Photo Credit: Brantley Gutierrez
At a time when mainstream hip hop and pop vocalists dominate FM airwaves and awards-show accolades, the Alabama Shakes have pulled off a rare feat. The Athens, AL four-piece has achieved legitimate rock stardom in the 21st Century, translating early encounters with internet hype into something lucrative and long-lasting.
The group’s rags-to-riches tale began with Brittany Howard (lead vocals, guitar) and Zac Cockrell (bass) jamming together in a garage, learning cover songs and composing two originals. When their go-to drummer broke his arm in an automobile accident, the pair recruited Steve Johnson. “I had some studio time my previous band had won, so I asked, ‘Would y’all be interested in using this free studio time to record the two originals you have?’” Johnson says. “After we did it, they just sat there three or four months or so. But every chance I got, I shared it with other musicians.”
Among the musicians to hear those earliest recordings was guitarist Heath Fogg, who booked the nascent trio for its May 2009 live debut in Decatur, AL alongside his cover band, Tuco’s Pistol. With a second guitarist needed to liven up the Alabama Shakes’ first 45-minute set, Fogg joined the band.
By 2011 the Shakes had crafted enough originals to record a new set of demos. “We had started going to east Nashville to record a demo,” Johnson says. “We had four or five of them done and put together a little EP. Plus, I think Brittany had posted a couple of songs on our MySpace page, or Facebook, or whatever it was. Somehow, a guy in California [Aquarium Drunkard’s Justin Gage] had heard it and started writing about it on his blog and everything. He had a bunch of people who read that and got turned on to it through that.”
With this sudden flood of attention came inquiries directed at the band’s management and booking agent. The group had neither prior to meeting like-minded musicians with Athens, GA ties.
”As luck would have it, we had a show coming up in Florence, AL, which is where some of the Drive-By Truckers are from,” Johnson says. “At that point, the W.C. Handy Festival was taking place. They just happened to be in town for the festival, so Patterson [Hood] came and saw us. It was a Record Store Day thing or something like that. He’s the one who got us hooked up with their management. Once they got ahold of us, they had all the connections to facilitate putting an album out [and] putting us on the road.”
The 2012 debut album, Boys and Girls, signaled the Alabama Shakes’ mainstream arrival. It netted the group its first two Grammy nominations: Best New Artist and Best Rock Performance for “Hold On.” Critics praised Howard’s neo-soul delivery and the band’s grasp of regional blues, rock and gospel traditions.
Instead of appeasing its swelling fanbase with another dose of comparable sounds, the band expanded its sonic horizons on its 2015 album, Sound and Color. “We’ve avoided being categorized or being the poster band for any movement, because we are interested in so many different things,” Johnson says. “On Sound and Color, we tried to expand on the interests we have. There’s some far-out stuff on there, and almost like hip-hop-oriented grooves.”
The opportunity to introduce new influences and techniques was as circumstantial as it was an artistic statement.
“With Boys and Girls, the songs were pretty much already [written], and we’d just go in and lay them down, so there wasn’t much spontaneity to it,” Johnson says. “We’d been playing them, and they were what they were. With Sound and Color, there was a lot more experimenting with different tones and different instrumentation. Some of the songs we’d been working on since Boys and Girls came out slowly progressed into what they are now. Others we went in kind of clueless. Brittany would have an idea, and then everyone else would have a chance to put their two cents in and try to make something of it.”
Among the creative hurdles the band cleared was writing the Grammy-winning single and now pop-culture staple “Don’t Wanna Fight.”
“That song was pretty tough when we were doing it in the studio,” Johnson says. “That’s one that kind of took shape over the course of a year or so, starting with the riff. The drum groove changed probably a dozen times. I don’t think anyone knew when Brittany came up with that riff that it had any kind of staying power. It was one of the weaker songs we had until the drum groove kind of locked it in.”
Even with his band’s success, Johnson seems content to wind down when possible, enjoy hometown life as a father of two and play drums at his local church.
“We’ve only done one-record deals for both albums, so there’s no immediate pressure to follow up or do anything else,” he says. “I think we’d burn ourselves out if that was the case. And given the fact that I have a family and Heath has a family, we like to have our downtime with them. Being on the road is super stressful sometimes. If we get our downtime and don’t think about music, eventually the desire comes back strong.”
That same salt-of-the-earth attitude shines through when Johnson and his bandmates appear onstage, late-night television or the red carpet. Howard’s heart-wrenching vocals, Fogg’s twangy tones and all four members’ unshakable pride in the Yellowhammer state reveal the Alabama Shakes as musicians true to their roots. It’s this honesty and emotional accessibility that’s made the group a star in a musical climate that doesn’t always support rock and roll.
ALABAMA SHAKES Grammy-winning, Alabama-based rock group with blistering vocals and intensely emotional grooves.
BELLE ADAIR Atmospheric Americana group from Alabama.