Watch CBS News

​Alabama Shakes: Fearless and free

Brittany Howard and her bandmates were all friends from a small Alabama town when success came, with a roar, to their rock band, Alabama Shakes
The soulful Alabama Shakes 07:07

Introducing Alabama Shakes. Jan Crawford does the honors:

When she sings, it's like she commands you to listen. Her voice so powerful, you can feel it -- the joy, the desperation, the yearning.

You ain't alone, so why you lonely?
There you go on the dark end of the street.
Are you scared to tell somebody how you feel about somebody?
Are you scared what somebody's gonna think?

Brittany Howard is 26 years old. She and her band, Alabama Shakes -- all friends from her small Alabama hometown -- are adored by critics, revered by fans.

It all began at the end of a dirt road in rural Athens, Alabama, where Howard grew up fearless and free.

Growing up, Brittany Howard knew no limits - and now fronts the band at the top of the Billboard charts. CBS News

"I used to go out in this yard," she said of her childhood, "and it had a bunch of cars in it, like now. And me and my dog would go run around the woods. And I'd play in the creek."

Her father, K.J. Howard, fixed up and sold used cars. He told Crawford that his daughter was always willing to push the limits: "Yeah, 'cause whatever hurt and you could break your arm doing, that was her thing. Treehouses, stuff like that. Mixing chemicals. That's her stuff, you know? Motorbikes. She was driving at eight."

"Whether it's on a go kart or whether you're performing, you just go all-out," said Crawford.

"Yeah, I gotta keep myself entertained," said Brittany. "There's too many hours in the day."

But the carefree hours of early childhood wouldn't last.

Her older sister, Jaime, died when Brittany was nine, from a rare cancer of the eye. "Look how we match," she said, of a picture of the two.

"I was also born with retinoblastoma. But they caught mine in time 'cause it was years later. And I was fine. But it's left me, like, blind in one eye."

Soon after Jamie died, Brittany's parents split up. To help her through a dark time, Brittany turned to music. "So I just dug this guitar out of the closet, my sister's guitar. Started teaching myself how to play. I took it to my music teacher at school, she tuned it for me. And then I just took it home and wrote my own songs.

"The neighbors hated it!"

CBS News

Writing songs was an outlet. Music became her obsession, and in high school, connected her with bass player Zac Cockrell.

"I think I was probably a junior," Cockrells aid. "And we had a class together. It was a sociology class."

"Me and Zac would get together every day after school," said Brittany. "After a while, my dad kicked us out and he put us in a single-wide trailer."

Then came other friends: drummer Steve Johnson and guitarist Heath Fogg. They played whenever, wherever they could notably in nearby Decatur, Ala., at the Brick Deli & Tavern.

Alabama Shakes (Steve Johnson, Heath Fogg, Brittany Howard and Zac Cockrell) with Jan Crawford at the at the Brick Deli & Tavern in Decatrur, Ala. CBS News

They played their first set there, as The Shakes, thirty minutes long. "That was the beginning," Brittany said.

One night at the Brick, the band was playing around with some new riffs. Brittany thought about her life, and the words spilled out.

"Hated my job, and I was just trying to inspire myself to keep working, stay positive, and all this stuff."

So bless my heart and bless yours, too.
I don't know where I'm gonna go.
Don't know what I'm gonna do.
There must be somebody up above sayin',
"Come on, Brittany, you got to come on now!
You got to hold on ...
Hey, you got to hold on..."

"When we played it and come up with it, it felt really good, you know? So that's where it originated."

The song, "Hold On," would go on to become Rolling Stone's Best Song of 2012. And that night at the Brick, the crowd caught on quick.

"People were singing it as the song was developing. It's kinda crazy," said Health Fogg.

"It's funny, 'cause I think they thought it was a cover song we were playing," said Brittany. "And so they were like, 'Yeah, I know this one!' And I remember having a conversation with the guys, like, 'Hey, I think that went pretty good. We should play it like that.' And then Heath was like, 'Can you remember what you did?' 'Yeah, it was so easy.'"

The band members still had their day jobs. Brittany was delivering mail for the U.S. Postal Service. Zac Cockrell was working at an animal clinic. Fogg was painting houses. And Steve Johnson worked at a nuclear power plant.

They recorded four songs, catching the ear of a prominent music blogger. Soon, the industry was calling.

"And I remember my boss [at the post office] yelling at me, telling me I'm on the phone too much!" said Brittany.

Her father laughingly recalled, "She came home day and said, 'Daddy, something's happening. Everybody's calling me. I'm getting emails and calls. And people flyin' in to see me.' And I'm going like, 'What?'"

Despite being paid $20 an hour, she quit her post office job. Brittany had delivered her last piece of mail. "I was so excited. Even though we didn't get paid nothing, it was just the whole fact of traveling, going to the venue, playing your songs."

Their first album, released in 2012, earned them three Grammy nominations, and Brittany a place on the Grammy stage.

Alabama Shakes just released their second album, "Sound & Color," which debuted at Number One on the Billboard album chart.

They're flying around the world on tour, but still pretty grounded.

To hear Alabama Shakes perform "Don't Wanna Fight No More," from their album, "Sound & Color" (ATO Records), click on the player below.

So how is life different now?

"I can go to the grocery store and just get whatever I want," said Brittany. "I actually think about that every time I go to the grocery store; I'm just like, 'Wow, I just got all this stuff!'"

"So what would you buy now that you would have thought, oh, I better not buy that?" asked Crawford.

"Sometimes, I buy flowers for myself. You know, life's different. And I go home to a house!"

But Brittany is pretty much the same. She's still the girl who grew up fearless and free.

And her favorite part? The last song. "'Cause then I can really give it everything I have left."

"You don't leave anything on the stage?"

"I don't plan on it, no. And if I have extra energy after the show, well, that's a bonus. Then we go out!"

Alabama Shakes in concert. CBS News

For more info:

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.