This article is part of our series “GRITS: Girls Raised in the South,” in which we profile some of our favorite Dixie ladies and the things that make them awesome. Got an idea for a fabulous femme we should feature? Shoot us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org! (Alliteration optional.)
Hometown: Athens, Alabama
Profession: singer, guitarist, member of Alabama Shakes, all around baller
Reasons she’s awesome: Brittany Howard is an old soul. At just 26, her stage presence is already intimidatingly poised, with an old school grit and shimmering confidence that the most experienced rockers would envy. But while she has always loved to perform, the way Howard tells it, that comfort with herself and the stage did not come so easily. As a kid in Athens, a town of 24,000 nestled in Limestone County, Ala., Howard never felt like she fit in — too big, too brassy, all uncoordinated limbs and gusto in need of an outlet. She was short on kindred spirits, until high school, when a fellow musician named Zac Cockrell stumbled into her life. The two began playing together, first covers of songs they both loved and then their own original material, grounded in Southern roots and an old school sound — part blues, part rock, part soul, part jazz, and all their own. Soon they added Steve Johnson to the mix, followed by Heath Fogg (who, incidentally, might have the best name in the business), and they christened themselves The Shakes, which would become, eventually, Alabama Shakes.
The rise of the group has been described as meteoric. Small town quartet hits the big time, sky rocketing to massive success. But the actual climb wasn’t all that seamless. Before hooking up with Johnson and Fogg , Howard worked as a truck driver, a postal worker, in a framing store — anything to make ends meet. Even today, with one hugely successful album under their belt and a sophomore release coming next week, the band members all still live in the same small corner of Alabama. The group was never in it for the money or the fame (as Howard put it, “I live in Athens, Ala., and I’m 26 years old. What do I need with five million dollars?”). It’s about chemistry, finding kindred souls, and that ripple of joy that hits when they step on stage.
That’s not to say that life as three-time Grammy nominees doesn’t have its perks. The gang has performed on three continents, at music festivals around the globe (including Louisville’s own Forecastle, where Scout and I saw them, their groovy Americana sound perfectly matched by the July sunshine), on late night talk shows and on SNL (twice). Their first album garnered them those Grammy nominations, and the new one is already generating all kinds of positive buzz. But to take it from Howard, all that glitz and glam is just icing on an already very delicious cake. She doesn’t care about the hits, or the royalties, or the awards. She’s just damn happy to have found a band of misfits that fits her, and she’ll keep writing and playing and singing with them as long as the ride lasts. As NPR’s Ann Powers put it in a preview of Sound & Color (the new album, out April 21st, which she dubbed “so much more confident and wide-ranging than the band’s outstanding 2012 debut Boys & Girls”): “As they grow toward a greatness that does away with others’ assumptions, these proud freaks stay grounded. That’s what’s going to make the Alabama Shakes last.”