In the living room of the small white house that Alabama Shakes guitarist Heath Fogg and bassist Zac Cockrell call home in Madison, Alabama, singer Brittany Howard sits picking at an acoustic guitar. Morning thunderstorms have knocked out the power all along this unglamorous stretch of U.S. 72. If you follow the highway west, it runs through Athens – the small town where Howard, Fogg, Cockrell and drummer Steve Johnson grew up – and then on to Muscle Shoals, where Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin and Lynyrd Skynyrd cut classic albums.
On their four-song debut EP, Alabama Shakes tap deep into that well of Southern rock and soul with a passion that has attracted high-profile admirers including Adele, David Byrne and Booker T. Jones. But for Howard, the 50 miles from Athens to the Shoals took a long time to travel. "My first band, when I was 13, played punk rock," says the singer, now 23, whose friends were more into Usher and TLC. "I was always pegged as the weird kid."
She started writing songs at age four with her older sister, who died of a brain tumor in 1998. "After she passed away, I didn't have anybody to do that with," Howard says. "But I found her guitar, started playing and never really stopped."
Howard met Cockrell after spying him in the hallway of their high school wearing an At the Drive-In T-shirt. The pair met Johnson through the local punk scene ("I had a punk band, he had a punk band," says Howard, "and that was the circuit") and recruited Fogg from a classic-rock cover act.
Onstage, blasting through tunes like the euphoric, gospel-tinged "I Found You," the slow-burning "You Ain't Alone" and the sunny Motown groove "Hold On," Howard belts like a garage-rock Janis Joplin over the band's sturdy, high-energy choogling. New fans are converted at every gig – including the Drive-By Truckers' Patterson Hood, who was so impressed after catching a raw in-store set last summer that he invited the group to open for a run of Truckers shows.
"They were incredible – it was almost Springsteen-ian," says Hood. "If they don't fuck up and take a wrong turn, I can't imagine how good they could be."
This story is from the February 2nd, 2012 issue of Rolling Stone.