I’ve been stuck here in this town
If you could call it that, a year or two
I never do what I’m supposed to do
I don’t even need a name anymore
No one calls it out, kind of vanishes away.
– Jason Isbell, “Alabama Pines”
North Alabama is hardly considered a breeding ground for cutting-edge music. It’s not often that you hear of a band making waves there, and the only reason a touring musician might stop in the area is to fill up the tank or grab a steak and beer at Logan’s Roadhouse.
All of which makes the story of the Alabama Shakes, our cover subjects for this issue, all the more exciting. The band springs from Athens, Alabama, a small, rural town of about 20,000 just off of I-65, about 20 miles south of the Tennessee line. Like most of small-town America, there isn’t much to do there when you’re growing up, except “drink, set things on fire and have pre-marital sex,” as lead singer Brittany Howard would put it.
But despite its limitations in the world of entertainment, the region boasts a rich and profound musical legacy that has shaped the course of rock and roll. The Muscle Shoals area near Florence – which is about an hour’s drive west of Athens – is renowned for the records cut at F.A.M.E. recording studio, and later Muscle Shoals Sound Studio. F.A.M.E. alumni include acts like Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett, while the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio has housed sessions by The Rolling Stones, Paul Simon and, more recently, The Black Keys.
For the Alabama Shakes, it’s clear that the region’s musical past is not dead – in fact, it’s not even past. Ben Tanner, a former recording engineer at F.A.M.E., now plays keys for the band, and he talks about the Muscle Shoals legacy in our cover story.
It’s worth noting that North Alabama’s other great band, Drive-By Truckers, also came out of the Shoals area, with frontman Patterson Hood’s father David Hood having been an original member of The Swampers, the house band for F.A.M.E. during the ‘60s and later at Muscle Shoals Sound Studio. DBT brilliantly assessed the region and its complex history – musical, political and racial – with the 2001 album Southern Rock Opera.
And Jason Isbell, a former Trucker and now an esteemed solo artist in his own right, still resides in the Shoals area. His song “Alabama Pines,” off of last year’s Here We Rest, is a haunting portrait of personal dislocation in a small town.
For our annual business issue, writer Adam Gold interviews a host of artists and industry insiders about how to succeed in today’s topsy-turvy music biz. It’s a grim picture, to be sure, and one that is littered with broken dreams and broken hearts. The upside, Gold writes, is that if you do in fact succeed, it will likely be on your own terms.
Some of the lessons to take away are to tour constantly, and build a dedicated fan base through a steady marketing effort. “Your music itself is a marketing tool. Before figuring out how to monetize it, work on figuring out how to get it heard,” he writes. “Then let the market decide what your worth is as a live draw, what your catchiest tune is worth to an advertiser, or how much self esteem a fan can get from wearing your T-shirt.”
The recent explosion of the Alabama Shakes seems to defy the conventional wisdom of the music business. They have not tried to fashion any kind of rock star image, or fit into anyone’s mold of what a rock band should look and sound like. As this issue hits newsstands, the band will likely be taking South by Southwest by storm, having been asked to play every showcase under the sun in Austin. So far, they have handled the buzz well, having just delivered a riveting performance on Conan in what was their national television debut. They are one of the few recent bands that actually live up to the “hype.”