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“When stuff gets hard, and you’re feeling real down about everything or in a dark space, a song can bring you out of it,” says Howard. “Sometimes everybody loses sight. These songs that we write are kinda like that,” she says, stressing the theme of strength and perseverance.
“You Ain’t Alone” is the group’s slow-building, chills-inducing 6/8 ballad. It opens with Fogg’s single-note guitar stabs, a clear nod to the Memphis Stax Records’ sound, and Howard sings, “You ain’t alone, so why you lonely?”
“But there you go on the dark end of the street,” she sings, perhaps in a reference to the Dan Penn/Chips Moman classic of forbidden love.
Every line in “You Ain’t Alone” is simple – the most basic human feeling – but the song is so heavy it nearly knocks you over. “Are you scared to tell somebody how you feel about somebody? Are you scared to wear your heart out on your sleeve?” Howard belts, and sometimes during live performances pulls up her shirtsleeve to reveal her upper arm’s Alabama tattoo.
Or take “Hold On,” in which Howard sings, “Never thought I’d make it to twenty-two years old,” and calls out her own name. When asked if she’s using poetic license in that fatalistic line, she begins describing the night the song first came together. Fogg and Cockrell had been working on its basic opening groove, but Howard had yet to write a real melody or any lyrics. One night before one of the band’s epic sets at The Brick, she instructed the musicians to start playing it unexpectedly at some point in the evening. “We talked about playing it that night, and I told them, ‘Just start playing it and I’ll make up words on the spot.’ “That’s where the song came from. It was a good night for dancing. They started playing it, and I just came up with some words – whatever was on my mind – and that came out.”
That night at The Brick, the first time the band ever performed “Hold On,” Howard said she looked out into the crowd, and people were trying to sing along with the song’s chorus. “I guess they assumed it was someone else’s song, so they were acting like they knew the words. But they didn’t realize we were just making it up. That’s how we knew it was good, and we should keep playing it.”
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By the fall of 2010, The Shakes were ready to try and make it to the next level. The only problem was – how to get there. They started looking for an engineer and studio that could help crystallize the music that had been forming at Howard’s house and The Brick gigs. “We were searching for another ally of the band. Not somebody who would just get us in and out in a day and forget about us. Someone who might have a connection,” says Fogg.
The Shakes went to Fat Possum co-owner Bruce Watson’s The Money Shot studio in Water Valley, Mississippi, outside Oxford. Fogg says the band was mostly just demoing at this point, and didn’t really get the sound, or attention, they were looking for. A few months later, he called up an East Nashville recording studio called The Bomb Shelter.
“I think they just found me online and liked what I was doing,” says Andrija Tokic, the studio’s owner and engineer. In January 2011, the Shakes traveled to Nashville and recorded five songs at The Bomb Shelter.
“It’s hard to describe,” says Tokic of the first time he had the band in the studio. “It was pretty much just magic.”
“We just set everybody up and went for it. Right off the bat everything hit just perfect.” Tokic says they recorded live to tape with lots of bleed. “That’s kind of the sound that I’m into so I knew how to record it. They have a very powerful sound so it just kinda all fit right.”
“They’re an unlikely bunch of kids,” he says. “One of my first thoughts was I wasn’t necessarily expecting that much from a cold call to my studio. But they kinda eat, sleep, and breathe it. In my opinion, they’re the real deal. In this day and age, it’s not so common that you find that.”
Tokic would prove to be the ally that they’d been looking for. He helped secure his new charges a Nashville show at The Groove record shop during Record Store Day that April. Fogg says the gig would turn out to be “a catalyst for a lot of stuff to come later.”
That summer, L.A. music blogger and Sirius Radio DJ Justin Gage saw a link in a friend’s Facebook feed for a band he’d never heard of. With his interest piqued, he checked out their ReverbNation page.
“At the time there were just a few tunes available to stream and a photo of Brittany wearing a housedress slinging a Gibson SG – she looked like a rock and roll Sister Rosetta Tharpe,” says Gage. “I was intrigued that the recordings were cut in 2011 vs. 1971 more than anything.”
In July, he wrote about the band on his influential music blog, Aquarium Drunkard. He described their music as “stuff that can’t be faked” and compared it to “the happy accidents” of music history – like when Ike Turner’s amp busted at Sam Phillip’s Sun Record Studio, in 1951, and he and Jackie Brenston unknowingly created what some consider to be the first rock and roll song with “Rocket 88.”
Not long after Gage’s piece, Laura Barton, a writer for London’s The Guardian profiled the Shakes in her widely read column, “Hail, Hail, Rock ‘n’ Roll,” declaring them “my newest favourite band,” which set off a firestorm of interest in the UK. In November 2011, the band announced their first live shows in the UK, at London’s Boston Arms venue. All three shows sold out.