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Breaking Out: Alabama Shakes

Alabama Shakes / Photo by Autumn de Wilde

WHO: After graduating from high school, singer-guitarist Brittany Howard, bassist Zac Cockrell, drummer Steve Johnson, and guitarist Heath Fogg, all now in their early 20s, started playing together in an attempt to address a desperate musical shortage afflicting their hometown of Athens, Alabama. “The bands around here were all doing bad covers of bad Rolling Stones songs,” says Howard. “There was nobody playing the music we liked. So we decided to do it ourselves.”

SOUNDS LIKE: The band’s self-titled 2011 EP moves from chugging rock (“Hold On”) to ringing gospel (“On Your Way”) to heartrending ballads in slow-rolling 6/8 time (“You Ain’t Alone,” recently featured in a Zales television commercial). No matter the style, it’s all played with an earthy, soulful energy, and soars when lifted by Howard’s huge, gritty voice. “I love singers like Tina Turner,” she raves. “She taught me that you don’t have to be worried about sounding pretty.” The band’s full-length debut, Boys & Girls, is due April 10 on ATO Records, with a U.S. tour to follow. “Seven months ago we were just hoping to get shows outside of Alabama,” Howard says, “so this is all pretty amazing.”

DOES BAMA GO WITH THOSE SHAKES: The foursome was originally christened the Shakes, but added “Alabama” after some early confusion. Explains Howard: “There was a music festival in [nearby] Huntsville and this band from Chicago was gonna play. All these people were congratulating us on getting the gig. We had to be like, ‘Uh, that’s not actually us.’ Then I did some Internet research and it turned out there’s tons of bands called the Shakes. We didn’t want to get a cease and desist.”

RAILROADED: A self-described “tone nerd,” Howard, with help from her bandmates, once set up an analog studio in the laundry room of her Athens home to try and match “the snare sound on old Wilson Pickett records.” Unfortunately, the DIY effort was DOA. “I live next to train tracks,” she explains, sheepishly. “We probably should’ve thought of that first.”