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Books: Excerpt from Thomas Spencer’s ‘Five-Star Trails: Birmingham’

Sunday, January 25th, 2015

Five-Star Trails Birmingham, Thomas Spencer

The following chapter is an excerpt from Birmingham author Thomas Spencer’s “Five-Star Trails: Birmingham” [aff. link]. He grew up hiking and camping in Alabama and worked as a reporter for the Anniston Star and the Birmingham News. Spencer is now senior research associate at the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama. He was a founder of the Friends of Red Mountain Park and serves on the board of the Cahaba River Society.

“Five-Star Trails: Birmingham” provides plans and details for three dozen hikes, from downtown to the surrounding wilderness areas.

In this excerpt, Tom takes us on a hike to Oak Mountain State Park’s highest point.

• • •

Hike No. 12: Oak Mountain State Park, King’s Chair Loop

At-A-Glance Information

  • Scenery: ★★★★★
  • Trail Condition: ★★★★
  • Children: ★★★☆☆
  • Difficulty: ★★★★
  • Solitude: ★★★☆☆
  • GPS Trailhead Coordinates: N33° 21.438′ W86° 42.288′
  • Distance and Configuration: 5-mile loop
  • Hiking Time: 3 hours
  • Highlights: Challenging uphills, great mountaintop views from Eagle’s Nest and King’s Chair, wet-weather waterfalls
  • Elevation: 600 feet at trailhead, 1,200 feet at peak
  • Access, Maps, Wheelchair Access: [included in book]
  • Facilities: Restrooms and changing rooms at the trailhead
  • Comments: Remember that the Red Trail is a shared hiking and mountain biking trail.


This route is intense because of its uphill climb and the scenic rewards it provides. It’s a great hike for fall colors, providing sweeping scenic vistas. In wet weather, cascading streams tumble down the mountainside. In any season, it’s a quick way to feel far from civilization.

From the North Trailhead, this hike follows the Blue Trail up Double Oak Mountain to two of the park’s favorite overlooks. It continues southwest along the south rim of the mountain before taking the south Red–Blue Connector Trail to the Red Trail, which heads downhill back to the north trailhead.

Route Details

This hike doesn’t mess around. It makes an immediate climb up Oak Mountain. Between the North Trailhead and the Eagle’s Nest overlook, there is a 500-foot elevation gain, and that’s in the first mile-and-a-half. But that early and intense exertion pays dividends. You get away from civilization quickly. Thanks to the size of the park and the way the trail twists up the ridges, you encounter views on this hike in which all you see is woods and mountains, quick access to the feeling that you’ve wandered off someplace remote.

We hiked parts of this route in the warm and dry early fall and enjoyed the way the breezes on the ridges cooled us after a tough climb. We returned in winter after a rain and were surprised to find that what had been dry drainages in the fall had become a series of gushing waterfalls. There was so much water that creek crossings on the Red Trail offered a challenge for anyone wanting to keep their feet dry.

The hike starts at the North Trailhead, across from the gravel parking lot on the north end of the park, near the lower lakes and the park entrance off Alabama 119.

While the White, Yellow and Red Trails gain elevation gradually, the Blue Trail heads directly up the mountain. It is well marked, with plastic blue blazes nailed to trees. Distance markers are posted every quarter-mile; on the Blue Trail, they start at 0 and go up. So at Post 4, you’ve gone 1 mile.

The forests are a mix of pine and hardwood, with a nice sampling of longleaf pines on the ridges and white oaks in the draws; the latter provide a generous supply of fat acorns in the fall. When we went back in winter, the acorns were harder to find, likely gobbled up by the wintering wildlife. What was present in the winter that had not been there in the fall was water. And lots of it. A little less than a half-mile into the hike, you begin crossing a series of streams dropping down the mountainside, creating little waterfalls as they go. At the 1-mile mark, you pass the north Red–Blue Connector Trail, which serves as a shortcut back to the parking lot if you need it.

Oak Mountain State Park

Oak Mountain State Park
(click image for larger version)

King's Chair Trail map

King’s Chair Trail map, above,
and elevation profile, below

King's Chair Trail elevation profile

Shortly thereafter, the trail splits. Continuing straight, the original Blue Trail offers several unobstructed views of Shackleford Ridge, then descends gently to a saddle between ridges before resuming its upward climb. If you’ve had enough of steep hills by now, this is the way to go. Be forewarned, though, that heavy rains can turn the original Blue Trail into a swiftly flowing creek. Alternatively, if you turn left at the junction, a newer Blue Trail (with the same blue blazes) makes an exceedingly steep 0.2-mile climb to a rock outcropping at the Eagle’s Nest overlook, then continues downhill not quite as precipitously to rejoin the original Blue Trail just before the final pitch up to the Double Oak Mountain ridgetop. From the top of the rock at Eagle’s Nest, you can see yet another perspective of Shackleford Ridge and the park’s highest point. From all points, your view is forest and twisting mountain ridges that hide any evidence of civilization.

At the 1.5-mile marker on the trail (you’re about 2 miles into your hike if you went up to Eagle’s Nest), you top the ridge and reach the junction with the spur trail to the King’s Chair Overlook. Take the spur. At 0.3 miles, it’s a little longer than the spur to Eagle’s Nest, but it’s much less arduous.

At the rocky outcropping of King’s Chair, you get your first chance for wide-open views from the southeastern ridge of the mountain. In the far distance across the wide Coosa River Valley, the Talladega Mountain ridges are visible. In the middle distance, you’ll see steam rising from the cooling towers at Alabama Power’s Gaston electrical plant in south Shelby County, along the river.

Returning to the main trail, continue south along the ridge on the Blue Trail to the southern Red–Blue Connector. Take that connector, which cuts back to the north 0.75 miles to the Red Trail, which in turn takes you back to the North Trailhead. The return trip is especially nice if it has been raining. Those little mountain streams gather together with more volume, creating trailside waterfalls and challenging creek crossings. Along the way, you’ll notice stonework in the drainage system along the road. In the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps built the Red Road. Remember that you’re sharing this trail with mountain bikers.

The trip back to the parking lot is well marked and easy.


From I-65, follow the directions on page 111. After entering the park, you’ll drive almost its entire length to get to the North Trailhead.

From US 280, follow the directions on page 111. About a mile past the back entrance to the park, the North Trailhead parking lot will be on your right, along the main park road.

• • •

Thomas Spencer has two library events in March: a brown bag lunch talk at noon March 11 at Emmet O’Neal Library in Mountain Brook [map]; and a book signing at 6:30 p.m. March 19 at Homewood Public Library [map].

He also has a free group hike at 10:30 a.m. Feb. 28 at Perry Lakes Park with Southeastern Outings. Other hikes with him and Scale Back Alabama will take place through April. For more information on the hikes, email Tanya Sylvan at Keen Communication or Tom Spencer.

“Five-Star Trails: Birmingham” (November 2014, Menasha Ridge Press)

Thomas Spencer

Books: Excerpt from Marie Sutton’s ‘The A.G. Gaston Motel in Birmingham’

Saturday, January 3rd, 2015

Marie Sutton - AG Gaston Motel in Birmingham

The following chapter is an excerpt from Birmingham author Marie Sutton’s “The A.G. Gaston Motel in Birmingham” [aff. link]. She is a writer with a passion for immortalizing the African-American experience, married to the Rev. James Sutton with two children, Simone and Stephen.

In this excerpt, Sutton shares the history of segregated Birmingham and the rise of entrepreneur A.G. Gaston.

• • •

Locked Out, but Creating a New Way

“I couldn’t understand why the color of your skin made you better than me. That didn’t make sense.”

— Brenda Faush, a native of Birmingham

Alabama’s scorching summer days do not discriminate. Beneath the merciless sun, there is neither black nor white, rich nor poor — the warmth oppresses all. From the pristine streets of Mountain Brook to the dusty roads of Acipco-Finley, the thick, humid air can be suffocating and the pavement like hot lava.

If your skin is brown, however, it doesn’t take long for a million little reminders — like needle-thin icicles — to prick you back into reality; not even the indiscriminate Alabama heat can thaw out cold hearts or melt away the blistering, blue knuckle winter of segregation.

During the 1950s — in the sweltering June, July and August months — a Negro child had to still any excitement at the sight of Kiddieland Park. Riding along the endless stretch of Third Avenue West in Birmingham, the fairgrounds could be spotted from the road. The smell of salty, buttered popcorn and sweet, airy cotton candy was a seductive lure. The bright, colorful Ferris wheel sliced through the skyline, and the grounds danced with spinning boxcars, mock airplane rides and a merry-go-round.

Kiddieland was an annual summer carnival that was created in June 1948 for area children. Described by the Birmingham News as a “miniature Fairyland,” it was touted as “welcome to all,” though it was understood that that meant everyone except Negroes. The fair featured Sunday concerts, “hillbilly” shows, a “pint-sized edition of the Southern Railway’s Southerner” train and advertisements that showed rosy-cheeked children drunk with glee. It was not until years later that blacks were allowed to come, but only on the last day when the stuffed toys were usually picked over and nearly gone; the vendors were packing up and the popcorn stale.

Ask a room full of blacks who grew up in Birmingham during that time, and only a scant few won’t mention how their memories were stained by not being allowed to attend the fair.

“I remember looking over there and knowing that I couldn’t go and not quite understanding why,” remembered Samuetta Hill Drew, who was a colored child in Birmingham during the 1950s.

Tamara Harris Johnson’s parents tried to shield her from the Kiddieland discussion, she said. Even though the street on which the fair sat was a main artery to downtown, her parents, and many others, found alternate routes so as not to explain why admission to the fair was more than a dime. It also required that your skin be white.

That was the way it was in Birmingham. If you were black, you were only given access to scraps of the American dream, the torn and tattered pieces, the chewed up and spit out ones. Jim Crow laws made sure of it.

City ordinances deemed it illegal for blacks and whites to play cards together or even enjoy movies collectively unless there was separate seating, entrances and exits. And the only way they could eat in the same room was if they were divided by a solid partition that reached at least 7 feet from the floor. Signs that read “whites only” hung on doorways and water fountains throughout the city. Even the telephone directories noted whether people or businesses were “C” or “Colored.”


The 2015 Birmingham sports preview

Tuesday, December 30th, 2014

James Hinchcliffe, Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama

James Hinchcliffe races in the No. 27 GoDaddy car
at the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama.

Birmingham isn’t just Barons and other-city football. Take a look at the loaded calendar of sports for 2015, including a February of nonstop track and field, plus marathons, new pro football, three basketball tournaments and the Tide playing home games in Hoover.


  • Birmingham Barons: The 2015 season begins at home on April 9 at Regions Field with a five-game series against the Mobile BayBears.
  • Crimson Tide: The University of Alabama baseball team will have its season opener Feb. 13 at the Hoover Met with 31 home games there. The Tide is spending the season off campus as Sewell-Thomas Stadium has a $35 million renovation.
  • SEC Tournament: Speaking of the Met, the conference capper returns May 19-24. Hoover has been the annual home of the tournament since 1998.


  • AHSAA Tournament: Boys and girls high school teams from 1A to 7A converge Feb. 23-28 at the BJCC’s Legacy Arena.
  • Birmingham Blitz: The semi-pro team should have games through March, with a new season starting in November.
  • Conference USA Tournament: For the first, and probably last, time, Birmingham will play host to the men’s and women’s tournament. (UAB’s Bartow Arena held the 1996 women’s tourney.) The women will play opening rounds at Bartow. The women’s semifinals on and the all the men’s games will be at the BJCC’s Legacy Arena. UAB will likely be dropped from Conference USA in 2015 after the school punted football.
  • SIAC Tournament: The men’s and women’s tournament returns March 3-7 to the CrossPlex.


  • Alabama Outlawz: The minor league team’s home opener is April 11 at Bill Harris Arena at the CrossPlex.
  • Birmingham Bowl: 11 a.m. Saturday. Legion Field. Florida vs. East Carolina. $30-$50. Airing on ESPN.
  • Birmingham Freedom: The 14th try’s the charm, as a new pro league with a new local franchise. The teams kick off May 16, schedule TBD.
  • Hoover Bucs: The first defending 7A champion will open its season on the road against Oakland in Murfreesboro, Tenn., probably on or near Aug. 21. We mention it because it’ll probably be on ESPN.
  • Labor Day Golden Classic: The annual event returns after a 3-year absence, pitting Miles against the University of North Alabama Sept. 6 (the day before Labor Day) at Legion Field.
  • Magic City Classic: The nation’s largest black college football game, played since 1924, is on Halloween at Legion Field.


  • Regions Tradition: The Champions Tour returns May 11-17 at Shoal Creek with a $2.2 million purse at stake.


  • Frozen Tide: The Alabama hockey team is off to a rousing 14-3 start, with home games at the Pelham Civic Complex throughout January, culminating in the SECHC Tournament Feb. 6-8.



  • Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama: Fans will see Graham Rahal, Marco Andretti, Helio Castroneves, Will Power and two-time defending champ Ryan Hunter-Reay go by real fast. April 24-26 at Barber Motorsports Park.
  • Triumph SuperBike Classic: Excitement on two wheels, June 21-22 at Barber Motorsports Park.


  • Birmingham Vulcans: The first match of the year is Feb. 7 against Jackson at Krebs Field, Ramsay Park.


  • Magic City Half Marathon: Benefitting the Ruben Studdard Foundation for the Advancement of Children in the Music Arts. Nov. 22.
  • Mercedes Marathon: Got what it takes to run the Boston Marathon? Prove it right here Feb. 20-22.
  • Vulcan Run: More than 1,500 runners will stream through downtown Nov. 7 in one of the most popular local 10K races.

Track and Field

  • AHSAA Indoor Tournament: High schools compete for state titles Feb. 5-7 at the CrossPlex.
  • College Tournaments: No less than five conferences will hold track and field championships over 13 days in February at the CrossPlex. Southland: Feb. 16-17; SWAC: Feb. 21-22; Sun Belt: Feb. 23-24; Conference USA: Feb. 25-26; SIAC: Feb. 27-28.
  • NCAA Division II Indoor Championship: The CrossPlex will hold the big event March 13-14; the Division I Championship will be there in 2016.


  • AHSAA Tournament: The high school state championship will be Oct. 29-30 at the CrossPlex.

Which events will you see in 2015? Shout it out in the comments.

Don’t miss the 2015 Birmingham food and drink preview!

Get free passes to preview of ‘Selma’

Tuesday, December 23rd, 2014

Selma - David Oyelowo, Ava DuVernay

David Oyelowo stars as Martin Luther King Jr.
in “Selma,” directed by Ava DuVernay, right.

The historical drama “Selma” hits a few screens on Christmas, opening wide on Jan. 9.

A preview screening takes place in Birmingham at 7 p.m. Jan. 6 at the Carmike Summit 16, and free passes are available.

The movie tells the story of the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965, led by Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo, recently in “Interstellar” and “Lee Daniels’ The Butler”). Ava DuVernay, who became the first African-American woman to win the Sundance Best Director Prize in 2012, signed on to direct after Lee Daniels chose to make “The Butler.”

Oprah Winfrey and Brad Pitt are among the producers.

“Selma” shot primarily around Atlanta, but did some on-location work in Selma and Montgomery.

Free passes for the Jan. 6 screening are available from Gofobo.

Video: Trailer for “Selma”


Alabama to face Ohio State in Sugar Bowl

Sunday, December 7th, 2014

Auburn to Outback; Birmingham Bowl taps Florida, East Carolina

Alabama SEC Championship 2014

Alabama celebrates its SEC Championship win over Missouri.

It’s been a crazier-than-usual week for football in Alabama …

• For the 6th consecutive year, a team from the state will be battling for the national championship. No. 1 Alabama (12-1) faces No. 4. Ohio State (12-1) in the Allstate Sugar Bowl on New Year’s Day in New Orleans.

The winner faces either No. 2 Oregon (12-1) or No. 3 Florida State (13-0) on Jan. 12 in Dallas.

Alabama beat No. 16 Missouri 42-13 Saturday in Atlanta for its 24th SEC Championship. Hueytown native and persistent troublemaker Jameis Winston led Florida State over No. 12 Georgia Tech 37-35 in the ACC title game.

• No. 19 Auburn (8-4) will head to Tampa, also playing on New Year’s Day, for the Outback Bowl, facing No. 18 Wisconsin (10-3).

South Alabama (6-6) will play in Montgomery’s inaugural Raycom Media Camellia Bowl on Dec. 20, taking on Bowling Green (7-6).

• In the Naming Sponsorship Still Available Birmingham Bowl on Jan. 3, Florida (6-5) will battle East Carolina (8-4). The Gators are making their first trip to this bowl, while the Pirates lost to South Florida in the first then-called PapaJohns.com Bowl in 2006.

• Mobile’s GoDaddy Bowl will have Arkansas State (7-5) in its fourth consecutive appearance Jan. 4. The Red Wolves won two out of three times and will face Toledo (8-4), last in the bowl in 2005 beating Texas-El Paso.

UAB will not go bowling. The Blazers finished 6-6, with slim hopes of a bowl bid turned even slimmer by Tuesday’s announcement that the program was kaput.

• The 66th annual Reese’s Senior Bowl takes place Jan. 24 in Mobile. The South leads the series over the North 29-26-3.

• In last week’s high school finals

  • Hoover beat Prattville 35-21 to win the first ever 7A championship.
  • Leeds defeated Deshler 30-0 for the 4A title.
  • Clay-Chalkville topped Saraland 36-31 for the 6A championship, finishing a perfect 15-0.
  • Pleasant Grove lost to St. Paul’s 35-13 in the 5A finals.

Video: Announcement of the Top 4 teams

Books: Excerpt from Carla Jean Whitley’s ‘Muscle Shoals Sound Studio’

Sunday, December 7th, 2014
Carla Jean Whitley, Muscle Shoals Sound Studio

Cheryl Joy Miner

The following chapter is an excerpt from Birmingham author Carla Jean Whitley’s “Muscle Shoals Sound Studio: How the Swampers Changed American Music” [aff. link]. She is managing editor of Birmingham magazine, a freelance writer and a journalism instructor at the University of Alabama and Samford University, plus a good friend.

Her newest book is “Balancing Act: Yoga Essays.”

In this excerpt, Whitley shares how the Rolling Stones snuck in a recording session in Muscle Shoals in between stops on its 1969 U.S. concert tour.

• • •

The Rolling Stones

“I know I’ve dreamed you a sin and a lie
I have my freedom, but I don’t have much time
Faith has been broken, tears must be cried
Let’s do some living after we die
Wild horses couldn’t drag me away.”

— “Wild Horses,” Rolling Stones

They really weren’t supposed to be there.

The Rolling Stones pulled in to Sheffield, Ala., on Dec. 2, 1969. Two nights earlier, they had wrapped a thrilling performance in West Palm Beach, Fla.

The band had a few days of downtime before their next big show, the soon-to-be-legendary Altamont performance in Los Angeles. The free show drew 300,000 fans to Altamont Speedway, and it was the site of four births and four deaths, including a stabbing death committed by a member of Hells Angels just in front of the stage. But before they went on to make rock ’n’ roll history on Altamont Speedway, the band hoped to sneak in a little recording time.

There was a problem, though: Union complications and back taxes meant the Rolling Stones weren’t actually supposed to be on a working vacation. Not that it stopped anyone. Part of the appeal of recording in the Shoals, after all, was its out-of-the-way location, and the Stones had been assured their visit could be kept secret. A band could show up with British accents and flamboyant style and still go unrecognized.

After all, Muscle Shoals Studio was a nearly unknown entity. The owners had a little backing and plenty of talent, but there was only one hit to the fledgling business’ credit: R.B. Greaves “Take a Letter, Maria.” Cher’s “3614 Jackson Highway,” the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section’s first attempt at working with a well-known artist under the auspices of its own studio, was a commercial nonstarter.

But the Rolling Stones, newly signed to Jerry Wexler’s Atlantic, were something else. The British invasion had been dominating American airwaves, and the Stones’ most recent album, “Let It Bleed,” was an emotional release that elevated the band from its previous work (and briefly knocked the Beatles’ “Abbey Road” out of the top spot on British charts).

With the Beatles on the cusp of releasing their final album, the Rolling Stones were arguably the best band in the world. And the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section was prepared. Jimmy Johnson was at the ready with the studio’s Scully eight-track machine primed to roll tape whenever the band was set. That’s exactly what occurred during the Stones’ 3-day residency at Muscle Shoals Sound. The band spent the majority of its time in the studio, playing out its kinks before launching into new material.

“The Stones came in, and they were a little rusty at first because they hadn’t been practicing on account of the tour,” Johnson recounted to BMI in 2009.

So the band would spend the first several hours of work on any particular song ironing things out, and Johnson would be poised. On Night One, they recorded “You Gotta Move,” a cover of a Mississippi Fred McDowell song. A review in Rolling Stone magazine would later cite this track as an album highlight, especially because of Mick Taylor’s electric slide guitar and [Keith] Richards’ acoustic guitar and harmonies.

The band and session musicians spent most of Day Two ironing out wrinkles in their sound before settling in for the second evening’s task. This time, as tape began rolling, the now famous strains of “Brown Sugar” filled the former casket factory. The Chuck Berry-inspired song clocked in at 490 on Rolling Stone’s list of the Top 500 Songs Ever Recorded.

In that list, the magazine wrote, “Here the Stones lay waste to a battery of taboo topics — slavery, sadomasochism, interracial sex — and still manage to be catchy as hell. The song got its start at a session at Muscle Shoals studios: [Mick] Jagger scrawled three verses on a stenographer’s pad, and Richards followed with an impossibly raunchy riff. Add some exultant punctuations (“Yeah! Yeah! Woo-o-o!”) and you have a Stones concert staple.”

Day Three was equally — if not more — successful. At one point, Keith Richards began ruminating over what would become the song “Wild Horses.” His son had been born 4 months earlier, which made being on the road difficult. After Richards jotted down the chorus in the studio’s small bathroom, Jagger polished the lyrics. He left only one line of Richards’ original work, but it sticks with listeners: “Wild horses couldn’t drag me away.”

Between Richards’ inspiration and Jagger’s finesse, the Rolling Stones walked away with what would go on to become one of the band’s signature songs. Richards added a guitar riff, and “Wild Horses” was born.

Richards heard Jim Dickinson, a Memphis studio musician whose sons Cody and Luther are now two-thirds of the North Mississippi AllStars, noodling around on an old piano in the building as the band worked up the song. After Richards commented, Jagger declared Dickinson should play on the song — and so he did.

“I got on ‘Wild Horses’ because Ian Stewart, their regular piano player, wouldn’t play minor chords,” Dickinson later recalled. “In the meantime, they wouldn’t be saying anything to me, but I knew I had to get the very best performance when it happened,” Johnson said in the BMI interview.

“After a few takes of ‘Wild Horses,’ Jagger just looks up at me and says, ‘Is that it?’ — like I’m the producer or something! But I knew when they had it — and I just told ’em to come out and hear it back.”

Sure enough, the song went to No. 28 on charts, and “Brown Sugar” hit No. 1. Andrew O’Hehir wrote on Salon.com that the songs represented a new sound for the Stones — and one they never again created. Rolling Stone ranked the song No. 334 in its list of the 500 Best Songs of All Time.

“Richards wrote this acoustic ballad about leaving his wife Anita and young son Marlon as the Stones prepared for their first American tour in 3 years. Stones sidekick Ian Stewart refused to play the minor chords required, so Memphis musical maverick Jim Dickinson filled in on upright piano at the Muscle Shoals, Ala., recording session for ‘Sticky Fingers,’ ” the magazine wrote.

Despite the Stones’ sometimes colorful reputation, they were professionals in the studio. In his autobiography, Jerry Wexler noted, “As producers, they knew exactly what they wanted and how to get it. Their musicianship really came into play in the studio process. They controlled their craft and ran the whole show with dead-on direction. I was confabulated.”

Nights later, when the Rolling Stones performed at Altamont, Jagger introduced the newly recorded “Brown Sugar.” While the three songs the band taped during those 3 days all became part of “Sticky Fingers,” the Rolling Stones’ first No. 1 album in the United States, “Brown Sugar” remains one of the band’s most enduring songs.

And though the recording session would produce the band’s first stateside smash, it wasn’t as though the Stones were unheard of in Alabama. Even so, as the band lounged in the median of a Tuscumbia highway, watching and waving at passersby, locals seemed to accept them as nothing more than a passing curiosity. Bands weren’t unusual in the Shoals, after all.

But had they been recognized, having the Rolling Stones in town would have been newsworthy indeed. Imagine if the residents had realized who the odd-looking out-of-towners actually were!

• • •

Carla Jean Whitley has two book signings for “Muscle Shoals Sound Studio”: Books-A-Million’s Brook Highland location [map] from 2 to 4 p.m. Saturday and its Brookwood Village location [map] from 2 to 4 p.m. Dec. 14.

“Muscle Shoals Sound Studio” (July 2014, History Press)

Carla Jean Whitley


Video: “Brown Sugar,” by the Rolling Stones

Green and gold and black and blue: On the murder of UAB sports

Wednesday, December 3rd, 2014

UAB Marshall

Blazer tight end Kennard Backman leaps as UAB faces
No. 18 Marshall in its final home game.

Author’s note: In the past, I have worked in my capacity as a communications consultant for the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

Summary: After the loss of its football program, UAB must fire its president and leave the UA system to avoid future calamity.

Dec. 2 would have been a news-filled day without the end of UAB football, and bowling, and rifle.

• Pat Sullivan, a beloved Auburn quarterback and 1972 Heisman winner, stepped down as Samford’s football coach after seven seasons. He turned around a program even as he battled health issues.

• Charles Krulak announced his retirement as president of Birmingham-Southern College, ending in May. His 4-year service brought about a remarkable turnaround for a school drowning in a surprise $67 million debt. Before coming to Birmingham, Krulak served as U.S. Marine Commandant general and MBNA vice president.

UAB would see its own share of departing coaches and a different kind of turnaround from its leader.

Dr. Ray Watts, barely 22 months into his tenure as president, has forged an ugly legacy. He has done so through his unwavering service to the University of Alabama system trustees, rather than UAB’s students and employees, not to mention Birmingham proper (that bothersome B in UAB).

Watts managed to murder UAB football, after a history of 23 years, a 117–150–2 record, plus one bowl game. Caught in the crossfire were UAB’s bowling and rifle teams. He pulled the trigger, and the board of trustees gave him the gun.

UAB is the only FBS school in 19 years to drop football; University of the Pacific ended its program in 1995. Twenty schools have added football or moved up to FBS in that period, including Troy (which welcomed a new coach Monday) and South Alabama (headed to the first Camellia Bowl, Dec. 20 in Montgomery).

His leadership has been laughably disastrous, and UAB should find a way to oust him as soon as possible.

Previously: Should UAB football continue?

Some saw the warning signs earlier. Justin Craft, a former UAB player and member of the UAB Football Foundation, sounded the alarm in a Nov. 5 letter. New coach Bill Clark, who would lead the team to a 6-6 record and a possible bowl game, wasn’t being considered for an extension on his paltry 3-year contract; no non-conference games beyond 2016 were being discussed.

Watts met with Craft on Halloween, but Craft said he received no definitive answers from Watts about the program’s future.

Watts’ public statement offered no hope, referring only to a consulting firm’s report (below) that would determine football’s fate.

Over at Samford, Sullivan leaves a hero as the all-time leader in victories and a string of winning seasons. Attendance hovered just under 5,000. The Bulldogs made the FCS playoffs in 2013, the first time in more than 20 years.

Clark pulled off his mini-turnaround in a single season without an on-campus stadium, without an indoor practice facility (Mayor Bell and the UAB Football Foundation offered to foot the $10 million bill), without the support of UAB’s top official.

In seeing a couple of UAB games over the years as a guest of the university, I remember talking with then-president Carol Garrison at the tailgate party. She has chatted up guests at the pre-game receptions, talked to the squad in the locker room and graced the luxury box at Legion Field.

Watts, to anyone’s knowledge, hasn’t been to any of this year’s six home games at rickety old Legion Field, where attendance more than doubled.

Video: UAB president Ray Watts meets the football team
(perhaps for the first time) to kill the program.

Samford, of course, is a private institution with autonomy and lower expectations in the FCS division. UAB is part of the UA system, represented on a board with only four UAB alumni out of 15 members (the rest UA alums), though UAB brings in three times the revenue.

On Saturday, UAB beat Southern Miss on the road for its sixth win, becoming bowl eligible for only the second the fourth time in program history. The Football Writers Association of America gave the Blazers its Big Game National Team of the Week award.

On Sunday, Sports Illustrated broke the story that UAB was about to dump football. Watts was silent, away on vacation in New York for Thanksgiving weekend.

On Monday, hundreds of student protestors marched to the administration building and demanded answers. Watts’ campus parking space was vacant. Watts, in hiding from his own students, offered a statement nearly identical to the one from a few weeks before.

On Tuesday, protestors again marched to the administration building. Watts could drag this out no longer, his office announcing a meeting with the football team at 2 p.m. and a media conference at 3:30. During the afternoon, the official word came by email: UAB would eliminate the football, bowling and rifle programs.

Watts emailed students. He didn’t announce it in person first to students. He emailed it. And not to alumni, even as student volunteers continued to place fund-raising calls for the $1 billion Campaign for UAB.

The school begs for money, but when alumni and the City of Birmingham offered millions of dollars, Watts said no.

Football was the real target. And it was an easy one: It loses money, as most FBS programs do. Even Auburn, which played for a national championship this year. He said as much during a closed meeting to a disbelieving group of players, who confronted him about his singular focus on the numbers.

When Watts tried to slip out the back door after that meeting, an angry mob of students shouted and lunged at him, pounding on the SUV taking him to the media conference. He needed an armed escort to make it to the vehicle.

Watts explained his position to the media, citing the consulting firm’s report that estimates UAB athletics’ spending at $100 million total over the next 5 years while mentioning the university’s cancer research.

He played the cancer card, even though research funding through grants isn’t the same as athletics revenue through conferences, television, licensing and donations.

CarrSports Consulting report for UAB on how to
cut football, 16 pages

CarrSports Consulting report for James Madison University
on how to move up to the FBS division, 65 pages

The report from CarrSports Consulting has been in the offing for months, even when Clark was hired as football coach in January. It’s less a consideration of the question of football and more a how-to guide on dropping football.

Title IX requires a balance of men’s and women’s sports in number and participation, so out go rifle and bowling’s all-female teams after football. In come men’s cross country and track to keep the university in NCAA Division I sports.

UAB will get the boot from Conference USA, which requires members to sponsor a football team. Ironically, the conference men’s and women’s basketball tournaments will take place March 11-14 at the BJCC Arena and on campus at Bartow Arena.

The financial intangibles muddy the picture, such as in enrollment, Blazer merchandise and donations.

Chuck Krulak has received accolades not only for his fund-raising at Birmingham-Southern, but his hands-on attitude, living in the dorms, eating daily in the cafeteria. Many alumni were justly concerned about the school’s financial malpractice, but he won them over in his first year by putting the college in the black for the first time in 7 years.

Krulak never took a salary during his 4 years on the job. Watts’ annual salary is $853,464, the 11th highest among American public universities. But Birmingham-Southern is a small, private college, one that resumed its Division III football program in 2007 after a 68-year hiatus. UAB has more faculty members than BSC has students.

In August, Krulak co-wrote an op-ed piece for the Chicago Tribune asking President Obama to force the military and CIA to come clean on the use of torture in Iraq. He shows courage and leadership in financial, practical and moral issues.

Watts demonstrates no such courage, no such knack for leadership. He displays no grasp of candor, no backbone, no vision for making the university and her students stronger and smarter.

He will drag UAB, Birmingham’s largest employer, into an abyss.

The first step is clear: My pal Steven E. Chappell named his new site FireRayWatts.com.

Don’t look for help from the UA board of trustees, which denies any involvement. The same board that approves all UAB athletic personnel contracts (bye bye, Jimbo Fisher) and nixed plans for an on-campus stadium in 2011. The same board that bows to the dictates of the overly influential trustee Paul Bryant Jr.

And don’t look for help from ex officio board member Gov. Bentley. Bryant donated $25,000 to his re-election campaign, as editor Jeff Poor noted.

Purge Watts, this sorry, gutless wonder, from campus as soon as possible.

The second step will be more difficult. Because none of this was really about football. It’s about self-determination.

UAB cannot function with absentee landlords, as reporter Kyle Whitmire notes in his al.com essay. He likens UAB to UA’s plantation, great for the masters and terrible for Birmingham. (As I would liken al.com/Birmingham News to Advance Digital’s plantation …)

Since Birmingham cannot hope to win over the trustees, it must wrest UAB from the UA system. Let the trustees bat around the Huntsville campus instead.

UAB must have autonomy or face the whims of an untrustworthy board, one that can and will make decisions that continue to damage the city’s crown jewel. What next … academics, research, the arts, new construction, housing? Imagine a worse successor as university president. Imagine fewer amenities to attract top professors, undergraduate applicants and research dollars.

Only a month ago, the suggestion of decimating UAB football would’ve seemed crazy.

It will take the authority of the Legislature to grant such a divorce from the UA system. Last week, Rep. Jack Williams proposed a bill to remake the board, but a far more drastic reshuffling is required.

The Blazers won’t play again in Birmingham, but if they’re very lucky, they might still go to a bowl game at 6-6. ESPN’s Brett McMurphy is alone in picking UAB for any bowl: the first Popeye’s Bahamas Bowl vs. Western Michigan on Christmas Eve.

It’s one last chance for those orphaned players and coach to shine before a national TV audience and perhaps find new schools that won’t lie to them and use them up for sport.

P.S. Columnist John Archibald writes an epitaph for UAB football: “In the end we lost again, because Birmingham did not support its own. … Support local sport. High schools and colleges …”

If only his employer, Alabama Media Group, had followed his advice, instead of giving the Blazers such inadequate coverage during the season …

• • •

  • Kevin Scarbinsky, al.com: “Ray Watts and his balance sheet kill UAB football, and strong men shed honest tears”
  • Jon Solomon, CBS Sports: “The day UAB football died a painful death”
  • New York Times: “It’s a Game of Spiraling Costs, So a College Tosses Out Football”
  • Kyle Whitmire, al.com: “The leader vs the lackey: UAB’s Ray Watts could learn a lot from BSC’s Charles Krulak”
  • John Archibald, al.com: “Evidence mounts that killing of UAB football was premeditated”

What are your thoughts on UAB, football, self-governance and the future? Share them in the comments.

Four Birmingham teams headed to state championships in Auburn

Friday, November 28th, 2014

Hoover, Clay-Chalkville, Pleasant Grove and Leeds have one final game next week

Clay-Chalkville beat Gardendale in the regular season on the
way to a perfect record and a 6A title fight against Saraland
next week.

In a football-crazed state, why not more football?

The 3-day binge of high school championships has expanded with two more games. The Alabama High School Athletic Association changed to a seven-classification system in January, sending the state’s 32 largest schools to 7A.

The Birmingham-area teams competing for state titles are Hoover, Clay-Chalkville, Pleasant Grove and Leeds. Hoover faces Prattville for the first 7A championship; the two teams won 11 of the last 12 6A titles.

Clay-Chalkville won the 6A title in 1999; the Cougars face Saraland making its first trip to the finals. Pleasant Grove also makes its first trip to the 5A finals, taking on St. Paul’s, which won the title in 2007. Leeds won the 3A title twice before moving up to 4A; the Green Wave faces three-time 4A champs Deshler.

The seven championship matches will kick off with an exhibition flag football game between Hewitt-Trussville and Lawrence County. The Unified Sports program, part of Special Olympics, puts students with mental disabilities with other athletes for competition and fun. The Alabama Special Olympics is helping put on the Wednesday afternoon game.

All Super Seven games take place Wednesday through Dec. 5 at Auburn’s Jordan-Hare Stadium, airing on Fox 6.1 and 6.2 and streaming online. Tickets are $12 per day and available online.


  • 3:30 p.m.: Exhibition flag football: Hewitt-Trussville vs. Lawrence County
  • 7 p.m.: Class 7A – Prattville (11-2) vs. Hoover (11-2)


  • 11 a.m.: Class 3A – Dale County (14-0) vs. Madison Academy (13-1)
  • 3 p.m.: Class 1A – Maplesville (13-0) vs. Hubbertville (13-0)
  • 7 p.m.: Class 5A – St. Paul’s (14-0) vs. Pleasant Grove (12-2)

Dec. 5

  • 11 a.m.: Class 4A – Leeds (13-1) vs. Deshler (12-1)
  • 3 p.m.: Class 2A – Elba (14-0) vs. Fyffe (14-0)
  • 7 p.m.: Class 6A – Clay-Chalkville (14-0) vs. Saraland (13-1)

Super 7 / AHSAA

‘Muscle Shoals’ documentary returns to PBS

Saturday, November 22nd, 2014

Aretha Franklin in "Muscle Shoals"

Legendary soul singer Aretha Franklin spends time in both
the town and the documentary “Muscle Shoals,”
airing next week on PBS.

The music documentary “Muscle Shoals” will air nationally on PBS for an encore run next week. The 2013 film chronicles the music, the artists and the special sound from the northwest Alabama, focusing on FAME Studios and Muscle Shoals Sound Studio.

Among the celebrated musicians are Aretha Franklin, Steve Winwood, Bono, Spooner Oldham, Mick Jagger, Gregg Allman and Percy Sledge.

The film airs as part of the “Independent Lens” series, and includes the short doc, “Waiting for a Train: The Toshio Hirano Story.” Airtimes include both Alabama Public Television’s main channel 10.1 and World channel 10.2:

  • 8 p.m. Monday on 10.1;
  • 11 p.m. Tuesday on 10.1;
  • 3 a.m. Wednesday on 10.1; 6 and 11 p.m. on 10.2;
  • 7 a.m. and 1 p.m. Thanksgiving on 10.2;
  • 1 and 11 a.m. Nov. 29 on 10.1;
  • 2 a.m. Nov. 30 on 10.1.

Video: trailer for “Muscle Shoals”

Videos: soundtrack videos for “Muscle Shoals”

In December, Wade on Birmingham will feature an excerpt from “Muscle Shoals Sound Studio: How the Swampers Changed American Music,” written by our friend Carla Jean Whitley. If you can’t wait, get the book from Amazon or iTunes [aff. links] or the Jefferson County libraries.

“Muscle Shoals”

Thread alert: Best Birmingham T-shirts

Friday, November 21st, 2014

I love the recent crop of Birmingham-themed T-shirts. Maybe you need something to wear in early 30-degree weather. Or a cheap Christmas gift that doesn’t require braving Black Friday or Mauve Thanksgiving or Vermillion Wednesday.

Please note that I have no innate fashion sense, and that the tees are not listed in any particular order.

Birming ham T-shirt

Birming ham T-shirt

Birmingham = Birming + ham, by Brantoe
$23.40 from Redbubble

Birdmingham T-shirt

Birdmingham T-shirt

Birdmingham, by Brantoe
$23.40 from Redbubble

See more designs from Brantoe.

B ham T-shirt

Left, Vintage 1871 B’ham tee, $24 from Original B’ham;
right, white Original B’ham classic tee, $20 from Original B’ham.

I heart B ham T-shirt

I ❤ B’ham – ladies’ tee
$24 from Original B’ham

See more designs from Original B’ham.

Red Mountain iron ore T-shirt

Red Mountain iron ore sign
$24.95 from Big City Brand

Birmingham Bulls T-shirt

Birmingham Bulls
$24.95 from Big City Brand

Legion Field T-shirt

Legion Field
$24.95 from Big City Brand

See more designs from Big City Brand.

Lyric Theatre T-shirt

Lyric Theatre
$20 from Yellowhammer Creative

Birmingham Mountain Radio T-shirt

Birmingham Mountain Radio
$20 from Yellowhammer Creative

Made in the Magic City T-shirt

Made in the Magic City
$20 from Yellowhammer Creative

See more designs from Yellowhammer Creative.

It's nice to have you in Birmingham T-shirt

It’s nice to have you in Birmingham
$24 from Alabama Goods

See more designs from Alabama Goods.

Sweet Tea T-shirt

Sweet Tea T-shirt

Original Southern Sweet Tea Shirt
$19 from Earth Creations

Southern Wonders of the World T-shirt

Southern Wonders of the World T-shirt

Southern Wonders of the World
$19 from Earth Creations

See more designs from Earth Creations.

Sweet Home Alabama T-shirt

Sweet Home Alabama
$18 from Bourbon and Boots

See more designs from Bourbon and Boots.

Birmingham pig T-shirt

Birmingham pig T-shirt

Birming-HAM, by NuzzoCollective
$23.40 from Redbubble

See more designs from NuzzoCollective.

Sloths Furnace

Sloths Furnace, by AllanDoodles
$20 from Etsy

And because I couldn’t resist …

B Town Birmingham More Magic Than Ever T-shirt

B Town Birmingham More Magic Than Ever T-shirt

B Town: Birmingham, More Magic Than Ever
$18.95 from TruckerTeez


Added Nov. 25:

Birmingham the Magic City T-shirt

Birmingham the Magic City
$20 from Humphries Screen Printing and Design

See more designs from Humphries Screen Printing and Design.

Did I leave out your favorite? Let me know in the comments.

Vote 2014: Alabama general election results

Wednesday, November 5th, 2014
Vote 2014

The mid-term election ballots have been cast. Results from Tuesday’s races in Alabama and the Birmingham metro area …

Statewide voter turnout was 41 percent, the lowest for a mid-term election since 1986.

More election coverage in our Vote 2014 special report.


(Contested races only)

  • D = Democrat | I = incumbent | L = Libertarian | R = Republican
  • Winner in red

Chart: Alabama governor's race 2014

Chart: Alabama governor’s race 2014

• • •

More Vote 2014 coverage.

Vote 2014: Midterm voting starts now

Tuesday, November 4th, 2014
Vote for Burns

Photo: Ludovic Bertron (CC)

Excellent … polls have opened till 7 tonight for races at the local, state and national levels.

Vote 2014

Q: Where do I vote?

A: Call Jefferson County: (205) 325-5550, Jefferson County (Bessemer only): (205) 481-4105, Shelby County: (205) 669-3913.

Or Search Your Polling Place on AlabamaVotes.gov.

Wade on Birmingham:
election results tonight

Remember, if you have problems at your polling place:

  • Notify a poll worker immediately.
  • Call the state attorney general at 1-800-831-8814 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. today and Wednesday or fill out this online form.
  • Call the secretary of state at 1-800-274-VOTE (8683) or visit his site, StopVoterFraudNow.com.
  • And tell the probate court for Jefferson County (205-325-5203) or Shelby County (205-669-3713).
  • E-mail us at Vote2014[at]wadeonbirmingham.com.

Q: What can I expect to see on the ballots?

A: Check out these sample ballots for each county.

You’re voting for U.S. Senator and Representative, state (including governor) and county officials.

Q: And what about all those amendments?

A: A few insights from WBHM (90.3 FM).

Who are you voting for today? Tell us in the comments.

• • •

More Vote 2014 coverage.

Video: Emmylou, Alabama Shakes on ‘Austin City Limits Celebrates 40 Years’

Saturday, October 11th, 2014

Video: “Austin City Limits Celebrates 40 Years”

The venerable music showcase “Austin City Limits” celebrates its 40th anniversary. The TV program began airing on PBS in 1976 to showcase Texas artists, but has since expanded to feature performers from around the world.

The 2-hour special “Austin City Limits Celebrates 40 Years” includes two Alabama acts, Birmingham’s Emmylou Harris and Athens’ Alabama Shakes (with a bonus performance by lead singer Brittany Howard).

Brittany Howard, Jimmie Vaughan, Bonnie Raitt, Austin City Limits

Brittany Howard (left), Jimmie Vaughan and Bonnie Raitt open
“Austin City Limits Celebrates 40 Years” with “Wrap It Up.”


  1. “Wrap It Up,” Bonnie Raitt, Brittany Howard, Jimmie Vaughan and Gary Clark Jr.
  2. “Your Good Thing (Is About to End),” Bonnie Raitt
  3. “Me and Bobby McGee,” Kris Kristofferson and Sheryl Crow
  4. “Gimme All Your Love,” Alabama Shakes
  5. “What A Little Bit of Love Can Do,” Jeff Bridges
  6. “Whiskey River,” Willie Nelson
  7. “Funny How Time Slips Away,” Willie Nelson and Lyle Lovett
  8. “Crazy,” Willie Nelson and Emmylou Harris
  9. “On the Road Again,” Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris and Lyle Lovett
  10. “The Road Goes on Forever,” Robert Earl Keen and Joe Ely
  11. “Bright Lights,” Gary Clark Jr.
  12. “Two-Headed Dog (Red Temple Prayer),” Foo Fighters
  13. “Can’t Cry Anymore,” Sheryl Crow
  14. “I’m Leaving,” Doyle Bramhall and Sheryl Crow
  15. “Mulato,” Grupo Fantasma
  16. “The Pleasure’s All Mine,” Jimmie Vaughan and Bonnie Raitt
  17. “House Is Rockin’,” Kenny Wayne Shepherd and Mike Farris
  18. “Pride and Joy,” Robert Randolph
  19. “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” Buddy Guy
  20. “Texas Flood,” All-Star Finale
  21. “Not Fade Away,” All-Star Finale

“Austin City Limits Celebrates 40 Years”

Emmylou Harris, Willie Nelson, Austin City Limits

Emmylou Harris and Willie Nelson perform “Crazy”
on “Austin City Limits Celebrates 40 Years.”

Vote 2014: Sample ballots for Jefferson, Shelby County general election

Friday, October 10th, 2014

Vote 2014

With a few weeks left till Election Day, voters still have time to study the candidates and issues.

We have the sample ballots for Jefferson and Shelby Counties for the general election. (The Jefferson County ballot has 178 versions, one for every sub-district.)

Find your polling place/districts.

The ballot has five state amendments, top state and county offices, plus one contested Congressional seat for the metro area.

And check out the Alabama Voter Guide 2014, with voting procedures and frequently asked questions.

For easier viewing, you can print, download or zoom to full screen with each ballot.

Election Day is Nov. 4.

• • •

Sample ballots for all 67 counties.

• • •

Jefferson County

[Mobile version]

• • •

Shelby County

[Mobile version]

• • •


Alabama Voter Guide 2014

[Mobile version]

• • •

More Vote 2014 coverage.

Winter Storm Leon freezes Alabama: newspaper front pages

Wednesday, January 29th, 2014

Many newspaper subscribers in Alabama and Georgia won’t see today’s front page. Not unless their carrier has snow tires or a hover car.

Winter Storm Leon hit Alabama and Georgia Tuesday with an unexpected 1 to 2 inches of midday snow. The sudden accumulation in freezing temperatures created roadway hazards for cities in both states. A reported five are dead, with hundreds of vehicles temporarily abandoned along interstate highways and roads.

Thousands of children in Hoover, along with several hundred in Birmingham, stayed overnight in school with their teachers. (More than 11,000 students statewide remained in their schools.) Motorists who abandoned their cars and trucks found shelter at nearby businesses and churches, while many stuck it out at their workplaces.

Below are today’s newspapers, with front pages showing Leon’s aftermath.


Anniston Star

The Anniston Star

Birmingham News

The Birmingham News

Decatur Daily

The Decatur Daily

Dothan Eagle

Dothan Eagle

Florence TimesDaily

The (Florence) TimesDaily

Gadsden Times

The Gadsden Times

Huntsville Times

The Huntsville Times

Mobile Press-Register

(Mobile) Press-Register

Montgomery Advertiser

The Montgomery Advertiser

Opelika-Auburn News

The Opelika-Auburn News

Selma Times-Journal

The Selma Times-Journal

Tuscaloosa News

The Tuscaloosa News


The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Canton Cherokee Tribune

The (Canton) Cherokee Tribune

Carrollton Times-Georgian

The (Carrollton) Times-Georgian

Douglas County Sentinel

The Douglas County Sentinel

Gwinnett Daily Post

The Gwinnett Daily Post

Marietta Daily Journal

The Marietta Daily Journal