Brittany Howard’s Transformation (2022)

Howard eventually moved out of the house by the railroad tracks, in part because she could no longer tolerate its ghosts. “Oh, yeah, that bitch haunted as hell!” she said. She recounted being locked out of the house, cabinets opening and shutting on their own, doors slamming, and curtains moving. “It was fucking terrifying,” she said. “I always had this sensation that somebody was watching me. I ran out of explanations after a while.”

We drove past a cemetery (“Hell, yeah! Thinkin’ about death everyday!” she said, laughing), and down a long wooded road toward the modest house that she bought after the Shakes took off—a brick split-level with “a big-ass basement.” (She sold it a few years ago.) We made a quick stop at J&G, a kind of general store that sells fake flowers, tools, strange knickknacks, and decorative signs (“WHAT HAPPENS ON THE PATIO STAYS ON THE PATIO”). Inside, we paused in front of a display of miniature flags. “I’m proud of them for not having any Confederate flags,” she said. “I appreciate that.” We strolled the aisles. Howard got a replica of a bream—“We call ’em shellcracker,” she said—and a plastic banana. The woman at the register looked slightly dazed as Howard approached. “I didn’t realize a celebrity had come in!” she exclaimed.

Howard wanted to show me a neighborhood known as Batts Heights. “This whole subdivision is a black subdivision,” she said. Her grandmother and some cousins still live there. She stopped at a rusted trash can, which had the words “BATTS HEIGHTS SUB. HELP KEEP THE COMMUNITY CLEAN!” hand-painted on it in yellow: “You know how some people got the big brick signs that say, like, ‘WELCOME TO RAM’s GATE’? We’ve got that trash can! That’s probably the third or fourth trash can. People keep wrecking into ’em.”

When Howard was young, her parents often dropped her off there to play with her cousins. The kids were periodically terrorized by a stray dog they referred to as Doody Booty. Sometimes they made cassette recordings on old boom boxes. “We’d do gangsta rap and ‘your mama’ jokes,” Howard recalled. “They were brutal.” But she described the experience with gratitude. “At the end of the day, I’m really close to this side of my family,” she said. “They accepted everybody for who they were. If you’re an alcoholic crackhead, you’re invited to dinner, too!”

Athens was a difficult place to be queer, mixed race, and, after her sister’s death, in mourning. She recalled visiting an amusement park with some of her mother’s relatives and having the gate to a ride closed before she could pass through—it hadn’t occurred to the attendant that she might be part of a group of white people. Once, someone slashed the tires of her father’s car and threw a bloodied goat head in the back. She didn’t learn about the incident until she was fourteen, when her mother told her about it. “I just couldn’t believe someone would slaughter a goat because they hated someone so much,” Howard said. On “Goat Head,” she sings:

I guess I’m not supposed to mind, ’cause I’m brown, I’m not black
But who said that?
See, I’m black, I’m not white
But I’m that, nah, nah, I’m this, right?
I’m one drop of three-fifths, right?

In the late afternoon, we met Howard’s father, K.J., and her cousin Promise at Old Greenbrier Restaurant, a cinder-block barbecue joint on the outskirts of town. The menu was divided between Meals from the Pond (catfish) and Meals from the Barnyard (chicken, pork, hamburger steak). A waitress brought several baskets of hush puppies and a bottle of white sauce. “We always did music,” Promise said. “Brittany played drums, guitars. She’d play the piano, and we sounded like a band.”

“They’d sing,” K.J. added, grinning. “I remember Brittany went to the kitchen, she got a big pot, a little pot, another little pot, she got a big spoon and”—he made a series of drumming sounds—“Brittany! Put them pots up!”

“We loved some music,” Howard said, laughing. “It was free!”

After supper, we followed K.J. back to the junk yard. He drives a black pickup truck with a license plate that reads “SHAKES.” We crossed a little wooden bridge over a small creek. One time, Howard got stranded there during a tornado, when the engine on her old Bronco stalled. K.J. and his girlfriend were with her, and Howard had to carry the woman to the other side. K.J. fell in the creek and, for a brief moment, Howard thought he was going to die. “I swear to God, the most guttural ‘Daddy!’ came out of me, from the depths of my spirit,” she recalled. “I thought he was, like, gone, because I don’t know if my dad can swim that well. Somehow, he stood back up in those floodwaters, and he just kept going.”

The junk yard hadn’t changed much since Howard lived there. Cars in varying states of disrepair were stacked willy-nilly. Her father’s dog had recently given birth to a litter of puppies, and they whimpered softly from under the house. Inside, K.J. had built a shrine to his daughter: four Grammys, some gold records, a framed photograph of her with the Obamas, taken after she performed at the White House, in 2013. K.J. has accompanied his daughter to the Grammys several times. This year, he sat next to Cardi B. “I told her she was the shit!” he said. “She wasn’t friendly.” He had placed the floppy leather hat Howard wore in her first photo shoot—a portrait made by Autumn de Wilde, in the woods outside the junk yard—on a mannequin’s head.

On the way back to Nashville, we drove past the cemetery where Jaime is buried. “I’ll never forget this interview with Roger Waters, where he said he asked his mother, ‘When does my life begin?’ And she was, like, ‘Anytime you want it to.’ That always stuck with me,” Howard said. “I was always trying to figure out what the lady meant. What do you mean, anytime you want it to?” She paused. “I feel like this part of my life is my Part Two. There was Part One, and now there’s this.”

One night in January, Howard was appearing at the Palladium, a theatre in Hollywood. As we inched down Sunset Boulevard in the back of an S.U.V., she played air drums to Meg Myers’s cover of Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill,” a fierce and propulsive song about the limits of empathy. Howard is all empathy on some level, but she also believes strongly in accountability, particularly when it comes to relationships. I asked her if she leaned on Lafser for support when she returned from a tour. “To be honest, it’s not my partner’s responsibility,” she said. “It’s my responsibility to take care of myself before I come home.”

Backstage, Taylor Ann brewed a pot of hot tea with lemon, fresh ginger, and manuka honey. Members of Howard’s band, which includes Cockrell on bass, began to arrive. During the sound check, they rehearsed a cover of Funkadelic’s “You and Your Folks, Me and My Folks.” Even when reading lyrics off her phone, Howard is a transfixing vocalist; she knows how to compress and extend a note in a way that feels as if she’s squeezing all the juice from a piece of very ripe fruit.

Howard gets nervous before a show only if her parents are in the audience. Her performance style has evolved over the years. “When I was younger, it was coming from a place of needing to get everything out,” she said. “Now it comes from a place of being a powerful person.” Early on, Alabama Shakes had a sort of populist charm—they wore normal clothes and had normal haircuts, and seemed as if they could have come from any high school in any small town. Onstage, Howard was sometimes sheepish. Now she is poised and deliberate, with an almost balletic confidence.

The theatre’s V.I.P. balcony filled up quickly: Slash, from Guns N’ Roses; the rapper Tyler, the Creator; the rock photographer Danny Clinch. The musician and actor Donald Glover, who records as Childish Gambino, wore a yellow knit beanie and a mustache, and stood alone, crooning along to the chorus of “Stay High,” a single from “Jaime.”

“Brittany is an alien,” Tyler, the Creator, told me later. “Everything about her—from her music to her background to her energy in person—it’s so unique. She’s paving concrete for so many people, and I’m not sure she’s even aware of it.” He’s especially enamored of “Baby,” a spare, stretchy song about betrayal. “It makes my chest hurt it’s so good,” he said. Howard was in black pants, a black shirt, gold earrings, eyeglasses, and a long gold jacket. For her encore, she returned to the stage with just her drummer and keyboardist to play “Run to Me,” the final song on “Jaime.” “I wrote this for myself,” she said. “To say, ‘Hey, you got it.’”

That sentiment feels true of most of Howard’s songs, which are either reassurances (I’ve got it) or implorations (Please believe that I’ve got it, and that you’ve got it, too). The chorus of “Run to Me” is mostly the latter: Howard is asking someone to let her love them. She could be singing to herself—it’s hard to say for sure.

Many of the most beloved performers try to put as little distance as possible between themselves and their audience. With Howard, this kind of intimacy seems instinctive, in part because she is inherently unpretentious, and in part because she has spent so much time figuring out how to live without shame. “A lot of people do shit because they don’t know themselves,” she had told me earlier. “If you can just kind of be you, you’re gonna be all right.” Onstage, her brow was damp. She leaned into the final verse:

Run, run, run, run, run to me
Oh, run to me
And I will be your partner
When you can’t stand it anymore.♦

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