Above: from Embroidery: Threads and Stories by Natalie Chanin, page 106-107; photo by Cliff Billingsley
The April issue of Southern Living magazine includes an essay by Natalie titled, “How The Singing River Inspires The South’s Creativity.” Read the full article below, explore our #travel series on the Journal for more on The Shoals, and find upcoming events here.
“How The Singing River Inspires The South’s Creativity”
The Tennessee River runs right through the region of northwest Alabama known as The Shoals—encompassing Florence and the cities of Muscle Shoals, Sheffield, and Tuscumbia.
The river has shaped the landscape and the people who call it home, including me. Indigenous Americans fed themselves and their communities from this river and developed rich stories around it. The Yuchi people of Alabama believed it to be home to a young woman who sang beautiful songs to them, calling it “The Singing River”—a name it maintains to this day.
In the early days, the waters flowed wide and shallow, were prone to flooding, and were rife with shoals. Some say Muscle Shoals is named after one of these shallow spots, requiring “muscle” to go over or around. Below the shoals, the river became narrow and deep, and thus, navigable by boat—connecting the community to the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, on to the Gulf of Mexico and to the world.
When I was a child, it was a constant source of adventure and imagination for me. I was thrown into the river at an early age—swimming in backwaters almost as soon as I could walk. I grew up fishing, camping, hiking, wandering, and learning to navigate—exploring waterfalls, trails, and caves that crisscross the hills and valleys connecting this part of Appalachia. For me, the river was filled with the inspiration of unlived adventures—above, below, and beyond The Shoals.
I was born a few decades after Wilson, Wheeler, and Pickwick Landing Dams were completed. They flooded the shoals and fueled the growing industries across the region. The mighty rush of water created electricity for the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) and also made the expanse of the river navigable by boat and barge. Harnessing the power of the flow was an impetus for the thriving textile industry that would come to define our region and become my life’s work. Now, makers of all types—writers, musicians, and creatives from around the world call The Shoals home.
The river and these lands are still my playground, where I continue to explore the hills surrounding it. I collect stories from other people who grew up working and living here. The landscape has inspired 23 years of textile patterns, stitched into our hand-embroidered fabrics and garments, and still continues to spark creativity.
Soon, the Singing River Trail will link The Shoals with a more-than-200-mile greenway and provide access to miles of trails and sites across this region. The Tennessee RiverLine further connects us across 652 miles of this waterway from Knoxville to Paducah, Kentucky.
The river highlights the importance of place, of remembering those who have come before—singing, laboring, navigating, making—those who have harnessed the water’s power and found inspiration. It’s a reminder of the connections among us all.
Written by Natalie Chanin for Southern Living Magazine
Southern Living Magazine released its annual “The South’s Best 2023” issue. Read along state by state here. While Florence, and The Shoals, didn’t make this year’s list of best cities, our hometown did make the 2020 list here. There are lots of towns and adventures to visit while en route to The Shoals and more to explore here.