Drive-By Truckers frontman Patterson Hood and I have a long friendship and a history of turning each other on to records new and old. Most recently, a discussion of Bob Seger led to my first spin of Alabama Shakes' eponymous five-song EP.
I had discovered Seger's early, lesser-known work with the Bob Seger System, records Hood was closely associated with because his own father, a Muscle Shoals Studios session musician, played on many of them. This led to a greater conversation about what made those records so strong: the songs themselves. A few days later, Hood texted me a blurry photo from the road with a simple caption: "This is the next great American rock band." When I asked him more, he couldn't say enough good things about Alabama Shakes, who were at the time on tour opening for the Truckers.
It's an odd truism that not every musician is a music fan. Whether due to competitiveness or a limited amount of creative headspace for digesting it, it's not unusual to encounter artists who don't seek out the work of others. Hood, however, is downright evangelical when it comes to Alabama Shakes, a neo-soul four-piece that succeeds brilliantly with a disarming combination of understated aesthetics and an arresting live presence that has garnered them deafening buzz even without Hood's help.
"It's the songs first and foremost," he said to me a few weeks after he'd sent the photo. "They're a great band—[frontwoman] Brittany [Howard] is a fantastic singer and incredible live performer. It's an amazing show, but none of that would matter to me if the songs weren't so damned good. I wake up with one of their songs stuck in my head about five mornings a week. Not always the same one, although 'Hold On' is especially infectious."
"Hold On" is the lead single off their forthcoming full-length, Boys & Girls (to be released in April by ATO Records, which also puts out the Drive-By Truckers' records). The band is currently riding a turbulent wave of well-deserved hype, with raves in The New York Times and sold-out shows in London, Los Angeles, and Austin. Hood also attributes much of their success and potential to just plain hard work.
Heath Fogg, the Shakes' 27-year-old guitarist, confirms that though their success seems brisk (they've only been a band for a few years), they paid their dues on the Alabama club scene, which favors cover bands over original artists. "In our neck of the woods, [if] you want to play out, you have to play covers, three-hour sets, and entertain the drinking crowds," he says over the phone. After years of perfecting their versions of Led Zeppelin's "How Many More Times" and Otis Redding's "These Arms of Mine" (influences you can hear in their work now), they decided to make the fiscally unfavorable gamble of focusing on finding their own voice. "We put our foot down and decided that it would be OK to not make money, play originals, and be more satisfied," Fogg says. The gamble paid off handsomely, and a fortuitous introduction to Hood helped them get the traction they needed.
"The first time they opened for us was only about the fourth time they'd played with monitors," recalls Hood (referring to the onstage speakers that allow the band to hear their own playing). "They had been woodshedding, literally, in the woods outside Athens, Alabama, and had their show so tight. They opened for us two months later in Winston-Salem, and were like a different band, they were so seasoned and hot. It had already transcended itself, and I suspect that they're still just scratching the surface. If they continue to grow at this rate and don't screw up and stunt their growth, they could be Springsteenish in their potential to move a large room with their live show."