Every mother’s son: Why Lynyrd Skynyrd has survived
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I grew up a Connecticut Yankee in Lynyrd Skynyrd’s South. When I was 5, my family moved from the small town of Torrington, Connecticut, to the even smaller town of Englewood, Florida. It might as well have been Mars. Mars with a beach. Everything was different: the buildings, the weather, the plants, the animals, the insects, the dirt. Also, the music.
This was 1977. My mom was a young, free-spirited lady who loved to drink, do drugs, and listen to rock. “Hippie” wasn’t quite the right word for her; it was a little late for all that. In the place of idealism was a kind of low-rent decadence that my mom pretty much embodied. Everything from The Eagles to Fleetwood Mac to Queen, not mention humbler fare such as Neil Young and Black Sabbath, was blasted at my house. But after the move, my mom gravitated quickly toward a species of music indigenous to Florida’s hard-partying working class in the ’70s: Southern rock.
Lynyrd Skynyrd was the workhorse of Southern rock. After bombing with its first single in 1968, the Jacksonville, Florida band spent years struggling to find a national audience for its proudly provincial sound. But unlike its closest contemporary, The Allman Brothers Band—also formed in Jacksonville in the ’60s—Skynyrd had no overt virtuosos among its ranks, no huge ambitions to infuse its populist, heart-on-sleeve grit with jazziness or improvisational depth. This is partly why the Allmans have been given so much more critical appreciation than Skynyrd over the years. The Allmans were multidimensional, went the conventional wisdom, whereas Skynyrd had two settings: boogie and ballad.
The Allmans were held in awe for another reason. In 1971, the band’s guitar god, Duane Allman, died in a motorcycle accident. A year later, bassist Berry Oakley died in a similar accident—mere blocks away from the site of Allman’s crash. Back then, my mom used to hang out with bikers, gangs of which would often party at my house, smoking pot and slipping me Playboys and letting me sip their beer. Southern rock was always playing in the background. The myth of the Allmans was one I heard often, and I absorbed it like so much secondhand smoke.
Then, in October of 1977, just a few months after I moved to Florida, Skynyrd inspired a tragic myth of its own. A plane carrying the band crashed in Mississippi, killing three of the members, including lead singer Ronnie Van Zant. Three others also died, and the surviving members of the group were badly injured; guitarist Gary Rossington broke every limb. Suddenly, Skynyrd had entered the pantheon of Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper, and Ritchie Valens, who all died 18 years earlier in a plane crash that became part of rock’s burgeoning legend of death.
My mom and her friends used to love sitting around, cranking the stereo, and dissecting songs like Don McLean’s meandering “American Pie,” trying to plumb the lyrics for coded messages in the way only totally fucking high people can effectively do. Coincidentally, “American Pie” is partly about the Holly crash, and it even gave the accident its enduring name: The Day The Music Died. After Skynyrd’s tragedy, that dissection turned to Van Zant’s lyrics. There were clues embedded in his words, they said, and inadvertent prophecies. The biggest of these theories revolved around the chilling fact that the original cover of Skynyrd’s 1977 album, Street Survivors—released just three days before the plane crash—depicts the band engulfed in flame. I remember being fascinated more by the underlying idea that truths could be hidden in and pulled out of songs.
Looking back, it’s funny to think the seeds of music journalism were planted in my head by a bunch of pill-popping, speed-dealing Hells Angels arguing Skynyrd around a coffee table piled high with weed. You grab your inspiration where you can find it.
When I got older, I came to hate Skynyrd (and Southern rock in general) with a passion that bordered on religion. I got into punk and alternative music in high school, and Skynyrd did not fit the program. More than that, I was embarrassed of my upbringing, and of my family. We’d moved to Colorado by then, and it was as different from Florida as Connecticut. It was a new place, and like many kids that age, I wanted to be a new person. I couldn’t have told anyone exactly who that new person was, but I knew who he wasn’t: a Skynyrd-listening redneck.
Skynyrd caught the “redneck” tag early on, and that dubious reputation is one of the few things that survived the ’77 crash. Surprisingly, another survivor was the band itself. After forming the short-lived (and underrated) Rossington-Collins Band, Rossington gathered a few other surviving members and relaunched Skynyrd with a new lineup in 1987. Let there be no doubt: Skynyrd without Van Zant is like Led Zeppelin without Robert Plant, an utterly unwinnable prospect. To Rossington’s credit, he replaced Van Zant with another Van Zant: Ronnie’s younger brother, Johnny. But since the group reformed for its comeback, Lynyrd Skynyrd 1991, there have been eight new Skynyrd albums—far more than the band ever released before the crash.
Throughout the ’90s, I couldn’t have cared less. I was busy chasing down dozens of other musical avenues. Even as I did, though, the music of my youth began to creep back. First it was Neil Young and Black Sabbath, two bands no self-respecting grunge kid in the early ’90s could do without. Granted, I never really stopped liking Neil Young and Black Sabbath, which was probably why grunge appealed to me in the first place. But as I got older and began to accept and embrace where I came from—in other words, as I started to grow up—it became easier to appreciate all that so-called redneck shit. As it turned out, my mom and her friends weren’t really rednecks at all. They were human beings. And in the same sense, bands like Lynyrd Skynyrd ought to be judged on their individual merits rather than labeled and dismissed.
That said, it wasn’t easy getting back into Skynyrd. About 10 years ago, my buddy Gared sat me down, handed me a beer, and played me his latest obsession: Skynyrd’s “Saturday Night Special.”
“Skynyrd has an anti-gun song!” Gared raved, citing Van Zant’s chorus: “It’s a Saturday-night special / Got a barrel that’s blue and cold / Ain’t no good for nothin’ / but put a man 6 feet in a hole.” Calling “Saturday Night Special” an anti-gun song is a slight oversimplification. After all, this is the same band that wrote the song “Gimme Back My Bullets.” And although Ronnie Van Zant alleges, “Handguns are made for killing / Ain’t no good for nothing else,” I highly doubt he’d be all right with a ban on, say, rifles. But I have to admit, I was excited at Gared’s discovery that Skynyrd—long held as the redneck gold standard—actually had more depth and thoughtfulness than most people think. Myself included. The funny thing is, I’d heard “Saturday Night Special” a hundred times growing up, yet I never thought to probe it any more deeply—even though I’d been raised around people probing Skynyrd lyrics.
I realized something that night, listening to Skynyrd with Gared. In my attempt to distance myself from my shitty childhood, I’d overshot the mark. I was missing out on some great music. But more than that, I was missing out on part of my own life, and on a band whose music still echoes inside my bones.
Around the same time, I bought Drive-By Truckers’ 2001 album Southern Rock Opera on the recommendation of various friends and reviews. I’d long been a fan of alt-country (yeah, I hate that term too), and I’d heard that Drive-By Truckers were doing something above and beyond that. I’d heard right. Southern Rock Opera turned out to be one of my favorite albums of the ’00s, a sprawling, epic account of the band’s roots in Southern rock. Accordingly, it focused on the myth of Skynyrd. By the time I read Chuck Klosterman’s 2005 book Killing Yourself To Live—which includes his excellent account of visiting the Skynyrd crash site—I was already a confirmed Skynyrd recidivist.
When I listen to Skynyrd nowadays, which is often, I’m not shocked by how good the songs are. I’m shocked that I could have ever denied it. True, the band had no shining virtuoso, no Duane Allman. But even on its 1973 breakthrough album, (Pronounced ’Lĕh-’nérd ’Skin-’nérd), it’s clear that years of hardship, hard work, and hard living had forged Skynyrd into something special. Country-rock was beginning to come into its own around the same time, but Skynyrd’s swampy heaviness couldn’t be further from the soporific twang of Laurel Canyon acts like The Eagles.
From the bleak, contemplative “Simple Man” to the soaring “Tuesday’s Gone”—the latter showcasing the sumptuous keyboard work of the late Billy Powell—that first Skynyrd album went platinum for a reason: It speaks straight. It deals with pain, regret, fear, loneliness, loss, laughter, violence, abuse, and absolution to a degree that rivals any of its contemporaries, and in many ways surpasses them. There’s craft and wisdom to the music, but little poetry or pseudo-mysticism. Skynyrd showed a different side of the ’70s—one where people could party all they wanted, but still had to wake up, go to work, reflect on their lives, and deal with the consequences.
That first album also contains “Free Bird.” I can’t find a single fault with the song itself, nor even with the fact that it’s been overplayed to the point of becoming aural wallpaper. It’s a gorgeous, delicate, heartfelt ballad as good as any of the era. It doesn’t even matter to me that the title itself has become a punchline. The problem is, “Free Bird” became the unofficial, self-delivered eulogy for Skynyrd following the ’77 crash, when it seemed there was no way the band would or could ever reform. It’s too much baggage for any one song to carry, even a song as majestic as “Free Bird.”
“Sweet Home Alabama” carries even more baggage. Written as a response to Neil Young’s scathing “Southern Man” and "Alabama"—and knocking Young by name—"Sweet Home" gave the impression of a feud a-brewin'. That impression was quickly dispelled by both Young and Van Zant, who often said they were mutual admirers. (Van Zant is even wearing a Neil Young T-shirt on the cover of Street Survivors.) None of this holds a particularly negative connotation, but again, it shows just how much Skynyrd’s myth has overshadowed its music. “Sweet Home Alabama” is a kickass song, funky and full of intricate, syncopated licks, the kind that Skynyrd regularly played and rarely gets credit for. Again, the redneck thing is hung around Van Zant’s neck—especially seeing how “Sweet Home Alabama” conjures images of Dixie-waving good ol’ boys who probably wouldn’t have too many complaints if the South should rise again.
Compare that, though, with “The Ballad Of Curtis Loew,” a loving tribute to a black bluesman Van Zant grew up listening to on street corners in Jacksonville. Or “Am I Losin’,” a tender, mournful meditation on the price of fame. Or my favorite Skynyrd song, “On The Hunt,” which casts Van Zant’s swaggering masculinity in an utterly unusual light. Skynyrd has more than its share of songs about wicked women, but “On The Hunt” paints a complex, subtle scenario. Looking for a night of sexual abandon, Van Zant whispers at the woman around town who’s considered the village tramp: “I know who you are, baby / I know what they call you, girl / Never put you down, baby / I’m just like you, baby / I’m on the hunt.” He’s not judging; he’s empathizing. And he’s also offering an invitation—not only to fuck, but to fuck someone who knows the game, who knows what it means to have demons, who knows there’s a double standard between promiscuous men and promiscuous women that’s as unfair as any other form of bigotry.
Skynyrd’s post-crash material can’t hold a candle to the ’70s stuff. At the same time, it isn’t bad at all. Its biggest crime is calling itself Skynyrd, although I’m certainly not going to be the one to walk up to Gary Rossington—the sole remaining original member of the band—and tell him he doesn’t have the right to use the name. Especially not when “Last Of A Dyin’ Breed,” the title track and lead single off the new Skynyrd album, is probably what Skynyrd would sound like today if the accident had never happened: earthy, grizzled, no-bullshit Southern rock that flaunts its doggedness and celebrates its scars. Johnny Van Zant doesn’t have his brother’s vulnerability, introspection, or way with a story, but he gets the job done.
Ultimately, that’s what I love about Skynyrd, and the reason I think the band survived—in more ways than one. Through timeless, intimate songs like “Simple Man” and “Am I Losin’,” it’s achingly clear that Van Zant always worried about losing touch with his roots, with his identity as a regular guy, with the kid who used to sit on street corners and listen to blues pickers. He had money and fame, but he knew he might lose it. He didn’t want to brag on his way up, because he never knew when he might come falling back down to earth.
By the same token, Skynyrd’s music is more than just a reminder of where I came from. It’s a reminder that I shouldn’t turn my back on who I am or what I’ve seen, good or bad. Many have accused the recent Skynyrd lineup of exploiting the band’s legacy, but those detractors fail to recognize that millions of people simply refuse to let Skynyrd go—the band has become part of the fabric of the South. And for good reason. Rock revivals come and go; most recently, bands like Alabama Shakes, My Morning Jacket, and Kings Of Leon have attempted to tap into that Southern mystique that Skynyrd helped create. But Skynyrd’s songs transcend the South by being inseparable from it. You don’t have to be a hell-raisin' Florida native to have a taste for Skynyrd’s blood, sweat, grease, and guts. Hell, you can even be from Connecticut.