Brittany Howard only has one tattoo, but it's a significant one: A shoulder-inked outline of Alabama, with a heart over her tiny hometown of Athens. She lives deep in the rustic woods, a quarter mile off the road ("It's not bad — you can walk it," she says), on 18 acres of land her family has owned for nearly all of her 23 years. It used to be a pristine farm; now it houses her father's junkyard, filled with old cars, a salvaging staff, and, of course, a relatively surly junkyard dog.
The Alabama Shakes frontwoman, whose bracing blues-rock quartet is easily among the year's best new bands, says the place is so secluded that she and her father got their first neighbor just last year. "I was explaining to him how long I've been living on this land, and I asked him, 'Please don't destroy my childhood space, please don't cut down the trees.' And what happens when I get up this morning?" she snarls. "He's out there lumbering the trees! When I get off the phone with you, I'm really gonna give him a piece of my mind — let's just say that."
Folks shouldn't make Howard angry. She's got a gale-force, Big Bad Wolf of a singing voice, so strong it could shatter the strongest fortress. And she puts it to strikingly soulful use on the group's eponymous EP (its Etta James-ish "You Ain't Alone" was recently used in a Zales commercial) and the forthcoming self-produced album Boys and Girls (whose "Goin' to a Party" really makes you feel like you are attending one). This is a Southern gal who knows what to do if a water moccasin attacks, and how to return a flood-dislocated snapping turtle to his creek-bed home. "We'd take a shovel and put it in his mouth and just drag him back to the water," she explains. And the iron-jawed turtle always gets to keep the shovel, "because they will not let go."
The rural solitude was good for Howard's talent. She never liked to read, hated TV, and naturally gravitated to music. "There was nothing else to do," sighs the Bon Scott disciple, who often covers AC/DC's "Let There Be Rock" in concert. "And I just found this guitar sitting in the closet, so I picked it up and saidm 'I'm gonna learn to play guitar out here!'"
Howard ended up acquiring so many instruments in her bedroom studio that there was no room for her bed. She also learned how to sing by multi-tracking her own vocals. "And after you do that for hours and hours — and that was all I used to do — you start figuring out how to control your voice, how to keep it steady," she recalls. "I didn't start out as a belter."
Gradually, the R&B diva acquired local musicians like she did instruments; guitarist Heath Fogg, bassist Zac Cockrell and drummer Steve Johnson now round out the Shakes. Now, the buzz is so big on the band — Arctic Monkeys frontman Alex Turner is an outspoken booster — that Howard may not be seeing her beloved Athens digs for quite some time.
"So maybe I shouldn't yell at my neighbor," she decides by interview's end. "I probably shouldn't get that started — an across-the-creek rivalry is never a good idea."