The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

January 25, 2014

Hometown pride for 56th Grammys

Father of Alabama Shakes’ drummer: ‘I’m kind of glad he didn’t listen’

By Kim West

— East Limestone resident Dave Johnson has known for several weeks his family would be gathering in front of the living room television tonight to tune into the 56th Grammy Awards, which are airing at 7 p.m. Sunday on WHNT-19.

That’s because his son, 28-year-old drummer Steve Johnson, is nominated for his fourth Grammy in two years with his Athens band, the Alabama Shakes.

The Shakes ventured to Los Angeles for last year’s glittery awards show after being nominated in three categories, including best new artist.

But this year the band has opted to bypass the trip out West, with all five members — Steve, Brittany Howard, Zac Cockrell, Heath Fogg and Ben Tanner — still residing in the Tennessee Valley and concentrating on their music and families.

The group has recorded tracks in Nashville in between touring and is expected to release its second album this year, although an official drop date is still pending.

Besides members of the band who have expressed their passion for creating music over awards hype, Dave said the Shakes’ nominated category for best rock performance is crowded with legendary rock stars such as Led Zeppelin and David Bowie.

“I don’t know if they’re keeping any hopes of winning an award in that category, considering who is nominated,” he said. “But absolutely, our family will be watching the show and he’ll probably come over to the house. We’ll have something to eat, sit down and watch, see what happens.”

Percussion persistence

The elder Johnson, who sometimes holes up with his son to pound away at the drums while his wife “retreats to the other end of the house,” at one time harbored dreams of being a full-time drummer.

Dave said he even tried to persuade Steve — who is expecting his third child, a son, in the next two weeks — to choose another career and to view music as only a hobby.

“When he was in high school, I tried to steer him away from making a living at music,” he said. “Doing that was kind of the direction I wanted to go but from my experience and having friends in the music business, I thought it was probably a bad idea to depend on it for a living. Now I’m kind of glad he didn’t listen to me.”

In a span of less than three years, the Shakes have played “Saturday Night Live,” appeared on dozens of talk shows, toured overseas and tabbed by Rolling Stone magazine for having the 2012 song of the year for “Hold On.”

“It’s been a process and all of it’s been really exciting from when they first opened for the Drive-By Truckers 2 1/2 years ago until now,” Dave said. “They were in a church van they rented for the first tour out West, and from there they went to a tour bus with a tag-along trailer. Now they have the bus, tag-along and an 18-wheeler trailer, and it’s been fun to watch it to grow.”

He said no matter what happens Sunday night or with the second record, the band is going to enjoy simply being part of the professional music scene.

“For them, the pressure is always on for them to write music for a second album and for it to do well,” said Dave, whose favorite Shakes tune is an unreleased recording written by Howard about her mother. “Just like for any band, the second album is always the telling tale.

“But they’re all so laid-back, and none of them expected to have this much success. So anything past what has happened is just a bonus for them.”