MSRS: Keeping the Shoals Spirit Spinning

Brooke J. Freundschuh, Arts & Entertainment Editor

Along the railroad tracks in the heart of Sheffield, Ala. lies a quaint building that is easily recognizable as a gas station, however there are no longer gas pumps, only an awning where cars pull in. Behind the glass windows and doors are racks, shelves, crates and boxes full of vinyl records, nearly 15,000, to be exact.

Upon entry, the visitor will find store owner and founder David Hulsey sitting low behind the high countertops. Music spans as far as the eyes can see. Large racks of vinyl records and CDs line the walls and occupy the floor space. Musical memorabilia lines the walls. A large photo of Elvis visiting Sheffield hangs from the wall along with a license plate reading “LNRD SKNRD.” Photographs of Stevie Nicks and Linda Ronstadt, Sheffield and Muscle Shoals highschool band uniforms that were donated to the store to be put on display, a jukebox, a door covered in positive words, which served as the final class project for a University of North Alabama Art Student and a cardboard cut out of the Beatles, minus Paul, all adorn this lively little hole in the wall. From the corner of the room, music is oftentimes playing on a small, suitcase-style record player, which is one of the many pieces of sound equipment in the store. 

The Muscle Shoals Record Shop, as it is called, opened for business in Jan. 2019, but the history surrounding the building and the business span decades before. In 1957 a run-of-the-mill gas station was built at 100 Montgomery Street. It operated as a gas station throughout the 1960s, 70s and 80s. At one point cars were worked on inside the building, before it was turned into a fully functional convenient store and gas station. There is no telling how many legends who passed through Muscle Shoals, Ala. in these years saw this gas station, never knowing that their works would one day be the highly-sought products sold in the building half a century later. In the 90s, the gas station was owned by the popular chain, Racetrack, but eventually shut down due to the lack of space. The building sat for over fifteen years, until David Hulsey, an alumni of the University of North Alabama, (then named Florence State College) a former teacher and school administrator and an antiques business owner, stumbled upon an online listing. 

“I drove by for years, and I looked at it, and I thought about it. It was shut up. They had plywood on the windows, and it was closed. One day it actually came up for sale as an auction, and I bought it on an online auction bid. I just found out about it the day they were selling it. The funny part was, I bought the building without having a key. I had never been inside the building. I didn’t know what to expect. After I bought it, they gave me a key. Well, we found out the roof leaked; the windows were broken; the heater and air conditioner, neither one of those worked. The lights didn’t work. Bathrooms didn’t work. Termites had destroyed all of these walls, and so the first year that we owned the building, about all we did was rehabilitate the building,” Hulsey explained. 

Hulsey has been a resident of the Shoals area for the majority of the last 50 years. In that time he has lived in all four of the quad-cities. He has had many experiences with Muscle Shoals music. As a sophomore in college, Hulsey was writing for Florence State College’ s student newspaper, the Flor-Ala, which was at the time sponsored by Doris Kelso. In the time of the booming music scene and traffic throughout Muscle Shoals, there were always rumors of big names being in town to record. In the late fall of 1967, Hulsey heard of a rumor that soul legend and close friend of FAME studios founder Rick Hall, Otis Redding, was staying in town. When a musician came to the Shoals, the nicest place for them to stay was the Holiday Inn in downtown Florence. Hulsey went to the Holiday Inn and asked the front desk if Redding was really staying there. He was. The front-desk clerk phoned Redding’s room and put Hulsey on the line. Redding’s wife, Zelma Atwood, answered the phone and informed Hulsey that Redding and some of his band members were out to eat, but that if he waited about 45 minutes, Redding would be happy to talk to him, as he loved giving interviews to  college papers. 

“Being 18-years-old and stupid, and instead of waiting 45 minutes, I left the Holiday Inn to go do something else and missed out on an opportunity to meet Otis, who was the number one guy in soul music in those years,” Hulsey recollects. Tragically, Redding’s private plane went down in Lake Michigan due to harsh weather conditions on Dec. 10, 1967, just weeks later and he was killed. 

It was memories like these and his stumbling upon a friend’s old record rack that gave Hulsey the inspiration to build his business, and he remains proud of what he has grown in the last two years. “We love the name Muscle Shoals Record Shop. We wanted the name that just clearly states who we are and what we do. You can call people out in California and they’ll recognize when you say “Muscle Shoals music”; they know what you’re talking about,” Hulsey remarks.

The MSRS’s mission is helping people who enjoy listening to vinyl records for fun grow their collections. Even in the age of streaming and easy access to most music, the record business still prevails. 

“We went through a lot of stages. We went through cassette tapes and we went through 8-track tapes to CD’s. Maybe 10 or 15 years ago, people got a renewed interest in buying vinyl records and how much fun it is, not only to listen to records, but to buy the albums, and eventually you build up a collection of the people that you like and it’s very much fan motivated. In our store we don’t really specialize in collector records. The people who are true collectors, they’ll buy records in the $200, $300, even the $1000 dollar range, and that’s really not who we are. We mostly sell to people who are building a record collection for fun and they play their own records, a

He remarks on how good music spans throughout the ages and how artists like Billy Joel and Elton John are some of the most popular records sold, “You can’t expect a 16-year-old to know much about Buddy Holly, because maybe they’ve never heard of Buddy Holly. Everybody, even the 12- year-olds come in and buy the Beatles’ records. We’ve got 10- year-olds who are building Beatles collections right now, but except for the really big names like that, most teenagers, they haven’t heard those old names.” 

Their business thrives on the younger generation that has a renewed interest in physical music. Most customers seem to be high school and college aged girls. “It’s kind of remarkable that we have two audience groups, and one would definitely be the 13 to 22-year-old  high school and college kids. That market is very strong. We couldn’t be here if not for our highschool and college students who come in and buy,” Hulsey explains. He has long conversations with and gives advice to these students who come to visit. “I tell students all the time: don’t feel like you have to jump out and buy everything. I always tell people that I’d rather buy two good records at a time that are clean and not damaged than buy 10 that are damaged, scarred, scratched up and the covers aren’t good.”

However, while the younger crowd keeps the spirit alive, a fair share of older, reminiscent visitors make appearances as well, including some who have been a part of Muscle Shoals Music History themselves. “The most interesting days are when the musicians come in, and we’ve had quite a few, ‘’ Hulsey tells, “Some of the guys who play with Jason Isbell and the 400 unit have been pretty frequent visitors. They come in and tell stories of life on the road with Jason Isbell. A lot of the old guys who played instruments in the early days of Muscle Shoals bands who got the record business started, those are probably the most interesting guys are the old timers who played in the 60s and 70s.” Many of these “old guys” are just as interested in buying records. Many older people stop in on a weekly or even daily basis to browse the newest additions and attempt to negotiate the prices down. 

Being a small business, the MSRS has been affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. Often Muscle Shoals is a site for tourism, both nationally and globally, but this year was different. “In 2019, many people came from Europe. They always want to know, ‘do you have Wilson Pickett doing Mustang Sally?’  or ‘Do you have Otis Redding? Aretha Franklin?’ When they go home, they want to take with them some Muscle Shoals albums and show their friends that they have been to Muscle Shoals, Ala.” Hulsey tells. 

Despite these complications, MSRS still continues to thrive as a staple of the community. They receive support from both of the major recording studios in town and are appreciated for their dedication to preserving the history of our great city and keeping the Muscle Shoals sound alive. 

Emma Leigh Wright
Emma Leigh Wright
Brooke J. Freundschuh
Brooke J. Freundschuh
Brooke J. Freundschuh