The story of the Alabama Shakes begins in a high school psychology class in Athens, Alabama. Brittany Howard, who had started playing guitar a few years earlier, approached Zac Cockrell and asked if he wanted to try making music together. “I just knew that he played bass and that he wore shirts with cool bands on them that nobody had heard of,” says Howard.
They started to meet up after school and write songs sitting on Howard’s floor. “It had that rootsy feel, but there was some out-there stuff,” says Cockrell. “David Bowie-style things, prog-rock, lots of different stuff. We started to come across our own sound a little bit, though it’s evolved a lot since then.”
Steve Johnson worked at the only music store in town, and Howard knew he played the drums. She invited him to a party where, she says, “he met everybody from our side of the tracks.” The three young musicians began working together, further expanding their style and approach. “Steve is kind of a punk-metal drummer,” says Howard, “so we embraced that edge he brings to everything he does.”
The trio soon went into a studio in Decatur to record some of the songs they were working up, and this proto-demo found its way into the hands of Heath Fogg, with whom Howard had been familiar because he had been the lead guitarist in what she describes as “the best band in our high school.” Fogg, who by now had graduated from college, asked them to open a show for his band, which they agreed to do—on the condition that he play with them. The response was immediate: “That first show was really explosive,” says Howard.”
Though they had been focusing on original material (“It’s just more fun to write than to learn someone else’s music,” says Cockrell), as the band—newly christened the Shakes—began playing out, they added more cover songs. They played classics by James Brown and Otis Redding, but also by Led Zeppelin and AC/DC. “We had to find music we could all agree on and figure out how to play together,” says Howard, “and that had a lot of influence on how we play now.”
Attempting to record their songs with the honest sonic qualities they cherished, the Shakes bought a few microphones and a vintage Teac mixing board and set up in Howard’s house—which didn’t work, since she lived right next to some railroad tracks. They eventually found their way to a Nashville studio in early 2011, where the songs they cut included “You Ain’t Alone” and “I Found You.”
When they appeared at a Nashville record store, people started to take notice of the group’s relentless, hard-charging live attack, and Howard’s magnetic stage presence. One especially ardent fan raved about the band to his friends, which included Justin Gage, the founder of the Aquarium Drunkard blog. Gage wrote to Howard, asking if he could post one of the Shakes’ songs. She sent back the yearning, intense “You Ain’t Alone,” which he put up in late July, calling it “a slice of the real.” And, literally overnight, all hell broke loose.