The story of the Alabama Shakes begins in a high school psychology class in Athens, Alabama. Brittany Howard, who had started playing guitar a few years earlier, approached Zac Cockrell and asked if he wanted to try making music together.
They started to meet up after school and write songs sitting on Howard’s floor. Steve Johnson worked at the only music store in town, and Howard knew he played the drums. She invited him to a party where, she says, “he met everybody from our side of the tracks.” The three young musicians began working together, further expanding their style and approach.
The trio soon went into a studio in Decatur to record some of the songs they were working up, and this proto-demo found its way into the hands of Heath Fogg, with whom Howard had been familiar because he had been the lead guitarist in what she describes as “the best band in our high school.” Fogg, who by now had graduated from college, asked them to open a show for his band, which they agreed to do—on the condition that he play with them.
When they appeared at a Nashville record store, people started to take notice of the group’s relentless, hard-charging live attack, and Howard’s magnetic stage presence. One especially ardent fan raved about the band to his friends, which included Justin Gage, the founder of the Aquarium Drunkard blog. Gage wrote to Howard, asking if he could post one of the Shakes’ songs. She sent back the yearning, intense “You Ain’t Alone,” which he put up in late July, calling it “a slice of the real.” And, literally overnight, all hell broke loose.
“I woke up the next day to emails from record labels, managers, publishing companies,” says Howard. “At first I thought, everybody’s making a mistake!” Gage also emailed “You Ain’t Alone” to the Drive-By Truckers’ team. The band was immediately blown away and offered the Shakes an opening slot, sight unseen. (Patterson Hood of the Truckers later noted that the group “totally blew us off the stage in Winston-Salem.”)
Yet even as the attention and the pressure were mounting, the band—who by now had changed their name to the Alabama Shakes—continued to break new ground musically. Their first single, the hypnotic, show-stopping plea “Hold On,” grew out of an on-stage improvisation. “We threw out that riff,” says Cockrell, “and Brittany started singing along, and the crowd started singing with her like it was a song they already knew.”
In October, the Shakes gave a performance at the CMJ Festival in New York City that earned a glowing review from the New York Times. Jon Pareles described the band as “a thunderbolt dressed in bluejeans,” with music that’s “aching when it’s slow and growling and whooping when it’s fast.” NPR named them one of the best bands of 2011, while MTV called them one of the top bands to look for in 2012.
As word of mouth spread, more offers to tour came in, and the band members were finally able to quit their day jobs; until this point, all the writing, recording, and touring had to be done around such responsibilities as Howard’s work as a mail carrier and Johnson’s hours toiling as a night watchman at a nuclear power plant.
Now, with expectations at fever pitch, the Alabama Shakes have delivered Boys & Girls—six of the songs from that initial Nashville session, and another five recorded during the rest of the year. From the heart-rending title song to such stomps as “Rise to the Sun,” the album demonstrates the sense of groove and space the band learned from their idols, along with a blistering force and emotion that simply can’t be learned.
Overwhelmed by the response they’ve already received, there is one perception of the band that they want to challenge. “A lot of people think we’re a soul revival act,” says Cockrell. “That’s an honor to me, classic R&B is my favorite kind of music, but everybody has their own influences. Brittany is way more into rock and roll—she likes things pretty amped up most of the time.”
The release of Boys & Girls marks the arrival of a major new rock and roll band. To the members themselves, though, what’s been most exciting has been the reaction they have felt on stage, whether tiny local dates or under the glare of the media.
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