July 24th, 2012
06:15 PM ET
The Alabama Shakes are from a small town, and singer Brittany Howard wants to make sure you know it.
"Athens, Alabama. I decided it's the best place on earth," she said. "I've been around the world and Athens is the best."
Alabama is right there in the group's name and it's truth in advertising. Athens (pop. 2200) is in North Central Alabama, 50 miles from Muscle Shoals (famous for soul and rock recordings). Many have also noted the ties in the sound to Memphis' Stax records (early on, the band covered Otis Redding, but also AC/DC). It's hard to detect an influence in the music of anything post-1975, but somehow they make it feel fresh and vital.
Howard recalled of the band's beginnings in an interview with CNN, "We're from a small town, and when we started it was just me and my bass player Zac [Cockrell]. I just wanted to have somebody to play music with, and he didn't have any expectations."
Later they added Steve Johnson on drums and Heath Fogg on guitar, other "people from the town." After a few shows and realizing they had chemistry, they decided to go to Nashville to record an album so they could be a "real band."
They settled on an analog studio that was "the cheapest one we could find" and set about recording what would become "Boys and Girls," their hit debut album.
"When we first got together we just wanted to prove to ourselves that we could make an album," Howard said. "And boy did we make an album - everybody's listening to it, which is really a blessing."
She credits other bands' support with helping them break through, specifically Patterson Hood of the Southern rockers Drive by Truckers.
The Alabama Shakes also draw praise for their live show, focused on Howard's electrifying stage presence. She pours herself into every vocal (and the occasional ripping guitar solo) while the band maintains the classic indie rock posture of looking as bored as possible (but sounding tight and great).
Howard says the subject matter is straightforward and that's part of the appeal. "I tell a lot of stories on stage, the songs are stories. The way the music sounds, what I'm talking about – what it makes you feel, it's all right there. That's what it's about."
For a young band from a small town they have become very popular, very fast. CNN asked how they were dealing with the fame.
Howard answered, "I don't know what [that] is...I just want to go somewhere quiet and be with the guys and write some songs."
She continues, "[B]lowing up don't matter, and if everybody forgot about us, it don't matter – we are going to make records."
Back to Athens, Alabama. After proclaiming its supremacy, Howard said she doesn't hold ill will towards another Athens. "I like Athens, Georgia, too. If I moved somewhere it might be to Athens, Georgia. It's cool, but not during game season."
She smiled and added, "Roll Tide."
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