AmericanA to Z: Brittany Howard

There have been some pretty impressive entries in the AmericanA to Z feature under the letter “H” already. We’ve had Ed Hamell and Emmylou Harris. It’s a letter so loaded down with talent that no-less-than Ray Wylie Hubbard had to get in where he fit in under “R” (or was it under “W”?).

And there’s no shortage of talent with a first, last, or band name beginning with “H” out there waiting in the wings. But it’s already past time to add Brittany Howard to the catalogue of people making outsized contributions to the positive column of the musical ledger.

The first time that I saw Alabama Shakes perform live was at a three-day festival in Atlanta, GA in 2014. I had flown all the way from Alaska to see a line-up that included American Aquarium, Charles Bradley, the Hold Steady, Jackie Greene, and way too many more stellar acts to list here. I had heard some of the tracks off of the Shakes debut album and knew that they were worth checking out. But when I bought my ticket and booked my flight, they weren’t even close to the top of my to-do list for that weekend.

As it turned out, Alabama Shakes would be the Sunday headliner at that festival, the very last act of a three-day run that frequently forced me to choose between two beloved acts because they were on different stages at the same time. By the time the sun started to sink on that Sunday evening, I—like many others, was pretty close to spent. Sunburn, dehydration, sensory overload, and a happiness overdose had combined to make me start dreaming of my air-conditioned hotel room. If I had given in to that impulse, I probably never would have known what I missed. Thankfully the universe intervened on my behalf and talked me into hanging around.

I got my first full dose of Brittany Howard that evening. Within the first few minutes of the Shakes’ set, the fatigue of the festival had fallen away and any thoughts that I might have entertained about slipping out early had vanished. The band was fantastic but even against the backdrop of straight-up badasses that make up the line-up of Alabama Shakes, Brittany Howard’s charisma stood out. She blew me away with her guitar playing only to outdo herself with a voice that you feel as much as you hear. And she ran the show with a Rock ‘n’ Roll swagger that was equal parts Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Sharon Jones – Mick Jagger eat your heart out.

More than once Brittany proclaimed from the stage during that set that if everybody who had stuck around was still ready to party some more after three days in the heat, the Alabama Shakes were going to give us all they had—and they did!

Alabama Shakes started to take shape when Brittany Howard and Zac Cockrell began jamming together as students in the same high school. With Howard on guitar and Cockrell on bass, the project was dubbed ‘The Shakes’. When Heath Fogg was added as an additional guitar player the name was amended to Alabama Shakes. The band released its debut album ‘Boys & Girls’ in 2012 and it was well-enough received to earn the group several Grammy nominations.

Around the time that Alabama Shakes were releasing their debut, Howard was pulling together a side project known as Thunderbitch with players from the bands Clear Plastic Masks and Fly Golden Eagle. Thunderbitch would release a self-titled album in 2015, right around the time that Alabama Shakes released their sophomore album ‘Sound & Color’. Alabama Shakes would win Grammy awards for Best Rock Performance and Best Rock Song for the track ‘Don’t Wanna Fight’ off of the ‘Sound & Color’ album.

In 2017, Howard began working with another side project under the name Bermuda Triangle with her future wife Jesse Lafser and Becca Mancari. In 2018, Alabama Shakes announced that they were going on hiatus while Howard focused on a solo album and a tour in support of it. That same year the Shakes won a Grammy for Best American Roots Performance for their track ‘Killer Diller Blues’ on ‘The American Epic Sessions’.

In 2019, Howard’s debut solo album ‘Jaime’ was released to great anticipation and even greater reception. Before things ground to a halt this spring, Howard was slated for a solid run of shows in support of the solo album. The album is nominated for a whole host of awards including Americana Honors & Awards nods for Artist of the Year, Album of the Year, and Song of the Year (for ‘Stay High’). The American Association for Independent Music has nominated ‘Jaime’ for Album of the Year, as has GLAAD. The track ‘History Repeats’ is up for Grammy Awards for Best Rock Song and Best Rock Performance. The Rober Awards Music Prize has nominated ‘Jaime’ for Album of the Year and Howard for Best Female Artist and Best R&B Artist. The UK Music Video Awards have nominated the video for ‘Stay High’ for Best Rock Video-International.

Discography:

2012 – Boys & Girls (Alabama Shakes on ATO Records)
2015 – Sound & Color (Alabama Shakes on ATO Records)
           – Thunderbitch (Thunderbitch on ATO Records)
2019 – Jaime (Brittany Howard on ATO Records)

Author: Steven Rafferty

Writer, Musician, Political Junkie, Oilfield Hand in Recovery . . .

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