Every 4th of July, my neighborhood throws a parade in honor of Independence Day. Everyone dresses in celebratory costume – dogs, children, adults, bicycles, scooters, and an occasional fire engine sport some U.S.A. flair. It’s come to be one of my favorite days of the year. We begin on a shady street and promenade in a 6 block radius, to end up back where we started for red, white, and blue ice cream; cookies; cupcakes; and an assortment of beverages.
All of this is followed by the Annual Kids vs. Adults baseball game on a lot built and maintained by the neighborhood children behind the houses of some very community minded neighbors. Then, we share a beautiful pot luck lunch and a pool party. We end the day back at the baseball diamond with blankets, mosquitos, and fireworks, as always, provided by Florence-based TNT Fireworks. In my mind, it’s community—and the celebration of a nation— like it’s supposed to be.
At Alabama Chanin, we practice Slow Design, which focuses on producing goods in a socially and environmentally responsible manner. The intent is to design clothing and home goods that are made from sustainable raw materials using environmentally sound methods, resulting in beautiful, healthy, and long-lasting products. We want to create connections with our customers and for Alabama Chanin pieces to be used and worn for many years, to be incorporated into the life of a customer.
Our business model and method of production is based on sustainable practices. Rather than purchase low cost materials and manufacture products quickly and cheaply, we opt for a Made-in-the-USA approach, using local, artisanal labor sources. To-date, Alabama Chanin items have been made entirely by hand, without any machine work.
Louisa Murray is the face of one of our favorite local bands, The Bear. She shares the stage with her husband, Nathan Pitts, each of them writing and performing their own respective songs, and the two are backed by a talented band. Their newest album, Overseas Then Underwas produced by local indie label, Single Lock Records, co-founded by Ben Tanner, who plays keyboards for The Bear, as well as for Alabama Shakes.
We have written before about the rich manufacturing and textile history present in our community. The Shoals area and surrounding communities were working fabric and textile materials beginning in the late 1800’s. Those earlier years were often unkind to the mill workers and their families who worked long hours, lived in factory-owned apartments, and shopped in factory-owned stores. But, as the Industrial Revolution gave way to reform, textile manufacturing stayed in our community and flourished. Eventually, it was something that we in The Shoals were known for, as we were often called the “T-Shirt Capital of the World.”
Terry Wylie’s family founded Tee Jay’s Manufacturing Co. here in Florence in 1976, and in doing so became the foundation for a local industry. Whole families were known to work together, producing t-shirts and cotton products. Typical of our community, the company and the employees were loyal to one another. It was common for an employee to stay at Tee Jays for decades. Our Production Manager, Steven, worked for the Wylie family for years – for a time, working in the same building where Alabama Chanin is currently housed. It was this way until the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Tee Jays and other local manufacturers eventually shuttered all domestic manufacturing. It was an undeniably tough hit for a community that had “worked” cotton for most of its existence. Some of those who hand stitch for us once worked in mills and lost their jobs when plants here in Alabama closed and moved to cheaper locations. This move left our building, once a thriving manufacturing center, an empty shell, as you can see from the picture above. Machines like the ones below were moved elsewhere, and the resounding hum of our once busy manufacturing community was silenced.
The music industry as we once knew it has been forced to evolve rapidly in recent years, as technology has grown faster than established business models. Major record labels struggle to maintain control of the radio waves, music sales, artist development, and our ears; meanwhile, established artists like Radiohead and Beck have embraced the Internet, a one-time enemy to record sales, by offering their work at pay-what-you-want prices, or occasionally for free. Other artists, like Jack White with Third Man Records, have taken control of the entire creative process by starting their own indie record labels, effectively surpassing the gatekeepers of yesterday.
Ben Tanner of Alabama Shakes and The Bear, John Paul White of the Civil Wars (DIY band of 2012), and financial advisor, Shoals native, and friend Will Trapp, are bringing some of that anti-Old Guard attitude to our community with their indie label, Single Lock Records. The Shoals has a rich music history, thanks to Rick Hall, Muscle Shoals Sound, and many others who helped establish the recording industry here during the 1960’s and 70’s. Hall’s FAME Studios, with its talented roster of studio musicians, attracted diverse recording artists, including Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Cher, Paul Simon, and even the Osmonds. Some of these artists created their best work here. Later, Muscle Shoals Sound opened, recording the Rolling Stones, Traffic, and Bob Dylan, among many others. These days, the music flows OUT of the Shoals, not INTO it.
We celebrate Earth Day every day at Alabama Chanin through our philosophy of slow design and sustainable production methods, and have been celebrating sustainable design for over a decade. We use only U.S. grown organic cotton fabric in our designs and maintain a zero-waste approach to production. Still, the annual calendar event is always a good reminder to reflect on how we treat our environment, both at work and in our home lives.
It’s also a chance to start a new habit that might be practiced all year. This year, as part of their All Hands on Earth Campaign, the Nature Conservancy is celebrating Earth Day with a picnic. We love this idea (and the excuse to take staff lunch outside this week).
The All Hands on Earth Campaign has declared the month of April to be Earth Month, with a focus on sustainable food production. They’re asking people across the planet to consider where their food comes from and the carbon footprint that food production leaves. I try to support local farmers whenever possible, be it a trip across the river to visit Jack-O-Lantern Farms or a Saturday morning walk through the Farmers Market (which will be re-opening next month). Not only does buying local put money back into my community’s economy, but the food I buy is fresher, has traveled far fewer miles with far less negative impact on the environment, and it tastes better.
Learn more about how to host your own Earth Month picnic here. Document and share your picnic photos by tagging them with #AllHandsPicnic on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube or picnic-TNC13 on Flickr.
Read about how the CFDA is celebrating Earth Day by promoting sustainable production in the fashion industry and follow their members (including Alabama Chanin) to learn how American fashion designers across the globe are celebrating Earth Day by searching #CFDAEarthDay on Instagram.
Members of our Alabama Chanin staff will be pitching in to help keep our Florence community clean by joining a city-wide effort on Saturday, April 27th. Find out if your community has a city-wide clean-up effort you can join, or organize your own.
Almost a year after we planted our cotton seed in the ground, we would like to share another update about our special crop. We are certain many of you – especially those who helped in the field – will be interested in its progress.
Rivertown Coffee Co. has been a staple in our community for almost 10 years. In this video series called MadeInTheShoals, owner John Cartwright talks about how he experiences coffee, the importance of community, and what it’s like to own a business.
These days, you don’t think twice about hearing a woman’s voice on the radio. There are surely female deejays or journalists on your local station. NPR broadcasts the voices and stories of women like The Kitchen Sisters or Terry Gross among others. Alabama Chanin favorite, Elizabeth Cook has her own show, “Apron Strings,” on Sirius XM’s Outlaw Country. But, once upon a time, it wasn’t so common to hear a female voice over the airwaves. For those in the Shoals area, Becky Burns Phillips was one of those first voices to be broadcast.
In 1942, Rebecca “Becky” Burns Phillips met her future husband, Sam Phillips, while they were both working at WLAY radio station in Sheffield, Alabama. They were both in high school. She, 17, had a radio segment with her sister where they played music and sang; he was a 19-year old radio announcer who was on his way to making rock and roll history. The Kitchen Sisters, in an article honoring Becky, quoted Sam as saying, “I fell in love with Becky’s voice even before I met her.” Becky described her first encounter with Sam to journalist Peter Guralnick: “He had just come in out of the rain. His hair was windblown and full of raindrops. He wore sandals and a smile unlike any I had ever seen. He sat down on the piano bench and began to talk to me. I told my family that night that I had met the man I wanted to marry.”
The two were married in 1943. Sam worked feverishly to establish Memphis Recording Service and, later, Sun Records. It is said that, during that time, he suffered two nervous breakdowns – which Becky gracefully helped him through. Becky and Sam had two sons, Jerry and Knox, but motherhood never took away her desire to work in radio.
Sam proudly spoke about how Becky’s talent inspired him to co-found WHER: 1000 Beautiful Watts, referred to as “The First All-Girl Radio Show in the Nation.” He would say that he wanted women, wanted his wife to have a chance that no one had ever given them before – and he co-founded WHER with the money he made from selling Elvis Presley’s contract. He would say, “Becky was the best I ever heard.”
Her son Knox remembered that, at the time of WHER’s conception, women weren’t even allowed to attend the Columbia School of Broadcasting. “But, because of my mother,” he said, “when Sam started the station (WHER) he made it all female: all female air talent, all female executives and sales staff,” he told The Commercial Appeal.
At WHER, Becky was able to shine – writing scripts, organizing segments, managing the station, and presenting in her own beautiful way. She was in charge of approving each record that was played. Though her husband was a rock and roll legend, there were no rocking records at WHER. And there were NEVER to be any curse words allowed over the airwaves. Over the years, she hosted a number of radio shows and carefully curated every day’s segments. Becky told the Kitchen Sisters, “I played music to work by – all the beautiful music like Jackie Gleason and Doris Day, and I gave household hints.”
Phillips broadcast on the radio for over 40 years, until the mid-1980’s, always with her distinctive sign-off: “A smile on your face puts a smile in your voice.”
Mrs. Phillips died in September of 2012 at the age of 87.
Becky Burns Phillips carefully preserved WHER’s record library for well over 40 years. Many of those recordings can be heard on the Peabody Award winning segment by the Kitchen Sisters, “Lost and Found Sound: 1000 Beautiful Watts.”
Listen to Becky Phillips talk about her husband, Sam, and WHER Radio for the TV Segment, “The Lives They Lived” here:
There were few like her, a true pioneer in her field. Her fearlessness and her devotion to her family and her profession are inspirational. We are proud to be part of a community that fostered a woman like Becky Phillips, a pioneer in spirit and part of the heart and soul of Alabama Chanin.
P.S.: I never met Becky Phillips. After moving back home in 2000, I was “busy.” Building a business and sorting through my own life, closed me off to some of the great treasures (and families) of my own community. My loss. Resolution: take time to work less and belong more. xoNatalie