You can’t ignore the sense of place in the music of the Alabama Shakes. It’s right there in the quartet’s name. Simply the Shakes at first, when forced to pick a new name to avoid copyrights they just added the name of their home. Lead singer Brittany Howard wears that home on her sleeve—literally. She has the outline of the state of Alabama tattooed on her upper right arm. A heart pinpoints Athens, Alabama—her hometown.
“All of us love Alabama,” Howard said over the phone from her mother’s house in Athens. “I don’t know how to explain it; it’s like this place that still hasn’t lost its humanity or its charm.”
Until the past summer, the Alabama Shakes hadn’t yet had the chance to stray far from home. The group had been together less than two years at that point and were still in the process of growing their local audience, playing mostly county bars in Northern Alabama. Tour dates meant shows two hours north in Nashville.
Fast forward to today, when the Alabama Shakes are beginning their first headlining tour longer than a few weeks, stopping at One Eyed Jacks Thursday evening. In the interim they’ve had fans and critics across the spectrum—from MTV to NPR—singing their praises. Like most bands today, they’re voracious listeners of varied music both old and new from all corners of the country, but the Alabama Shakes seem to have found one ingredient that has upcoming shows in Austin, San Francisco, and London already sold out: their homegrown Alabama charm.
Brittany Howard was mixing rock and soul before she even knew it. At three years old, her great-uncle and his bluegrass band would play Lieber & Stoller’s “Hound Dog” while Howard imitated Elvis singing it. It was her favorite song as a little kid. As she got older, though, she became more shy. She loved the choir at her Baptist church, but would only join their singing from the pews.
Her desire to make music was a constant. Raised on Prince, Kirk Franklin, and whatever was on the radio, she started out playing bass guitar. With little else to do in tiny Athens, she soon began mastering other instruments. “I really wanted to start a band and there were no musicians, so I was going to make musicians,” she explains. “I was going to teach them how to play, because I could play a little bit of everything. I found somebody to play bass, so I started playing guitar. I moved up to guitar, and then I always really liked piano, so I decided I would start playing piano. Drums were the most natural instrument. It’s just always rhythm.”
When she was around 14 years old, she learned that Zac Cockrell, her classmate at the county high school (Athens has two high schools—the “city” school and the “county” school. The county school has “less funding, more football”), played bass guitar, and the two began jamming together. They would sit on the floor of Howard’s room, writing songs and showing each other riffs and classic rock albums (Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd) they were discovering. “The thing about Zac is, he likes every kind of music. He’s like me. He was showing me things I had never thought of, and vice versa. We would sit there and write songs for hours.”
Her bedroom at her dad’s house soon became a DIY studio. “Instead of sleeping in my room I shoved drums in it,” Howard remembers. “A computer, a microphone, a guitar amp, a keyboard. At one point I was sleeping in my closet.” The duo would record songs until Howard’s dad had to go to sleep. “Me and Zac would be recording these songs, and we would switch up instruments so we would have a full band’s sound, but we would play everything.”
Things changed for the pair of high schoolers when Cockrell gave a burned CD with some of their songs to Steve Johnson, a drummer several years older who worked at Athens’ only music store, Railroad Bazaar. Johnson liked what he heard, and the next time Howard saw him, “He told me, ‘I’d like to be your drummer, but you guys probably already have a pretty good drummer, right?’ I was like, ‘No! We have no drummer, at all!’”
Now a trio, they moved a single-wide trailer behind Howard’s dad’s house and began practicing inside it. Once they were comfortable playing together, they recorded some tracks at a studio in nearby Decatur, Alabama. One song, a rockabilly tune called “Mama”, still shows up in their set lists today. Johnson passed the recordings to a friend in what Howard calls “the best band from their high school,” a cover band named Tuco’s Pistol that played Bowie, Prince, and T. Rex in lieu of the Alan Jackson hits expected at area bars.
Tuco’s Pistol’s guitarist Heath Fogg liked the songs and invited Johnson and his new band to open a gig for them at The Brick Deli & Tavern, a small bar in Decatur. For Howard, it was a landmark: “Steve asked me [about opening the show] and I said yeah. It was one of those calls where your life could go one way if you said no and the other way if you said yes. That was the first time I ever really played with a band in front of people. It was like do or die. Go up there and kill it, or go up there and die in front of everyone. I was so nervous. I guess all that nervous energy turned into a giant burst of ‘Just do it.’” Fogg joined the group on guitar at the gig, and soon became a regular member, cementing the band’s lineup. “He got to see some of the stuff we were coming up with, and he just kind of stuck around.”
All four musicians began contributing their own ideas in order to form new songs together. “Heath likes rock ‘n’ roll, Zac is a smooth bass player, and Steve likes to thunder on the drums. He’s like a machine,” Howard says. “And me, I really could roll with anything. I just wanted to write this music, that’s all I wanted to do. I’m happier than ever that I got people to write with.” Songs would spring from jams at the band’s live shows. Their current single “Hold On”, for example, came about while Howard was tuning her guitar onstage.
Needing to record the new songs, all four members moved into a 12-bedroom house Howard had recently inherited. It had been build by her great-grandfather. They moved analog recording equipment they had pooled together into the house’s big laundry room and began experimenting with recording to tape. They knew the sound they were looking for, but limited recording knowledge, dripping pipes and a nearby train line got in the way. “We got some cool stuff from it, but the dripping actually ended up ruining all our recordings because it caused condensation in the room and destroyed the tape. It was really bad. That’s when we decided to get out of recording at my house.”
It’s been slightly more than a year since those failed recordings, but the Alabama Shakes have come a long way from a mildewy laundry room. In October, their career erupted after an explosive performance at the CMJ Music Marathon industry showcase in New York. In the weeks that followed, they booked gigs throughout the South, Midwest, and Northeast. In early December they returned to New York for a three-night stay and sold out—twice. A few days earlier, Paste had named them their Best New Band of 2011. Other year-end accolades incuded a sold-out show at SPACE in Chicago, a spot on David Byrne’s year-end playlist, and a Washington D.C. New Year’s Eve show opening for Drive-By Truckers and Booker T. Howard met Robert Plant at one of their shows show in Nashville, and Adele has blogged about them. With February shows in London that sold out a month ago, and their first full-length album, Boys & Girls, scheduled for April 10, theirs has been one of the most meteoric rises in non-top-40 music in a long while.
I first learned about the Alabama Shakes through Bob Lefsetz’s infamous music industry email newsletter. He was unimpressed by their songs, but knowing the size of the gulf between our tastes, I was curious. I watched live videos of them playing “Heavy Chevy” and “You Ain’t Alone” at Stubb’s in Austin, Texas, and was immediately hooked.
The most common comparisons writers have made are to Janis Joplin and the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, and while the band is trying hard to avoid being pigeonholed, those aren’t hard to see. Both fixate on connections outside the music (front woman, Northern Alabama roots), but what they all share are three elements that have defined Southern soul: R&B, country, and the popular rock music of the day. In the ’60s, it was the Beatles (see Booker T. & the MGs’ McLemore Avenue). The Alabama Shakes listen to many new rock bands, (Howard likes Fly Golden Eagle) and it supports their denial of being “soul revivalists.” On their self-titled EP, the only release they have currently available, they mix clean, fat-bottom bass with guitar amp distortion, shrieks, shimmering piano, and drums that both pummel and caress. For the past couple weeks, the EP has sat in Bandcamp’s top five bestsellers.
By the end of 2010, the Alabama Shakes had given up on the romantic glory of their laundry room studio. They found an ad for a cheap analog mixing service in Nashville and laid down five songs in January 2011. Four of those became their EP.
On April 30, they were scheduled to play a first-weekend Jazz Fest show, opening for Hurray for the Riff Raff at the All-Ways Lounge. The studio where they had cut their EP, Bomb Shelter, was the same one where Riff Raff recorded, and the owner, Andrija Tokic, gave each band the other’s music. They become mutual fans and friends, but two days before the show could happen, tornadoes ripped through Alabama, stranding the Shakes in Athens. “There was no way to get [to New Orleans],” says Howard. “There was no place to find gas, just no way. Roads were destroyed. I was at work all day because I used to deliver mail, so I was in the tornadoes all day long. It was a nightmare.” None of the bandmembers were injured, and none of their homes were damaged, but others weren’t as lucky. “Some of my friends lost their houses, but no people that I knew had died, so you know, I was fortunate in that way. I was so happy to be alive at the end of the day.” The band has since shared bills with Hurray for the Riff Raff, and at One Eyed Jacks this Thursday, Riff Raff will open the show.
Meanwhile, on April 16, the Shakes (not yet including the Alabama qualifier) played at Nashville record shop The Groove for a National Record Day party. A local music industry person was in the small crowd and went home extremely impressed. When the Bomb Shelter recordings were posted online weeks later, he found them and shared the link with his friend Justin Gage. Gage is the founder of Aquarium Drunkard, one of the most popular music blogs. Someone shared the post on AD with fellow-Alabaman Patterson Hood of the Drive-By Truckers, and after catching them play at a record store in Florence, Alabama, the Shakes once again had a helpful new fan. Hood brought them out to open a few Truckers shows in September, and the two bands now share the same management (other clients include Aaron Neville, Robert Randolph, and tUnE-yArDs). After a mid-October shoutout by NPR’s Ann Powers, the band prepared for a flight to New York for their new booking agency’s CMJ showcase.
New York Times critic Jon Pareles’ CMJ review began, “Imagine a CMJ buzz band not built around some cool-headed concept involving noise or irony or ambiguities or primitivism. Imagine a band not trying to make a fashion or anti-fashion statement. Imagine a band whose vocals aren’t just something to put up with because that’s the songwriter singing. Imagine a band named after a place that actually comes from that place. And imagine a band whose New York City debut left a CMJ Music Marathon audience literally screaming for joy.”
If the buzz vibrating around the Alabama Shakes was based on bloggers and mainstream media writers exploiting a story angle, that would be one thing. But in today’s landscape, the New York Times doesn’t sell out the Bowery Ballroom or the Mercury Lounge. That’s up to the fans, and the Athens, Alabama quartet has won legions of them as the buzz spreads through word of mouth, YouTube videos of their shows, and one short (streamable!) EP. Pareles caught part of the source of the band’s popularity: their strong, homegrown roots. “There’s really no thought or precursor to it,” Howard says about their music. “There’s nothing we’re trying to prove. It’s just music that we like and we listen to, and I’m really happy that other people like to listen to it too. It’s been extremely surprising and, well, it’s a blessing, really.”
“A couple of us have been very poor, and music is the only thing we have. Alabama is near and dear to us, and I think it always will be. We’ll never lose it. When I was a kid I couldn’t wait to get out of it, but now that I’ve been other places I can see why it’s special.”
The Alabama Shakes play One Eyed Jacks Thursday, January 19. Hurray For the Riff Raff and Sam Doore & the Tumbleweeds open. The show starts early, with doors opening at 7 p.m. Tickets are still available, and are a steal at $10.