Browan Lollar is in the middle of nowhere, riding in a van with his band, St. Paul and the Broken Bones, to a gig in Kansas City, Mo. It's another long drive in a series of long drives — such is the touring grind of a band with a building buzz. But the scenery is gorgeous, Lollar says, and familiar.
"It reminds me a lot of Alabama, in some ways," he says. "It looks like north Alabama around here."
One of a crop of bands breathing new life into Alabama's rich musical history, St. Paul and the Broken Bones hardly sound new. "Half the City," released in February, is a gut-punching reinvigoration of classic Southern soul, replete with a dynamite singer. In the same way that Brooklyn's Dap-Tone Records is reinventing classic Detroit soul, the Broken Bones keep rooted in the swampy deltas of their home state, the same loamy soil that spawned the Muscle Shoals sound.
Mixed at the legendary Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, gritty, greasy cuts such as "Sugar Dyed" and "Don't Mean a Thing" echo the region's classic soul roots while extending the form with electrifying potency.
"Just from growing up around Muscle Shoals and the stuff that was there, I'd always wanted to be in a band like that," Lollar says. "But you have to have a singer, you know? Otherwise, you're just going to be in a crappy, white-boy soul band. And I never wanted to be in that."
In Paul Janeway, the Broken Bones have a real-deal soul singer. (Janeway's "St. Paul" sobriquet is a wry allusion to the vocalist's roots in the church, and that, unlike the rest of the six-piece band, he doesn't drink or smoke.) Janeway grew up in a Pentecostal-leaning church in tiny Chelsea, Ala., and his bob-and-weave delivery and phrasing bear a clear lineage to his evangelist upbringing. But his voice — rich and reedy, somehow smooth and rough and raw at the same time — is evocative of secular soul greats, particularly fellow Alabamian Percy Sledge.
The other members of the Broken Bones are drawn from Alabama's deep talent pool. Lollar came from Jason Isbell's 400 Unit touring band. He can recall the first time he heard Janeway sing, after bassist Jesse Phillips, Janeway's longtime collaborator, invited him to play guitar on some of the band's first demos.
"I was like, 'Who is singing?'" he says. "I thought it was Etta James, who had just died, and I thought to myself, 'Etta James is dead!'"
In the same way that Janeway is the Broken Bones' biggest gun, he's also their secret weapon, mostly because he looks nothing like a soul singer. Pudgy, bespectacled and dressed in suits that aren't exactly bespoke, Janeway doesn't look like he'd possess a voice that's drawn comparisons to Otis Redding and Al Green. He looks more like a preacher, which he was, or a bank teller — he was that too — than someone capable of delivering an earth-shaking, rafter-rattling soul roar.
Then there are the expectation-defying live shows, where the Broken Bones — a group of white, nerdy-looking musicians, Lollar jokes — kick the high-voltage, retro soul of "Half the City" up a notch. As magnetic as his voice is, Janeway's stage presence is even more charismatic. He stalks and shakes and shimmies into some sort of holy roller frenzy, diving to his knees and climbing on top of amplifiers and leaping onto tables in the crowd.
To paraphrase John Lee Hooker: That boy got that boogie-woogie in him, and it got to come out.
"It definitely gets people's attention," Lollar says. "I think you just don't see that [energy] very much any more, especially in smaller settings. Obviously, it's visually striking because of the way we all look, you know? And now, I think a lot of people," he says, laughing, "listen to the band first and look at us after, and they're like, 'Uh, that's not what I expected at all.'"
Furthering his point, Lollar draws a comparison to the famed Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, the group of session players that created and refined Muscle Shoals' renowned sound. When most musicians showed up to the studio, they were surprised to find that white musicians comprised the famed Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section.
"That's another side of Fame and Stax that doesn't get a lot of recognition," Lollar says. "These were white musicians and black musicians making music at the height of segregation in the '60s, and nobody cared. Nobody cared what color you were. And it's the same today. It's not a skin color thing at all. Soul music is a state of mind." S
St. Paul and the Broken Bones play on Friday, June 20, at Friday Cheers on Brown's Island starting at 6:30 p.m. with Houndouth at 8 p.m. Tickets cost $5.