Then and now, Alabama music has both a legacy and a life. A crop of young acts with roots in the state—from Jason Isbell and Waxahatchee to Yelawolf and Phosphorescent—reiterate the state's sonic diversity, already established by the likes of Sun Ra and Man or Astro-man?, Hank Williams and Nat King Cole. (And, yes, Alabama.)
But the home of The Yellowhammer State's most enduring music might be Muscle Shoals. The small town in northwest Alabama, coincidentally alongside a river the Yuchi tribe called the "Singing River," pumped hit records from two historic depots. At FAME Studios, Percy Sledge, Aretha Franklin and Otis Redding pushed soul forward in the '60s and '70s. Inside Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, The Swampers backed Bob Seger and Bob Dylan, Etta James and Paul Simon.
Though they sound disparate, two of Alabama's biggest recent exports—St. Paul and the Broken Bones and the Alabama Shakes—toy with those traditions. The Bones are a real-deal, straight-up soul band, all dressed up in matching suits and, on last year's Half the City, echoing the region's classic soul roots while adding electrified potency. The Shakes, meanwhile, construct their fetching hybrids using soul's vernacular. Dressed down in the casual livery of a rock band, they flex every which way on the new Sound & Color. As NPR's Ann Powers put it, "It's punk in its refusal to conform, glam in its theatrical flair, jazz in its self-directed, often unexpected musicality."
Apart from dynamic singers who stalk and shake and shimmy across the stage, working into some sort of holy-roller frenzy, the bands share the quest to find a new way forward from the deep trenches of Alabama's great musical epoch and epicenter. In the process, the Shakes and Bones create lovable mutts that defy both retro and revivalist eartags.
Broken Bones singer Paul Janeway and Alabama Shakes drummer Steve Johnson talked about the long shadows cast by the musical legends of their homeland and how they're attempting to outrun them. And Alabama football, of course.
PAUL JANEWAY (SINGER, ST. PAUL AND THE BROKEN BONES): That's the beacon in music that is holy ground. It's sacred to me. Browan [Lollar], our guitar player, and Al [Gamble], our keyboard player, they're both from there, so it's a second home for us. The Decoys, The Swampers, Booker T. and the M.G.'s are some of the greatest bands to ever exist. That's what we all aspire to be when we grow up, when we become real musicians. They're the biggest, most influential bands out there. Why the hell would we not want to be those folks? We want to put a modern twist on it, but why would that not be an aspiration of yours?
STEVE JOHNSON (DRUMMER, ALABAMA SHAKES): Everybody associates Muscle Shoals with Muscle Shoals Sound Studio and FAME and Jackson Highway and all that. Muscle Shoals and Sheffield and Florence, though, that area's booming right now. People are moving there, and really good schools are popping up and businesses are popping up. There's a lot of cool stuff happening.
The radio stations here play a lot of Skynyrd, ZZ Top, a lot of Stones. The mix doesn't really change. You're guaranteed to hear "Turn the Page" every day. Or "Sweet Home Alabama" every day. Or "Tush" every day. When you're raised down here, it just kind of seeps into you.
JANEWAY: It's the outward expression of great human tragedy and happiness, you know? It's an emotive thing. You have soul if you can sweat. Then you're screaming, and then you're singing sweet. Every word that's said, it's felt. I listen to a lot more music than just soul, so I never really viewed ourselves that way. I've definitely viewed ourselves like R&B.
JOHNSON: There's a lot of [soul]—Isaac Hayes or James Brown—that we're all big fans of. And I don't think we ever intentionally tried to be a 100 percent soul band, but when we're playing, Brittany just has that fire and that passion. She believes so strongly in what she's singing and what she's trying to do that it comes out soulful. And because we all feel what she's putting out, it comes out of us as well.
JANEWAY: We were so pissed off when we heard Alabama Shakes' new record. Because it's a good record, and it's so different. We were really hoping they would do the same thing, and then we would be the ones to make the weird record.
JOHNSON: We took a bunch of risks, and I think we grew a lot making Sound & Color. I want to keep doing that. We pushed ourselves pretty hard, and some of the songs I thought we were a little behind the curve on when we were tracking them. "How in the hell do we play this?" Once we tracked it, it was like, "That's us? We made that?"
JANEWAY: They're something I didn't know I could do until this thing started. I never danced. It's not something I did. My wife was like, "How come you can dance like that on stage, but you won't dance with me?" People make you do funny things.
JOHNSON: The new songs, on some of 'em, I've seen Brittany bust these weird dance moves out. It's a little reminiscent of our old days. She just starts feeling it, and she lets go. I'd be right there dancing with her if I wasn't sitting down, having to play.
JANEWAY: That's my rallying cry! That is one of my biggest escapes from all of this. I'm named after Bear Bryant, a famous football coach at Alabama. When people say it, I'll typically give them one back, unless it's in Alabama, or in the South. I refuse to say it back, because I did it one time in Knoxville, Tennessee, and the crowd about had a conniption. But if it happens in Europe, you'd better believe they're getting one back.
JOHNSON: Overseas, we'll go play a show and the only thing people know to say sometimes is "Roll Tide," man. Ben [Tanner], our keyboard player, he's an Auburn fan. He's War Eagle all the way, so he'll scream that back at them.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Sweet home sounds."