The Music Club, 2012

The Alabama Shakes and a Great Year for Americana
New albums dissected over email.
Dec. 21 2012 1:14 PM

The Music Club, 2012

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The rise of the Alabama Shakes and other reasons to love Americana.

Brittany Howard of Alabama Shakes, Emmylou Harris, Buddy Miller and Bonnie Raitt perform at the 11th Annual Americana Honors & Awards at The Ryman Auditorium in September in Nashville, Tennessee.
Brittany Howard of Alabama Shakes, Emmylou Harris, Buddy Miller, and Bonnie Raitt perform at the 11th Annual Americana Honors & Awards in Nashville, Tenn.

Photo by Rick Diamond/Getty Images for Sony Music.

Lindsay, thanks for bringing up the grace and poetry of Anais Mitchell. She’s a gem. Of course, erudite songwriters are the biscuits and honey butter of Americana music. This year, my faves in that world included: kick-ass Oklahoman John Fullbright, whose first full-length, From the Ground Up, is as smart and beautifully crafted and surly as was Steve Earle’s debut, Guitar Town; Earle’s own progeny, Justin Townes Earle, who claimed ownership of Desolation Row on his fourth album and then bucked up and helped rockabilly pioneer Wanda Jackson make the best album of her golden-years comeback; the great Bonnie Raitt, who found a groove with the master producer Joe Henry on her fiery, don’t-call-me-golden 16th album, Slipstream; Gary Clark Jr., reviving serious blues with an album many critics overlooked, I think, precisely because it’s so far outside any box; and Mark Lanegan, Seattle rock’s ancient mariner, making the most of his deep-six moan on the hair-raising Blues Funeral. Not to mention the former and current writing core of the Deep South’s greatest rock band, the Drive-By Truckers: Jason Isbell, Patterson Hood, and even shy Mike Cooley were all on a roll with new releases this year. And we cherished the latest rare appearance by the Marilynne Robinson of song, Iris DeMent.

As a category, Americana has its problems—it’s a very white scene that claims to represent a lineage deeply rooted in African-American sounds (since country, too, was born in blues), and its adherents often cling too rigidly to notions of virtue and authenticity. Yet I continually gravitate toward it, because for all my love of dancing, I’m a song person, susceptible to well-spun melodies and stories in slanted rhyme. Also, I now live in the South, and all that twang is starting to sound like home. But right now I think there’s a reason even for nonbelievers to explore Americana. Besides the stellar individuals who keep the quality level consistent, a new generation really began to bubble up in 2012.

This cohort is not fussy about tradition. Younger Americana artists take their inheritance in a rowdy embrace, kissing it back to life with punk irreverence and buskers’ willingness to try whatever works. Married duos like Shovels and Rope and Whitehorse bring boisterous, loving fun. New troubadours like the wondrous Alynda Lee Segarra,  Bhi Bhiman, and Valerie June are correcting the imbalances in the genre’s identity. Formalists like Oklahoma’s J.D. McPherson, who’s a rockabilly post-structuralist, or bluegrass reinventors Sara Watkins and Chris Thile are turning old traditions both more pop and more experimental. There’s a sexy edge to Americana’s latest phase, too, from empowered hot mamas like Chelle Rose and Sallie Ford to genuine teen idols the Avett Brothers.

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The Alabama Shakes emblematize what young Americana’s all about. This little band from Athens, Ala., just outside of Huntsville, has enjoyed a truly meteoric rise in 2012. I first heard about Brittany Howard and her boys when they played our local Brews Crews—a drunken party on a tiny vintage riverboat organized by some Tuscaloosa coolness boosters. Fifteen months later, the Shakes stood onstage in the town’s biggest venue opening for Neil Young at the 7,500-seat Tuscaloosa Amphitheater. In between, there was that full-length debut, the crackling Boys & Girls; the band toured like crazy, going from opening for the Truckers to major festival gigs and, now, a headlining theater tour; everyone from Adele to Jack White to Robert Plant named the Shakes as their fave new thing; and, finally, there came the Grammy nominations (three) and year-end lists. (Rolling Stone picked the band’s signature testimonial, “Hold On,” as its No. 1 song of 2012.) There’s something about Howard, especially, that pumps music lovers to the max.

I talked with her in March, when the band played NPR Music’s showcase at the barbecue joint Stubb’s. She’d come a long way since we’d first exchanged spontaneous hugs outside the Bama Theater last September, on the first night of the group’s tour with the Truckers. Then, she was cool but pretty nervous: I remember my husband pointing out that when Patterson invited her out to sing with him, she didn’t even come to center stage. Now, she was cool and utterly in charge of herself. I remember thinking that she reminded me a little of how Jimi Hendrix was in interviews: engaged and thoughtful but always arching an eyebrow at what others thought a musician should make of his or her legacy.

Part of the Hendrix connection obviously comes from the fact that Howard is also an African-American in a predominantly white scene. But a similar perspective extends from many of the players I’ve mentioned above: Respect for the past is tempered by the practical conviction that living in the present demands ingenuity and the willingness to mess up your Sunday best. Previous generations of revivalists were often fussier about getting the look and the sound of their recreations down pat. One older band these younguns do remind me of is X, in its later phase, when John and Exene applied their genius romanticism and broken guts to the Bakersfield sound. That slapdash joy and hunger is coming back into vogue.

Meanwhile, Alabama the state loves its namesake band. It’s been fun to watch the Shakes return to Tuscaloosa, as victors now, and see the snaking lines around the block for secret shows at the beloved dive bar Egan’s. It’s great to talk to students at University of Alabama about musicians in whom they take almost (well … almost) as much pride as that rolling Tide. And I’m really excited about the little rush of soul-flavored bands coming out of Alabama and nearby states; I feel like I might just be happening upon something that’s been around for a while, but the Shakes’ success means the world might also be up for discovering excellent self-made revivalists like DeRobert and the Half-Truths or St. Paul and the Broken Bones.

As it happens, the Shakes were actually discovered in Nashville, Tenn., by an industry insider who tipped off the Los Angeles blogger/impresario Justin Gage of Aquarium Drunkard, who in turn put out the national word. I was planning on talking about the New Nashville in this post, but I’ll have to leave that to you, Jody, along with the immense pleasure of waxing poetic about our new favorite girl on fire, Kacey Musgraves.

Ann

Ann Powers is a critic at NPR Music. She is the former Los Angeles Times' chief pop critic and the author of Weird Like Us: My Bohemian America.

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