ShoalsFest Buzz Generated at First Fridays

Mary Stella Mangina, Arts & Entertainment Editor

In 2019, the first ShoalsFest took place, and Florence locals and travelers from across the Southeast were united under a shared love of meaningful music. Founded by musician and Alabama native Jason Isbell, ShoalsFest is a music festival and meeting point for people to appreciate genuinely crafted music. While its attendees were kept from reconvening in 2020 by COVID-19, they met again in 2021, and another successful gathering came about. 


This year, Isbell and his team plan to hold the third ShoalsFest, which is set to occur, rain or shine, the first weekend of October. In addition to Isbell, the 2022 ShoalsFest lineup lists globetrotting musicians like 2019 Grammy nominee and international chart topper Christone “Kingfish” Ingram, plus an array of impressive local bands, such as up-and-comers The Wanda Band. Like its predecessors, this year’s festival will be housed by McFarland Park, at 200 James M. Spain Drive, in Florence, Ala. McFarland Park’s scenic location on the Tennessee River makes it the ideal place for an indisputably Southern celebration of music. 


ShoalsFest’s true-to-life approach to music shows is characteristic of the Shoals area, where the renowned Florence Alabama Music Enterprises, or FAME Recording Studios, made a name for itself. FAME was instrumental in cultivating what is commonly called the Muscle Shoals Sound. It has hosted a well-known variety of artists. Etta James, Wilson Pickett and Aretha Franklin, for example, have recorded at FAME. More recently, the studios have seen musicians such as the Black Keys, Alicia Keys and Isbell himself.


Isbell, a winner of four Grammys, is known for co-founding progressive country music group the Drive-By Truckers and spearheading the trajectory of his current band, the 400 Unit. The singer-songwriter has worked with FAME since 2000 and thinks that doing so was a huge influence on his career. He is generally regarded as an important figure in revamping Southern culture while preserving its ideology of togetherness.


A strong sense of community like the one Isbell supports is a facet of Florence and Muscle Shoals. With its influx of locally-owned businesses and artistic ingenuity, Florence is blossoming. Its development is reflected by a growing population and a mounting number of visitors, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.


Those who have either grown up in the city of Florence or spent time in it at a time of heightened activity know that it is not new to providing its residents with opportunities to celebrate its cultural cornerstone, music. This summer, for example, Florence observed its annual W.C. Handy Music Festival. 


For years, Florence has dedicated the first Friday of weather-permitting months to street fairs known as “First Fridays.” 


On Sept. 2, First Friday was University of North Alabama themed. A number of student organizations from UNA attended, and the evening featured a pep rally. The UNA band–the Marching Pride–as well as the spirit team and athletic department were a part of the evening of Lion Pride.

Besides the event’s numerous vendors and booths, most of which are manned by local creators, local and commuting bands often perform at First Fridays. The event provides bands with a coveted and comfortable open-air venue, a large but approachable stage on Mobile Street.


On the whole, the festivities unfurl on Court Street, between 5:30 and 8 p.m. They imbue Florence’s downtown space with exciting activity that attracts everyone from families to students at the University of North Alabama. 


Outside of its student-driven happenings, last week’s First Fridays gave students a chance to win ShoalsFest tickets, with a drawing facilitated by Chris Stangel, director of the Downtown Florence Alliance. In league with Isbell and his manager, Stangel, was integral in getting this year’s ShoalsFest off the ground. Throughout September, he hopes to generate similar prospects on campus for UNA students to gain access to the festival.


The board Stangel oversees works toward a common goal of keeping Florence’s vibrancy intact and welcoming newcomers into its fold. For the alliance, the newcomers in question are largely made up of UNA students.


Although it is safe to say they are an engaged group of students, those enrolled at UNA are not quite as represented at downtown events as they ought to be. For reasons most likely related to convenience, international students especially are only now starting to attend downtown Florence affairs in big numbers. Through intercontinental recruitment programs and its global presence, UNA draws students in from abroad at a rate greater than ever before.


It is necessary that the school’s new students from overseas feel at-home in their new environment. For Stangel and the rest of the Downtown Florence Alliance, welcoming international students to UNA is a job that extends beyond campus’s reach. The way they see it, these students are representatives of a thriving Florence, and making them aware that their opinions are valued and needs are being met is a task that falls to the city’s entire population.


The sizable turnout at Friday’s street fair indicates that the UNA campus community, international and domestic classmates alike, are beginning to feel that they are truly a part of Florence’s citizenry.


Often, circumstances on the university’s grounds can seem to its residents, in comparison with the city-spanning bounds of their surroundings, safer and more accessible. UNA is expansive, and its staff and faculty do everything in their power, for the most part, to make certain that accommodations are made and creative energy is promoted. Unfortunately, its wide range of clubs and different on-campus amenities sometimes leave its inhabitants isolated from their town at large. Be that as it may, if the ideas set in motion by Stangel couple properly with those of Isbell and his colleagues, the Shoals will continue to broaden its cultural appeal. Subsequently, UNA’s student body will be further integrated into the realm of the previously mentioned Muscle Shoals Sound.


First Fridays’s latest endorsement of Registered Student Organizations and athletic teams, not to mention its production of ShoalsFest ticket winners, set the stage for a more UNA-centric downtown Florence. 


Florence has a famous relationship with genuine ingenuity and grassroots music. Its notoriety continues to peak the curiosity of big-name rock musicians, and its authenticity keeps Isbell devoting himself to its advancement. 


Among those who expressed interest on Friday in Isbell’s anticipated ShoalsFest were members of Muscle Shoals-born Americana band Moontree. Because they were slated to perform the next day at Lava Room, the bar and concert venue newly opened by Downtown Florence Alliance associate Tyler Ross, they were spending time in the heart of downtown Florence. During their participation in First Fridays revelry, namely Stangel’s ShoalsFest ticket drawing, they let the alliance director know they would like to do whatever they can as far as contributing to the local music scene goes. Luckily for them, October’s ShoalsFest lineup consists of several Shoals-rooted bands; it will retain and expand its inclusivity over the course of the following years. 


With First Fridays’s triumphant turnout in mind, it is clear that the foundations for a musically unified Florence were laid. On top of the city’s rich musical history, its people’s increasing love of the arts bodes well for Isbell’s ShoalsFest, both this year and in the years to come.