Today Lynyrd Skynyrd and The Charlie Daniels Band are best known for two novelty songs—“Sweet Home Alabama” and “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.” This is a shame, because it ignores the serious deep cuts that make up the two bands’ complex histories. Both groups started out as long-haired rock-and-roll rebels, and both ended up as Southern icons. Their histories reflect the tension in the South between the values of home and family and rebellious individualism.
Lynyrd Skynyrd was born out of hard times. Lead singer and songwriter Ronnie Van Zant was a poor high-school dropout who lived in the “Shantytown” area of Jacksonville, Florida. His original dream was not to be a rock singer but a star baseball player. He met guitarist Gary Rossington and drummer Bob Burns through playing baseball (and knocking out Burns with a foul ball), and they decided to form a band. The band members had a reputation as rough characters—when they went to ask Allen Collins to join the band, Collins thought they were going to beat him up and climbed up a tree to escape. The band went through multiple name changes in its early years, sometimes coming up with a different name for each gig, before finally settling on “Lynyrd Skynyrd” as an ironic tribute to a gym coach who had sent the band members to detention for growing their hair too long.
In 1970, after they had added bassist Leon Wilkeson, the band was picked up by a talent scout named Alan Walden, who said, “I heard Lynyrd Skynyrd in a warehouse in Florida. I felt like I was going to have a heart attack. . . . They played “Free Bird” and I knew right then they could be a great band.” Walden hooked the band up with producer Jimmy Johnson in Muscle Shoals, and the group recorded a demo record in 1971, which was unfortunately rejected by all the record labels Walden shopped it to. In ‘72 the band promoted their roadie Billy Powell to keyboardist after Van Zant heard Powell playing his own version of “Free Bird” before a gig. Skynyrd’s fortunes turned around in 1973 when they were discovered by legendary producer Al Kooper, who had worked with Bob Dylan during his “electric phase.”
Kooper signed the band to his “Sounds of the South” label, and they released their first label album, pronounced leh-nerd skin-nerd, that same year. The album contained fan favorites such as “Simple Man” and “Tuesday’s Gone,” and ended with the climactic guitar frenzy of “Free Bird,” the song that became the closer for every Lynyrd Skynyrd concert. That same year, Skynyrd toured with the Who and upstaged the British band, earning encores even though they were the opening act. 1974 saw the release of Second Helping, which included Skynyrd’s defining song, “Sweet Home Alabama.”
Written as a tongue-in-cheek riposte to Neil Young, who had slammed the South in his songs “Southern Man” and “Alabama,” “Sweet Home Alabama” became a huge hit, and an unofficial Alabama state anthem. Although it takes shots at Neil Young and segregationist governor George Wallace (“In Birmingham they love the governor,” Van Zant sings, and the backup chorus replies “Boo, boo, boo!”), the song is a defiant celebration of a land that has been derided by outsiders as backwards. Skynyrd turned anti-Southern rhetoric on its head—Alabama wasn’t one of the flyover states, it was “Sweet Home Alabama, where the skies are so blue.”
What set Lynyrd Skynyrd apart from other bands of its time was Ronnie Van Zant. Unlike the British Invasion bands that he loved, like The Yardbirds and the Rolling Stones, he actually lived the hardscrabble, working-class life he sang about. When he sang about getting arrested, picking fights, or growing up poor, he was being honest. His drawling, nasally voice set him apart from the raspy, high-pitched melodrama of other rock singers of his time. This no-gimmicks approach made him equally adept on ballads as on fast-paced rockers. Van Zant never wrote any of his song ideas down but kept all the words and melodies in his head. The other defining feature of Lynyrd Skynyrd was its guitar section. Allen Collins and Gary Rossington handled double-lead guitar duties throughout the band’s tenure, while Ed King and later Steve Gaines rounded out the triple axe attack. The band came up with interlocking guitar parts that used all three guitars without muddying up the sound. The best-known example of Skynyrd’s guitar prowess is, of course, “Free Bird,” with its extended double guitar solo, but you can hear the complexity of the guitars on funky tracks like “Working for MCA” or “Swamp Music” as well.
Skynyrd followed Second Helping up with two more albums, Nuthin’ Fancy and Gimme Me Back My Bullets, in 1975, but wasn’t able to recapture the commercial and artistic success of their earlier work. The rowdy redneck image they had cultivated earlier came back to haunt them, as fans tried to pick fights with the band members, much to the chagrin of Ronnie, who wanted to move the band in a more sustainable direction. Their infamous “Torture Tour” didn’t help either, costing them the services of their exhausted guitarist Ed King. Things turned around when they enlisted Steve Gaines, the younger brother of backup singer Cassie Gaines, to replace King in the third guitar slot. Although Gaines wasn’t expected to succeed, he defied expectations, and after only three gigs with the band, he played on their double live album, One More for The Road, which closed with, of course, an epic version of “Free Bird.” The live album and the addition of Gaines on guitar revitalized the band, who returned to the studio and in 1977 released Street Survivors. Unfortunately, the band’s rally was cut short by a plane crash which killed Ronnie Van Zant, Steve Gaines, and Cassie Gaines, and left the other members traumatized. In the wake of the accident, the band called it quits.
If there’s any theme running through Skynyrd’s music, it’s the tension between home and the road, between family values and the rock-and-roll lifestyle. The boys from Lynyrd Skynyrd may have been long-haired rock-and-rollers, yes, but they never forgot their Southern roots. Van Zant could declare that “women, whiskey and miles of travelin’ is all I understand,” and the next moment could sing about his mother’s advice to be a “simple kind of man.” This dilemma is captured in their signature song “Free Bird.” “If I leave here tomorrow, will you still remember me?” asks Van Zant as the song begins, recognizing that the life of the road keeps you from making commitments and settling down. But he can’t stay tied down, singing, “I must be traveling on, cos there’s too many places I got to see.” Although the singer misses out on the joys of the home life, he stays on the road because it’s there that he’s “free as a bird, and the bird you cannot change.” The mournful ballad spirals towards its conclusion, the famous guitar solo that is a celebration of life on the road and the freedom it brings.
When Lynyrd Skynyrd reunited in 1987, it was a very different incarnation. The original members had sobered up and started families, and the band now featured Ronnie’s brother Johnny Van Zant on vocals, .38 Special guitarist Ricky Medlocke taking over for Allen Collins, who had become paralyzed due to a car accident, and the return of Ed King. Unfortunately, the plane crash continued to haunt the original band members, but the group is still touring today, with Gary Rossington the only original member remaining. They recently released a tribute CD/DVD, One More for the Fans, featuring live performances by artists as diverse as Greg Allman, Cheap Trick, and Alabama, as well as a version of “Sweet Home Alabama” featuring all the artists involved. And even though the creative energy of Ronnie Van Zant can never be replaced, the group can still tear it up on “Free Bird.”
Hear Lynyrd Skynyrd Perform “Free Bird” on Their 30-Year Anniversary Tour