Lynyrd Skynyrd

Published Date: November 28th, 2006
Category: Entertainment

St. James Encyclopedia of Pop Culture by Martyn Bone

After several years as an incendiary but unsigned Florida bar band, Lynyrd Skynyrd emerged in 1973 to supersede the Allman Brothers as the most popular exponents of Southern rock. Though Lynyrd Skynyrd’s use of the Confederate battle flag ensured that the Stars and Bars became a symbol of the rebellious attitude central to contemporary rock ‘n’ roll, the group’s defiant celebration of a particular Southern white cultural identity was inextricably related to the racial politics of the South in the post-Civil Rights period. In 1977, the group disbanded after a plane crash killed two of its members. However, the Lynyrd Skynyrd mythology grew precipitously over the next decade, culminating in an emotional and rapturously received reunion of the remaining bandmates in 1987.

Lynyrd Skynyrd’s nucleus of vocalist Ronnie Van Zant, drummer Bob Burns, and guitarists Gary Rossington and Allen Collins came together at a Jacksonville, Florida, high school. Though the influence of Jacksonville’s black bluesmen was acknowledged in Skynyrd’s 1974 song “The Ballad of Curtis Loew,” the band’s distillation of country, rock ‘n’ roll and blues derived largely from England’s Muddy Waters acolytes, The Rolling Stones. In 1969, Van Zant, Rossington, Collins, and Burns left high school–though not before a strait-laced gym coach called Leonard Skinner inadvertently inspired the band’s lasting moniker–and began to play the club scene in Florida and Georgia. The following year the group was offered a contract with Capricorn Records, the label which had established Southern rock as a genre. However, Van Zant refused the deal, not wanting his band to be overshadowed by Capricorn’s premier act, the Allman Brothers. Lynyrd Skynyrd remained unsigned until 1973, when Al Kooper acquired them for his fledgling MCA offshoot, Sounds of the South.

The Kooper-produced debut, Pronounced Leh-nerd Skin-nerd, was released that year, and its final track, the guitar epic “Free Bird,” received extensive radio airplay. On such songs as “Poison Whiskey,” “Mississippi Kid,” and “Gimme Three Steps,” the album introduced the staple character of Skynyrd lyrics, the hard drinking, gun toting, and womanizing “good ole boy.” A prestigious support slot on The Who’s 1973 U.S. tour was followed by the hit single “Sweet Home Alabama,” from the gold-selling follow-up album, Second Helping (1974). The song was written in response to Neil Young’s “Southern Man” (1970) and “Alabama” (1972), in which the Canadian singer-songwriter scathingly criticized the South for the patriarchal racism which had endured beyond the end of slavery. Opening with the image of the rock ‘n’ roll rebel returning “home” to his “kin” in “the Southland,” “Sweet Home Alabama” was an attempt to reconcile, to use Paul Wells’s terms, rock’s “codes of the road” with “the conservative notions of family and community championed within a southern ethos.” However, by including an overt endorsement of segregationist governor George Wallace, the song invoked and defended a Southern white cultural identity constructed upon racism and social inequality.

Burns was replaced on drums by Artimus Pyle for the third album, Nuthin’ Fancy (1975). “Saturday Night Special” and “Whiskey Rock and Roller” were further paeans to the good ole boy’s penchant for guns and liquor, but the more problematic politics of Southern nationalism were evident on “I’m a Country Boy.” Like the earlier “Simple Man” (1973) and “Swamp Music” (1974), “I’m a Country Boy” advocated an agrarian way of life, but extended rural romanticism to the extent of depicting cotton-picking “on the Dixie line” as a labor of love, conveniently ignoring the actual historical toil of black Southerners. Guitarist Ed King left the group during the 1975 tour, and it was apparent from 1976’s predictably titled Gimme Back My Bullets that the musical virtuosity of the first two albums had palled. Replacement guitarist Steve Gaines joined the band in early 1976, and with the further addition of a regular female backing group, the Honkettes, the band sounded revitalized on their 1976 tour (captured on the double live set, One More from the Road). The sixth album, Street Survivors, was released in October 1977. Only days later, the group’s private plane plunged into a Mississippi swamp, killing Van Zant, Gaines, and the latter’s sister Cassie (a member of the Honkettes), as well as seriously injuring Rossington, Collins, bassist Leon Wilkinson, and keyboardist Billy Powell.

Lynyrd Skynyrd’s legacy overshadowed the reunion of Rossington, Collins, Wilkinson, and Powell in the Rossington Collins Band (1980-83), as well as the plethora of post-Skynyrd Southern rock outfits such as .38 Special, Confederate Railroad, Molly Hatchet, and Blackfoot. Led by the initially reluctant Rossington, and with Van Zant’s brother Johnny on vocals, Lynyrd Skynyrd rose again in 1987 for a tribute tour which paid moving homage to Ronnie Van Zant and the group’s 1970s heyday. The group’s neo-Confederate posturings remained unreconstructed, typified by the tacky sleeve art for the 1996 live album Southern Knights, and “The Last Rebel” (1993), an ode to the heroic warriors of the Lost Cause. Somewhat appropriately, the deification of Ronnie Van Zant, notably in Doc Holliday’s “Song for the Outlaw” (1989), fed into the larger mythology of “Johnny Reb” taking his stand for Dixie.

Marty Bone “ Lynyrd Skynyrd“. St. James Encyclopedia of Pop Culture. 20020129. 25 Nov. 2006.

Comments are closed.