One weekend in the winter of 1976/1977, I was staying the weekend with my father as part of my parents’ divorce agreement. At the time, I was so mad at my dad for moving out and getting on with his life, that I attempted to make his life just a miserable as he had made mine. I felt betrayed by him. He was my way of dealing with my mother, and he bailed. Anyway, back in those days, if you needed something like furniture or some appliance, the store of choice around this neck of the woods was Service Merchandise. And, I never minded going there because, outside of the couple of independent record stores I knew back then, Service Merchandise had the best selection of albums anywhere in my limited mind. So, while Dad was off ordering whatever he needed for his newly established bachelor’s pad, I was flipping through the albums, which has always been something of a safe haven for me.
Since I have something near an eidetic memory that I rarely used academically at the time, I could remember every album review from Creem, Circus and Rolling Stone magazines, flipping through the albums became my method of synthesis and evaluation between the academic and physical states of these platters. So, on this day, I became intrigued by a recently released album entitled One More from the Road by the great Southern rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd. I was entranced by the album cover’s depiction of the band’s triple guitar attack supporting the lead singer, not unlike images I had seen of World War II soldiers backing up there unarmed leader as the charged into battle.
Little did I know at the time that Skynyrd in the Seventies was just what I had described: a band of brothers thrown into a battle that would show that not all long-haired good ‘ole boys from the South were not the rednecks they sounded like when they talked. These young men were out to turn the Southern Man stereotype on its head all the while assimilating their natural sounds of Country and Blues musics into a totally new context known today as Southern Rock. The band’s lyrics, written mostly by the late lead singer Ronnie Van Zant, told the tales of these Southern Men who were not racists, and were appalled by the racism associated with their southern heritage, were out to buck the system by showing a whole new type of redneck who did not join the KKK, was not a supporter of George McGovern and who looked for a more tolerant world. And, when the band co-opted the flag of the Confederacy there were doing not as some sort of white pride symbol but as a symbol of a new south that put aside all of its stereotypes in order to develop a new standard. Unfortunately, all of that died when Ronnie Van Zant died in the famous plane crash on that fateful day in 1977 at the beginning of their triumphant return to form on their latest album release, the now-classic Street Survivors. We will never know how the band would have navigated the MTV days of the 80s, but they did have something of a photogenic image that might have translated on the small screen.
Unfortunately, the Skynyrd that tours and records in the place of the one that went down in the plane all those years ago is not the same band. Now, they play up that tired southern redneck image of God and guns, which Ronnie Van Zant was so aptly trying to subvert. Today’s soul of the band is nothing like the soul of the original line-up, though today’s band can sound exactly like the old band. Now, they lack the finesse to bring to life the parody and sarcasm of Ronnie’s original lyrics, diluting them down to anthems of the currently disaffected white man who peers an untrusting eye toward anyone of color.
Today, I will attempt to honor the original vision of the band, as immortalized by the great second-generation southern rock band Drive-By Truckers in their work. Today, I give my Top 25 Lynyrd Skynyrd songs with my eyes opened wide and proud that these men were singing about racial harmony and not the discontent under display today.
So, the next time you yell “Free Bird” to a band playing live, do so with pride that the words of that song were from the heart of a man trying to buck the system and not play to it. “Soar high, Free bird!”
- “Gimme Three Steps” (One More from the Road, 1976)
- “Free Bird” (One More from the Road, 1973)
- “Sweet Home Alabama” (Second Helping, 1974)
- “Tuesday’s Gone” ((pronounced ‘lĕh-‘nérd ‘skin-‘nérd), 1973)
- “What’s Your Name” (Street Survivors, 1978)
- “Simple Man” ((pronounced ‘lĕh-‘nérd ‘skin-‘nérd), 1973)
- “That Smell” (Street Survivors, 1978)
- “Saturday Night Special” (Nuthin’ Fancy, 1975)
- “Call Me the Breeze” (Second Helping, 1974)
- “I Know a Little” (Street Survivors, 1978)
- “Down South Jukin’” (Skynyrd’s First…and Last, 1978)
- “Ballad of Curtis Loew” (Second Helping, 1974)
- “I Ain’t the One” ((pronounced ‘lĕh-‘nérd ‘skin-‘nérd), 1973)
- “Workin’ for MCA” (Second Helping, 1974)
- “You Got That Right” (Street Survivors, 1978)
- “Gimme Back My Bullets” (Gimme Back My Bullets, 1976)
- “Comin’ Home” (Skynyrd’s First…and Last, 1978)
- “The Needle and the Spoon” (Second Helping, 1974)
- “Travelin’ Man” (One More from the Road, 1976)
- “Was I Right or Was I Wrong” (Skynyrd’s First…and Last, 1978)
- “Don’t Ask Me No Questions” (Second Helping, 1974)
- “Whiskey Rock-A-Roller” (Nuthin’ Fancy, 1975)
- “Honky Tonk Night Man” (Street Survivors, 1978)
- “Searching” (Gimme Back My Bullets, 1976)
- “On the Hunt” (Nuthin’ Fancy, 1975)
Here’s to Ronnie Van Zant!