Farm Aid’s 31st concert will barnstorm into Bristow, Va. this month at Jiffy Lube Live, marking the third time the benefit will take place in our neck of the woods. Since 1985, the concerts, started by Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp and Neil Young (all appearing this year), have raised more than $50 million to promote the cause of family farmers all across the U.S.
In addition to Farm Aid’s three stalwart performers, this year’s show will also feature Dave Matthews (who is now part of the organization’s board), Sturgill Simpson, Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats, Margo Price, Jamey Johnson, Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real, Insects vs Robots and Ian Mellencamp.
Another new addition this year is Alabama Shakes, the powerhouse rock and soul band from the small town of Athens, Ala. On Tap recently had the chance to speak to lead singer and guitarist Brittany Howard, who explained why the band wanted to join the Farm Aid tradition.
“We were very honored to be asked to play Farm Aid,” she said. “It is a great organization and cause that we are happy to be a part of. Being from a small town, we know the importance of supporting smaller, family-owned farms and businesses.”
The Shakes burst onto the scene in 2012 with their debut album, Boys & Girls. Previously, they were playing as a cover band around Alabama and the Southeast on weekends, and holding down day jobs during the week. But when their debut album and its lead single, “Hold On,” caught fire with listeners, that all changed. The band started playing major music festivals like Bonnaroo, and opening for acts like Jack White and even fellow Farm Aid luminary Neil Young. Howard remains humble and awed by the band’s swift successes.
“We are constantly shocked by the people we get to meet and perform with,” she said. “A few years ago, we were lucky enough to open a few dates for Neil Young, and he and his whole organization couldn’t have been nicer. We look forward to seeing him again, and hopefully we will get the chance to also meet Willie and John.”
After extensive touring behind Boys & Girls, the band returned to the studio and recorded their follow-up album, Sound & Color, which was released last year. It, too, struck a chord with listeners and critics alike, raising the band’s profile even more and earning them three Grammy Awards, including Best Alternative Music Album.
The band’s captivating sound and dynamic live performances weren’t just noticed by people in the music scene, as the band found out when they were invited to the White House for a tribute to Memphis soul as part of the ongoing “In Performance at the White House” series shown on PBS.
“It was pretty surreal,” Howard said. “The White House is one of those experiences that you go into not sure what to expect, and come out just amazed at how nice everyone was and how well we were treated. The President and First Lady are so sweet, and I love that they have brought so much music to the White House over the past eight years. I even got to dance with the President for a moment! I hope this is a tradition that continues.”
Alabama Shakes evolved between their first two records, and the band plans to do the same when it’s time to make a new one, Howard said. She said there’s not a set timetable, because the band needs their schedule to settle down before they can get their creative juices flowing again.
“We are still figuring that out,” Howard said, when asked about the timetable for the next release. “We will be taking some time off, and then look forward to getting back into the studio. We definitely push ourselves to constantly grow musically, and I know we will do the same on this next record. I really enjoy being in the studio and look forward to getting back to creating, when that time comes.”
In the meantime, the band will keep touring. Howard said they are “a pretty boring bunch” on the road, passing the time drawing, making “funny short documentaries” and watching movies. And as for the band’s success, she said there’s no secret other than old-fashioned talent and artistic integrity.
“As an artist and songwriter,” she said, “I think you hope people connect to the songs. We just try to stay true to what we want to do and hope people connect to it.”
Catch Alabama Shakes at Farm Aid on Saturday, September 17 in Bristow, Va. Tickets are $49.50-$189.50. Learn more about the show at www.farmaid.org .
Jiffy Lube Live: 7800 Cellar Door Dr. Bristow, VA; 703-754-6400; www.farmaid.org
Photo: David McClister