Alabama Shakes: Southern Stars

Music Features Alabama Shakes
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Ballroom D, on the fourth floor of the Austin Convention Center, is a cavernous, charmless room, colored in corporate grays and tans. But on March 14, when the room was transformed into the “Radio Day Stage” for the South by Southwest Music Conference, the smell of sterility was overwhelmed by a whiff of skepticism. Much of what’s left of the music industry had crowded into the SRO room to hear the Alabama Shakes, to see if the buzz band of the moment could possibly live up to its hype. After all, this group of four twentysomethings from small-town Alabama was appearing on magazine covers and being touted by Paste, The New York Times and NPR before they’d even released a debut album. I was just one of dozens of music critics in the room with arms crossed and notebooks ready, doubtful the band could live up to expectations.

Taking the stage were three skinny, clean-shaven guys (guitarist Heath Fogg, drummer Steve Johnson and guest keyboardist Ben Tanner), the bushy-bearded bassist Zac Cockrell and the big-boned female singer Brittany Howard. She wore a plaid shirt, black capris and nerdy, black-frame glasses stuck in her unruly hair. Their odd, small-town-Southern appearance was a good sign—at least they weren’t being hyped because they looked like L.A. models.

An even better sign was the opening song’s instrumental intro—a repeating two-bar figure that locked a falling-then-rising melody in with an easy-greasy midtempo groove. In its irresistibly simple logic, it grabbed the ear like so many similar figures from Booker T. & the MGs. Then Howard stepped up to the mic with her hollow-body red Gibson and sang, over that continuing riff, “Bless my heart, bless my soul, didn’t think I’d make to 22 years old.” She wasn’t shouting; she wasn’t wailing; she was sharing a confession like the most intimate singer/songwriter. But there was a catch in her voice that very few singers manage, an ache that made it clear that she’d had real doubts she’d ever reach her current age of 23 with any kind of life worth living.

“A lot of people when they’re younger don’t know how they can go on,” she told me later. “I think most people go through that, even if they don’t talk about it. I was going through a hard time at work, and I knew there was only one thing I wanted to do: I wanted to play music—not at this level necessarily—I just wanted to play music. But I wasn’t making money at it, so it didn’t seem a real life choice. I was working and trying to go to school, and it was hard. Music was like a place to go and be happy; nothing else was doing that. You can make a song, and it’s this world that belongs only to you.”

It wasn’t until the second chorus at Ballroom D that she finally unleashed her huge alto voice. A second riff appeared beneath her, spiced by Fogg’s guitar triplets, and when Howard echoed the advice she’d so often been given, “You got to hold on,” she extended the “hold” across two full bars as if her sweaty palms were slowly sliding down a last-chance rope. On the bridge, she echoed more advice, “You’ve got to wait,” and then spat back at her counselors with a drum-powered shout, “But I don’t want to wait.” When the astonishing song finally ended, I turned to the writers next to me and said, “Okay, I’m convinced.”

The song was “Hold On,” the first single from the band’s terrific first album, Boys & Girls. “‘Hold On’ is an interesting story,” Howard later explained. “Zac and Heath had that cool rhythm pattern, but I didn’t know what to do with it. Sometime in 2009, we were at this little club, the Brick, in Decatur [Ala.], and I told them to keep playing that part—the same part that opens the album—and I would just make up the words on the spot. I knew we worked well under pressure. It was do or die. If you do it, great; if you don’t, it just sucks. It’s like riding a roller coaster; you don’t know what’s going to happen. It could be really good or really bad.

“The words just came; they were things on my mind that I couldn’t say any other way. When I write songs, I talk about things I don’t usually talk about. Off stage I’m very shy and quiet; I’m not some cool hipster. When I’m on stage in front of people who are listening and looking at me, it’s like I have to be brave every time. It’s liberating; it feels like a relief. Some people are better at talking about things than others, but I’m not. Singing is a way for me to talk about myself: This is what I’m going through, and this is who I am.”

As the Alabama Shakes worked their way through seven more songs from the album at Ballroom D, each number boasted similarly catchy riffs and the same brilliant use of dynamics. The instruments as well as the vocals shifted naturally from hushed, confessional verses to bold, declarative choruses. It’s not often that you hear a young band that knows when to be quiet and when to be loud, but this one seemed to have an instinctive feel for it. And it was all tied together by those hummable, toe-tapping riffs.

“They definitely have a direct lineage from Muscle Shoals and Memphis classic soul,” says fellow Alabaman Patterson Hood of the Drive-By Truckers, “but it is filtered through all of the various influences of their/our current time as well as the years between. There is more than a little punk in their makeup. Heath almost seems to channel a little bit of Steve Cropper into his playing—not in any kind of derivative way but more in an innate tastefulness. And Zac is one of my favorite bass players of the last decade or so. Like most great bass players, he’s the secret weapon that gets overlooked.”

In last week’s cover story, Justin Townes Earle talked about finding a new kind of singer/songwriter music, one based on R&B rather than country/folk. The personal immediacy of the lyrics prevents the music from becoming a nostalgic soul revival, but the music prevents the lyrics from becoming groove-less narcissism. Let’s call this new genre “confessional soul music.” The Alabama Shakes are doing something very similar—Howard may not be the lyricist that Earle is, but she possesses a special vocal instrument, and the personal confessions come from how she sings more than what she sings.

You can hear this in another autobiographical song, “Rise to the Sun.” Over the reverie of a swirling, electric organ, Howard sings, “All I believe in is a dream; I haunt the Earth though I am full seen.” But her dream is interrupted by Johnson’s drum bursts and the realization that she has to “wake up, rise to the sun” and “go to work.” Which is her real home, she wonders, the life she was born into or the life she imagines living? Why does she feel homesick in her own hometown?

“When I wrote that song,” she explains, “I still had to go to work every day to pay my bills. But when I was at work, all I could think about was our next show; everything else was a dream. My last job was as a mail carrier, and I was pretty miserable. The post office is really hard, and they don’t treat the workers right. I was getting up at 5 a.m. so I could go in early and put all the mail in order so I could get off at 4 p.m. Then I would drive to Nashville or Tuscaloosa for a show, come home at 3 a.m. and get up to do it all over again. I was definitely a zombie all of last year. But I knew I had to hold on, because music is what I was born to do. What else was there without it?”

Her hometown is Athens, Ala., the courthouse center of Limestone County, which sits against the Tennessee border with Huntsville to the east and Decatur to the south. Alabama sits near the bottom of national rankings for income (#46), education (#44), health care (#46) and single-parent families (#46), and the 83,000 people in Limestone County bear the brunt of all that. Compounding the challenges for Howard were her shy, introspective nature and unconventional looks.

“I always felt out of place,” she admits. “I wasn’t really any particular way—I wasn’t a cool kid but I wasn’t a nerd either. I had trouble finding my place. But when I found the music, I had a place of my own. I started writing songs when I was I was in this punk band, Kerosene Swim Team, at 13, but that didn’t last long. When I was 15, I turned my bedroom into a home studio and slept in the closet. I was broke so I borrowed stuff: a drum kit from a music teacher, a keyboard from a friend and a microphone from another friend. I used a broomstick as a mic stand, and I had a really old computer with the cheapest recording software I could find.

“Before long I had all these songs and I wanted to start a band, but I didn’t know how to do it. Zac was in my psychology class at East Limestone High School, and I knew he was a bass player, so I approached him. We went out in the parking lot and I put a CD of my songs in the player. He listened to it and said, ‘Yeah, that’s pretty cool; I’ll come over.’ Pretty soon he was coming over all the time; he’d bring songs he was working on and I’d bring songs I was working on.”

Howard was 16 at this point, and Cockrell was 17, but he was already coming up with the little licks and grooves that are the building blocks of the band’s songs even today. Howard was already creating the confessional monologues that fit over those licks and grooves. From one starting point or the other, they would put the pieces together and record the results. Maybe Howard would play drums while Cockrell played guitar; then they would overdub keys, vocals, bass and more guitar. They soon had a pile of songs that no one but a handful of friends had heard.

One of those friends, however, was Steve Johnson, who worked at the Railroad Bazaar, the only music store in Athens. Johnson volunteered himself as a drummer, enabling Howard and Cockrell to finally play actual shows. Johnson played an early demo for his pal Heath Fogg, the guitarist for the area’s best cover band, Tuco’s Pistol, and Fogg liked it so much that he not only invited the trio to open a show for Tuco’s Pistol but also agreed to play second guitar during the set. That went so well that Fogg soon became the fourth member of a band now called the Shakes. Later, when they discovered there was already a band called the Shakes, they added their home state to the front of their name.

“Brittany and I had all these songs and were wanting to get out and play,” Cockrell recalls, “so we knew we had to have other players. When it became a full band, it felt like we were finally doing something worthwhile. A light bulb went on, and we said, ‘Hey, this could be a really good band.’”

“We’d been playing a lot of cover songs,” Howard admits, “like James Brown, My Morning Jacket, Black Keys, Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, AC/DC and Otis Redding. At a certain point we decided to play only our own songs, because playing other people’s songs won’t get you anywhere. It made it harder to get gigs and we had to travel a lot farther as a result, but it was worth it. Besides we had all these songs that we’d written and wanted to play.”

Ask the Alabama Shakes about their influences and they’re pretty vague. When I asked Howard why she used an exact quote of Solomon Burke’s 1962 hit single “Cry to Me” as the bridge for “You Ain’t Alone” and an exact quote of the guitar riff from the Beatles’ version of Larry Williams’ “Slow Down” on “On Your Way,” she protested that she hadn’t been aware of either at the time. When I asked where the strong gospel flavor in songs such as “Hold On,” “Rise to the Sun” and “I Ain’t the Same,” she insisted that she had never sung in church except for a few quiet harmonies from the pew. When I asked Cockrell about the Stax-like riffs that highlight “I Found You,” “Hang Loose” and “Boys & Girls,” he claimed that he had listened to more hard-rock and punk than soul music.

I believed them, for it seemed that the four musicians had absorbed so much music in so short a time that they weren’t even conscious of where their own songs were coming from. Hood says that unlike most bands, for whom cover songs can be a trap, the Alabama Shakes were probably helped by playing rock and soul standards early in their existence. “It paid off in their playing chops and the quality of their songwriting,” he says.

Hood first heard of the band when the Aquarium Drunkard blog touted the Alabama Shakes and posted a live video version of “You Ain’t Alone.” He was so excited by what he heard that he checked their schedule and discovered they’d be playing at the Pegasus, the last record store in his hometown of Florence, Ala., the night before the Drive-By Truckers’ show there.

“The racks had been pushed back, and the band was set up to play in the middle of the floor with a tiny vocal PA and no monitors,” Hood recalls. “It was a small crowd, including one small child who danced the entire time. They were fantastic and I’ve been a huge fan ever since. I went up and introduced myself and we chatted for a bit. They gave me a couple of burned CDs which contained roughs of much of what became their debut album. I probably listened to those roughs 100-plus times over the next few months.”

During that parking-lot conversation, Hood offered to have the Shakes open a bunch of sold-out Truckers shows this past winter. He also gave them some names and phone numbers, and the Shakes ended up with the same label (ATO Records) and same management as the Truckers.

“Me and Heath were big fans of the Drive-By Truckers for a long time before we knew any of them on a personal level,” Cockrell says. “They took us in and have been great to us. They were definitely good role models because they’re out there doing something cool and they’re from right down the road.”

“In the Drive-By Truckers each person is a songwriter,” Howard adds, “just like our band. They write real songs about things they’ve gone through and about real people they knew, just like we do. They made it out of North Alabama, which we’re hoping to do. They proved it can be done. We North Alabama musicians have to stick together, because if you play original music, there’s nowhere to play around here. You can play cover songs all day and the bars love it, but when it comes to playing your own songs and speaking your own mind, you have to drive to Birmingham or Nashville or Atlanta.”

Hood is quick to point out that Howard’s singing is so startling that a lot of people overlook how good the rest of the band is. Cockrell, Johnson and Fogg may be only 24, 26 and 27 respectively, but they already have that Southern gift for coming up with simple but spellbinding parts that are simultaneously tuneful and grooving. They already have such chemistry that they can glue those parts together so no seams are showing. Nonetheless, it’s Howard’s vocals that are going to grab your attention first. It’s not just that her voice is huge; it’s that she can move you even when she’s whispering.

“Sure, she can sing, on pitch even—something Janis Joplin, whose voice she most closely resembles, didn’t always do—but there is something extra special going on here,” Hood agrees. “Aretha could sing too, but so could hundreds of other gifted singers of her time, yet for some reason there was something extra special to her gift. It’s still early to casually throw around those kinds of comparisons here, yet there is definitely something extra special about Brittany’s gifts. She can connect with people in any size room; it’s her strength combined with her vulnerability perhaps.”

You could hear this when the Alabama Shakes played their new album’s title track at Ballroom D. It’s a 6/8 R&B ballad that begins with guitar triplets and half-note accents from the drums and bass. Over this stripped-down backdrop, Howard seems to murmur the opening verse: “Oh, why can’t we be best friends anymore? They say a friend ain’t to be between a girl and a boy. I don’t know who said it or why they got to be so wrong. Oh, why don’t you call? Don’t you care anymore?” You could easily imagine her on the phone late at night, calling her estranged male buddy, fighting back tears, anger and bewilderment as she tries to figure out what’s going on. It was so compelling that you could easily imagine yourself on either end of that conversation.

“That song moves just like a person moves, like an emotion moves,” Howard says later. “If you’re a man and a woman, there’s this assumption that the animal thing will take over, like there’s only one way it can go. It’s not like you can decide for yourself; it’s like someone else forced it on you, and that’s not right.”

The roar after the song from the normally too-cool-to-show-it industry folks suggested that the Alabama Shakes deserved their rapid ascent from small-town nowhere to magazine covers. They had won over yet another crowd of doubters.

“A lot of people think we’re a band that just started six months ago,” Cockrell says, “and that’s not the case. But in terms of playing outside of Alabama and getting a lot of press, that has happened pretty quickly. It’s been overwhelming having sold-out shows everywhere. It’s a great thing—I’m not complaining—but it’s like, wow, I can’t believe this is happening. I hope it doesn’t get to the point where we’re over-exposed, where we’re being crammed down people’s throats.”

Two days after the Ballroom D show, the Alabama Shakes played a free, outdoor show on the Jo’s Coffee parking lot in South Austin. It was the fifth of eight shows they’d do in four days, and the wear was beginning to show—both the singing and playing was frayed around the edges. Faced with a chatty crowd who’d never heard of the Alabama Shakes and were there to hear headliner Alejandro Escovedo, the band relied on its more rocking songs and won this crowd over with power rather than finesse. By the end of the set, bodies were swaying between the white lines on the asphalt.

Between the Alabama Shakes and Escovedo came a set by Barbara Lynn, the Texan who had a #1 R&B hit, “You’ll Lose a Good Thing,” in 1962. Like the 23-year-old Howard, the 70-year-old Lynn is an African-American woman who sings and plays guitar, and the youngster hung around beside the stage to check out the veteran’s every move. Howard even rushed out with a bottle of water when Lynn asked for one. For all her reinvention of Southern music, Howard is not afraid to learn from its past.

“She’s an awesome guitar player,” Howard said later, “and a female guitar player at that. I talked to her backstage, and she was so sweet. She’s been doing it so long you’d figure she’d be bitter, but she was so positive. It’s nice to see someone who’s already had her career still enjoying it. I’m so afraid I won’t enjoy it someday. I don’t want to be miserable doing what I do. It’s like when you buy a new house, you’re afraid it’s going to burn down.”

It’s good that Howard is wary. So many things can go wrong in the music business that it’s crucial to be on your guard. And you don’t want anything to go wrong with this band, because they’ve come so far so quickly and have such a promising road before them.