studio in 1972.

The location, McFarland Park on the Tennessee River, is "perfect," Isbell said of the event. He should know since he's played on stages by the river during the annual Fourth of July celebration. 

Isbell said the process so far hasn't been all that difficult. They're working with a promoter they're comfortable with. They have secured many sponsors quickly and easily. The one big challenge with an outdoor festival, he said, is always the weather.

"It's the only worry when you do something like this," Isbell said. "Everybody has worked with us really well."

The festival quickly sold out 5,000 general admission, general admission pit and VIP tickets.

"It was definitely a surprise to me when (ShoalsFest) sold out so quickly," Isbell said. 

He said he modeled ShoalsFest after his favorite music festival, the Newport Folk Festival in Newport, Rhode Island. 

"The Newport Folk Festival is the model we went for," Isbell said. "Newport is isolated. There's one way in and one way out. They never oversell the festival."

That atmosphere allows fans to be comfortable and pay attention to the musicians, he said.

Since he's performed with Crow and Staples, Isbell said fans can expect some sit-ins during the sets by other artists. The festival website promises "full sets" by all the main artists.

Festival organizers recently added a separate Friday show at the Shoals Theatre, "Jason Isbell and Friends," which Isbell described as he and The 400 Unit performing Muscle Shoals music with local musicians.

The show is being curated by 400 Unit bassist Jimbo Hart and drummer Chad Gamble.

"We'll have a bunch of folks from all different age groups coming in to cover old Muscle Shoals songs, some who played on the originals," Isbell said. 

Gamble is excited about the show. He said it will probably resemble the times he, Hart and Isbell used to play at La Fonda Mexicana.

"We wanted to get together with some of the folks that mentored and inspired us as young musicians, along with some newer talent that the area has produced to pay homage to songs recorded here," Gamble said.

That show is also sold out.

"It's going to be a hoot," Hart said. "Though we couldn't possibly get all of the musicians in the Shoals involved in one show, we feel like we've lined up some of the best around. It's really going to be a really great night of music."

Tickets remain for "A Jason Isbell Fans Tour of the Shoals," which will take fans on a three-hour tour of area landmarks referenced in many of Isbell's songs, going back to his days with the Drive-By Truckers. Tickets for the tour are $100.

"We discovered that a lot of Jason’s fans were curious about the people/places that inspired so many songs about his hometown," tour organizer Judy Hood said. "People who are not from the Shoals area wanted to get a first-hand feel for Jason’s inspirations. So we’re going to integrate his lyrics into a tour that will include stops at the industrial park referenced in "Outfit", Parker’s Place across the Tennessee State Line, Kendale Gardens, the Super 8 Motel and other points of interest."

The tour includes a stop at Roger's High School, where Jason's former band director will talk about some of Isbell's high school music experiences. 

"Jason’s management team has designed a very cool map with key spots on it for us to give to tour participants," Hood said.

The Rogers High School Pirates Band will be marching and performing in McFarland Park on the day of the festival.

"Jason is an unwavering ambassador for the Muscle Shoals music scene," said Hood, a member of the Alabama Music Hall of Fame Board of Directors. "He loves to give shout-outs to the Swampers and other legendary musicians here who were early influences for him. And now Jason is a hero and an inspiration to the next generation of young people with musical aspirations. People like Jason help us keep this dream alive."

Isbell said when he was younger, he spent a lot of time around Hood's husband, Swampers bassist David Hood, asking "tons of questions" about the music business.

"David's advice was more life advice, like always be on time, be the first person to get to the studio, make sure all your equipment works," Isbell said.

If a musician can do that, Hood told him he'd be 80 percent ahead of everyone else.

"It comes down to honoring your word," Isbell said. "I'll be happy to tell anyone anything I've learned from those guys and from my own struggles."

Isbell said they still have to get through the inaugural event, but the team is already looking toward 2020.

"If this one goes off well and everything goes according to plan, we're definitely planning on doing it again," Isbell said.


or 256-740-5738. Twitter



(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.