Seeing Memphis '60s garage rock legends The Gentrys get their due recently with a brass note on the Beale Street Walk of Fame was a pleasant reminder of pop music's egalitarian impulse, how with the right sound at the right time, a band can spring from nowhere to capture the nation's musical imagination.
For the Alabama Shakes, a rock-and-soul quartet that shares The Gentrys R&B instincts and sudden success, nowhere is Athens, Ala., a blip of a town off U.S. 72 between Florence and Huntsville. The music Mecca of Muscle Shoals is 50 miles away and Nashville an hour-and-a-half to the north, but for the members of the group, they might as well have been a world away.
"It's hard being from a small town in Alabama to be heard," says Shakes guitarist Heath Fogg, back home in Alabama before heading out on a tour that will bring the band to Memphis and the New Daisy Theater for the first time Friday. "We were fortunate to catch a few breaks at the end of last year."
Those breaks included Internet hype, adoring press coverage, and some high-profile festival gigs that have made the Alabama Shakes one of the most buzzed-about bands in recent memory. The buzz has only gotten louder as Boys & Girls, released in April, cracked the Top 10 in England, Ireland, and the United States.
"It hasn't felt overnight to us," says Fogg of the success. "We've been a band for over three years, and the first two years or so we played a lot of gigs around home in smaller bars/clubs."
The roots of Alabama Shakes lie in singer-guitarist Brittany Howard's high school psychology class. That's where she met bassist Zac Cockrell, with whom she bonded over a love of classic rock. As teenagers, the two would sit on the floor of Howard's bedroom teaching each other guitar licks they had learned, eventually turning the room into a makeshift recording space where they would cut songs until her father had to go to bed.
The pair later found drummer Steve Johnson and then Fogg, whom they stole from a band they had opened for. In 2009, not long after Howard graduated high school, The Shakes, as they were originally known, were born.
While working day jobs, the band's members lived for Tuesday and Thursday night practices and weekend gigs around the region. By early 2011, they felt confident enough to head to Nashville to begin work on the record that would become Boys & Girls.
Before the record was even finished, however, events began to get away from the Shakes. It started with a post on the influential music blog Aquarium Drunkard. Industry suits came calling (the group would ultimately sign with Rough Trade and ATO Records), and the band proved worthy of the attention with well-received shows opening for the Drive-By Truckers. In September they changed their name to the Alabama Shakes and released their debut EP.
The next month they wowed with their debut New York City performance at the CMJ Music Marathon. Soon after, Paste magazine named them the band of the year.
"Honestly, most of the record was completed before any of this attention started," says Fogg. "We did tweak the record a little bit after we signed to our labels but really you are hearing mostly what we recorded when we all had day jobs. I guess we were real fortunate in that sense."
Fortunate in that the increasing glare of fame didn't compel them to tinker with the raw, simple recipe that was their appeal in the first place. The band has a deep knowledge and appreciation of the genre-bending garage rockers as well as artists like Otis Redding and Janis Joplin. But their approach, like The Black Keys or The White Stripes, is decidedly modern, with a drum thump and guitar snarl that any contemporary band would envy.
"I think we are a rock-and-roll band first and foremost," says Fogg. "We do all love different genres of music that I think influence our sound. I don't think we get too deep into trying to evoke a certain time or scene. We just go for what is in our heads at a particular time."
Alabama Shakes with Fly Golden Eagle
Friday at the New Daisy Theater, 330 Beale. Doors open at 7 p.m. Tickets: $25 at the box office, by phone at 866-468-7630 and online at newdaisy.com. Call 901-525-8979.