By Shannon Jay
Brittany Howard wanted to start a band ever since she witnessed former classmate and fellow bandmate Heath Fogg perform a concert in their middle school gym. Later, after meeting bassist Zac Cockrell in a psychology class, the peers joined forces after Howard taught herself guitar, bass, and drums. What started off as jam sessions at Howard’s great-grandparents house turned into the grammy winning, chart topping rhythm and blues powerhouse that is Alabama Shakes.
First popping on to the scene as “The Shakes” in 2009, the group of kids from Athens traveled to Decatur to open for Fogg’s band, Tuco’s Pistol, for their first live gig. They nervously filled Brick Deli and Tavern with covers of Otis Redding, AC/DC, James Brown, and Led Zeppelin, proving early on their love for both rock and soul.
The frontwoman always had a soft spot for rock since solid gold oldies blared from the radio during breakfast in her grandmother’s kitchen. However, classic R&B fusion bands like Pink Floyd and Black Sabbath are heavily responsible for the band’s explorations in genre-bending. “It was just whatever they wanted to create, and I thought it was so interesting,” Howard told NPR.
The band’s latest release, Sound + Color, embodies this inspiration with its psychedelic blues guitar and subdued bass lines, leaving plenty of room for Howard’s simply put but potent wails and woes. She emphasizes single lines with increasing intensity on this release, as oppose to the elaborate & declarative choruses of the debut.
“The more music I was listening to since the first record,” Howard told NPR, “the more I appreciated space and the ability to let the listener have time to think about what you’re doing, and not just being bombarded by all of the instruments.”
This 2015 release was nominated for six Grammys, including Album of the Year, and took home two, one being Best Alternative Music Album. All their records have hit the height of the charts, including the 2012 debut Boys + Girls, which held Top 10 in six countries. The debut’s first track serendipitously came into fruition at one of these early gigs at the Decatur bar. The Shakes were messing around with new riffs when Howard began to sing the opening lines to their hit single “Hold On.”
“Hated my job, and I was just trying to inspire myself to keep working, stay positive, and all this stuff,” Howard told CBS about the creation of the track, the lyrics flowing freely in front of the crowd. Rolling Stone named “Hold On” the Best Song of 2012.
Howard’s rock ‘n’ roll dreams came true after much hardship. Her family home, smack-dab in the middle of a car-piled junkyard, burned down after it was struck by lightning. When Howard was 9, her 13 year-old sister Jamie died from retinal cancer. Howard was also born with retinoblastoma, which doctors caught in time, but has left her blind in one eye.
Jaimie taught Howard how to write poetry and play the piano, shaping the frontwoman’s hearty lyrical style. Her parents split soon after her sister’s death, driving Howard to dig in Jamie’s closet and pulled out a guitar to guide her through dark times.
“Started teaching myself how to play. I took it to my music teacher at school, she tuned it for me. And then I just took it home and wrote my own songs,” Howard told CBS, “the neighbors hated it!”
Every word Howard belts is heartfelt and goose-bump-inducing. Her stage presence has been compared to legendary soul singers such as Aretha Franklin, James Brown, and, most often, Janis Joplin. “I just try to give my all to anything I’m doing,” Howard told Vanity Fair, “the audience will often bring it out in me, too. Onstage is the one time in my day that I can let it all out.”
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