Posted by: George | May 28, 2012

Alabama Shakes and Alt Motown


Six months ago I hadn’t heard of Alabama Shakes. No one I know had heard of Alabama Shakes.

Now, everyone seems to be listening to them, and they are touring internationally. Amazing considering that they only became a group in 2009 and released their first CD on April 12, 2012.

Part of their magical appearance into our consciousness came due to a story in Gardens and Guns magazine, which has made its own magical appearance. It’s the new magazine where people all over the country go to learn about what the South might be like if you could ignore about 94 percent of it.

The magazine article gave Alabama Shakes enough exposure, added to appearances on Conan and Letterman, that they went viral. This limited exposure went viral because people listened to a song or two and felt an immediate connection. People felt an immediate connection because they heard something familiar that seemed new.

The history of Rock could be described as a process of moving away from its roots until it starts sounding a little too pop, then returning to its roots for the inspiration to move in a new direction, which is pretty much an old direction.

Before we move on, a little background on how we listen to music. Specially, I want to discuss why we connect immediately with some kinds of music but have to listen to some CDs six to ten times before it speaks to us.

Sometimes, we get music on the first listen because it’s what we could call, for want of a better term, pop music. Pop music is by definition (at least, my definition) the music you get the first time you listen to it. That doesn’t mean that it’s bad. It just confirms our taste. We don’t have to work to understand it or even meet it halfway. It appears right where we are already standing. It is like eating a plate of pancakes. We start with a lot of enthusiasm and get happy from a sugar rush. Then, half way through the short stack, we start to have an existential crisis and ask, “Why am I eating this crap?”

At other times, we get music on the first listen because the group brings us back to some faint origin of Rock that we love but that we nonetheless seem to keep forgetting. The origins of rock are varied. It emerged from the Blues (think of how The White Stripes seemed so original because they brought us back to Son House and delta Blues), Folk/Traditional/Bluegrass (think of how The Band returned us to Appalachia via the Ozarks), and Spirituals (think of how Motown or Elvis looped us back to the church). There’s some jazz in there and a few elements that mark Rock as R ock (the electric bass, a backbeat, etc.), but that’s pretty much a short history of Rock.

Alabama Shakes is not pop. So, by process of elimination, that means we get them almost immediately because they are returning us to one of those faint origins. I think they are returning us to Motown and the tradition of spirituals. Most people seem to be classifying Alabama Shakes as Blues. (Some people categorize them as Roots Rock, which is true enough, as far as it goes.) I would call them Alternative Motown. (It’s my term, as far as I know. If no one else has ever used it, it’s time to invent it.) I definitely feel the Blues in the band, but that’s not what draws me in. Brittany Howard’s voice (the band is all about her voice) might have the attitude of Muddy Waters (and Blues is all about attitude) or the childlike feel of Macy Gray (childlike, not childish), but the vive is all Aretha.

At this point, I should add an important point to my short history of rock. Why do we need to get back to the roots of rock? As groups work within a tradition (or even some mixture of traditions), they keep getting more sophisticated. At some point, sophistication becomes vapid. Soul moves into Motown, and Motown becomes Rhythm and Blues, and Rhythm and Blues becomes some sort of pop. Boredom ensues. Existential crisis. Then, Alabama Shakes goes back to Motown, mixes in some delta Blues, and we are wowed without having to work at it.

I don’t want to call Alabama Shakes part of a Motown revival. It’s difficult to return to a tradition in a pure way. When people try, it feels a little like a history lesson. There is something that Alabama Shakes has that is beyond Motown. (I’m still trying to figure out what that something is, but it’s there.) That’s where the “alt” comes in. Alternative Motown.



  1. Thanks, i’ll check them out.


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