Alabama Shakes is a Grammy-winning American soul and blues rock band that formed in Athens, Limestone County, in 2009. The band’s style is an innovative and experimental blend of rock music, rhythm & blues, soul, and the Muscle Shoals sound. The band is fronted by lead singer and guitarist Brittany Howard. Howard’s emotional, energetic and soul-baring stage presence combined with her powerful vocals have garnered comparisons to Janis Joplin, Etta James, and Aretha Franklin. While Howard acknowledges the comparisons, she has stated that she associates her style most closely with that of AC/DC front man Bon Scott. From their roots as a small-town band playing Black Sabbath and James Brown covers, Alabama Shakes has grown to become a globally touring phenomenon widely praised in the international music press.
The members of the Alabama Shakes all hail from the Athens area. They are lead singer and guitarist Brittany Howard, guitarist Heath Fogg, bassist Zac Cockrell, and drummer Steve Johnson. Howard first learned to play piano and write poetry under the guidance of her sister Jaime. After Jaime’s death at age 13 from cancer, nine-year-old Brittany taught herself to play her sister’s old guitar as well as the bass and drums. Her love of music, especially rock and roll, led the teenaged Howard to seek out musicians and musical experiences in Athens. After hearing Fogg play at house party, Howard decided to form her own band and try to make a living as a musician. She and Cockrell, who became friends during high school, bonded over their love of punk and rock and began to play some of the songs they liked while also writing some of their own.
After high school, Howard worked a series of jobs, eventually becoming a postal worker. She lived in Athens at the former home of her great-grandparents, turning it into a musician’s hangout with twice-weekly jam sessions. Steve Johnson, who was a FedEx Driver at the time, began attending the jam sessions in 2009 and was impressed with the talent and chemistry of Howard and Cockrell. The three formed a band called the Shakes and recorded a studio demo using recording time that Johnson had won during a “battle of the bands” event. Fogg, then working as a house painter, was a member of the band called Tuco’s Pistol and was one of the first people to hear the Shakes’ demo recording. He invited the band to open for Tuco’s Pistol at a May 2009 show in Decatur, Morgan County, where the group performed covers of Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, and other hard-rock groups. Fogg sat in during the Shakes’s set and, after the show, joined the band.
The foursome spent several years practicing and performing regionally in relative obscurity until 2011, when Los Angeles-based music blog Aquarium Drunkard posted the band’s song “You Ain’t Alone” on its website. The post attracted the attention of record labels and also Patterson Hood, vocalist of the Muscle Shoals band, Drive-by Truckers. Hood arranged a meeting with his managers and invited the Shakes to tour as an opening act for the Truckers. The Shakes signed with ATO Records and, after finding that their name was already in use by several other bands, changed the name to Alabama Shakes. Though they had yet to release an official studio album, NPR named them one of the best bands of 2011, and MTV called them one of the top up and coming bands of 2012.
Alabama Shakes released their debut album, Boys & Girls, on April 9, 2012. The album, recorded in only a week, was a mix of songs they had originally written for their self-titled and self-produced EP as well as some unrecorded material. It was a critical and commercial success, peaking at number six on the U.S. Billboard 200 chart and number three on the UK Albums chart, with combined sales of more than 700,000 copies. With a straightforward rock and soul sound, Boys & Girls was compared by critics to the music of the Motown and Muscle Shoals eras at their peaks. The track “Hold On” was named 2012 song of the year by Rolling Stone and was nominated for a Best Rock Performance Grammy in 2013. Alabama Shakes also earned a 2013 Grammy nomination for Best New Artist and a 2014 Best Rock Performance nomination for the song “Always Alright.” With a strong critical reception for their first album and growing fanbase, Alabama Shakes began a heavy touring schedule. In addition to their 2012-2013 tour schedule, they were invited to perform at high-profile music festivals, including South by Southwest (SXSW) in Austin, Texas, and Bonnaroo in Manchester, Tennessee. In April 2013, they performed for Pres. Barack Obama on the “Memphis Soul” episode of the PBS show In Performance at the White House. The same month, they performed “Hold On” on the television program Saturday Night Live. The band’s tour, which included dates in Europe, Asia, Australia, and South America, kept them from creating new material, and in late 2013, they reduced the number of dates to free up some of their time.
Once back in the United States, the band began working in Nashville, Tennessee, on their second studio album. The recording sessions lasted almost a year, and the album that emerged, Sound & Color, expanded the band’s genre boundaries. Going beyond the rock and soul sound of Boys & Girls, Sound & Color added elements of funk and psychedelia and punk. In February 2015, the group again appeared on Saturday Night Live, performing the new singles “Gimme All Your Love” and “Don’t Wanna Fight.” Released in April 2015 to much anticipation, Sound & Color debuted at number one on the Billboard 200. Globally, the album reached the top ten in the United Kingdom, Australia, the Netherlands, and Switzerland. In March 2016, it was certified as a gold record, with more than 500,000 in sales. In addition to commercial success, the album received wide critical acclaim for expanding on their original sound to also include synthesizer, vibraphones, and strings. Sound & Color garnered six nominations at the 2016 Grammy Awards, including Album of the Year. The album won Grammys for Best Alternative Music album and for Best Engineered Album, Non-Classical. The single “Don’t Wanna Fight” won Grammys for Best Rock Performance and for Best Rock Song. Following the release of Sound & Color, the band again began a heavy touring schedule. In 2015, they played 92 dates in the United States, Europe, and Australia. For 2016, they continue to support Sound & Color with dates scheduled across North America and Europe.
- Hermes, Will. “Alabama Shakes’ Unlikely Triumph.” Rolling Stone, March 14, 2013; http://www.rollingstone.com/music/news/alabama-shakes-unlikely-triumph-20130228.
- Rhodes, Joe. “Alabama Shakes’s Soul-Stirring, Shape-Shifting New Sound.” New York Times Magazine, March 18, 2015; http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/22/magazine/alabama-shakess-soul-stirring-shape-shifting-new-sound.html.