By Rebecca Croomes
For The News Courier
Brittany Howard carries her feelings on her sleeve tattoo of Alabama: there’s a heart over Athens. Maybe it’s a sweet reminder of home, but to outsiders it’s a lesson in the origins of a star.
Two years ago, no one had heard of the Alabama Shakes, a group Howard formed with other Tennessee Valley natives Heath Fogg, Zac Cockrell, Steve Johnson and Ben Tanner; now you can’t say “indie rock” without them coming up sandwiched between names like Mumford & Sons and The Black Keys.
It was announced Wednesday that the group of twenty-somethings from Athens has been nominated for two Grammys: best new artist, and best rock performance for their hit “Hold On.”
Whether on TV or online, the Alabama Shakes are as popular as the day is long, and with Rolling Stone magazine naming “Hold On” as song of the year for 2012, that day doesn’t seem to be ending any time soon.
As soon as the announcements were made, congratulations started pouring on to the band’s Facebook page from the four corners of the Internet.
“We are so honored and thrilled and really want to thank everyone for the support,” the group wrote back. “Extra extra special thanks to our incredible families. We love you.”
Love for the Shakes began almost immediately after they released a few tracks from a recording studio in Nashville in 2011. Their song “You Ain’t Alone” was featured in a Zales jewelry ad for the holidays that year. The bluesy-soul sounds that are hard to describe, even when using the right words, struck a chord with the nation that hasn’t let go.
Cranking out hits on stages from New York to Berlin is a far cry from where Howard and the gang used to be back home. She delivered mail and at one time worked at Hyatt & Sims framing shop on the Square. The boys had similar day jobs. Music was their hobby, playing in bars and composing in spare moments. Howard, Fogg and Cockrell graduated from East Limestone High School; Johnson graduated from Elkmont High School and Tanner graduated from Muscle Shoals High School.
Since the release of those early tunes, the band has more than 40,000 followers on Twitter, millions of hits on YouTube, they’ve made numerous appearances on late-night TV and tour dates are sold out around the world. Their full-length album, “Boys & Girls,” released earlier this year by ATO Records, peaked at No. 8 on the U.S. charts.
Needless to say they’ve become a darling of major music critics.
“Compared to computer-tuned radio pop, or even the big-time pop-soul of a genuine singer like Adele, the Alabama Shakes sound raw-boned and proudly unprocessed,” New York Times music writer Jon Pareles wrote back when “Boys & Girls” was released in April. “… Ms. Howard, wearing chunky black glasses, unleashed a voice with the ache and grit of Janis Joplin and Tina Turner; she’s not afraid to sweat.”
National Public Radio listed them on its Year in Music 2011.
“And they have this singer, Brittany Howard — you fall in love the minute you see or hear her. I think they are going to blow up massively this coming year,” wrote Ann Powers.
MTV named them one of the 11 Artists to Watch Out for in 2012. They’ve performed at Bonaroo, the Austin City Limits music festival and the prestigious South-by-Southwest, or SXSW, festival.
No word on when the band will next be home in Athens, or if there will ever be a show here. They were in Nashville for the Grammy announcements and are selling tickets for their next national tour, which kicks off shortly after the new year.
But wherever they go, praise follows where jaws are left on the floor.
— The Grammys will be presented at 7 p.m. on CBS, Thursday, Feb. 7. The Alabama Shakes are also nominated for a technical award.