Unpopular Opinion: Lynyrd Skynyrd Are the Unsung Heroes of American Rock
Southern rock's second-greatest (from the original cover of 1977's Street Survivors)
“And in the beginning there was the word, Freebird. And Freebird would be yelled throughout the centuries. Freebird, the mantra of the moron.” - Bill Hicks
I don’t understand why the Allman Brothers’ stock has risen over the last few years but Lynyrd Skynyrd remain in the Dixie dregs of classic rock. I was overjoyed to hear that Skynyrd were playing the RNC backing up my man Donald Trump. Two great tastes that taste great together — making America great again and rocking out while doing it.
“Southern rock” is, as Gregg Allman has pointed out, a redundancy. It’s like saying “rock rock.” But it’s also impossible to deny that Dixie had a rock & roll renaissance in the Allmans' wake. Incorporating elements of blues, jazz, folk, country and bluegrass, Southern rock was just as innovative as prog but a lot more accessible for the record-buying public. Devoid of flute solos and hobbit references, Southern rock was floor-stomping shit kickers about the rock & roll life viewed from pickup trucks and honky-tonks.
The Allmans were always the undisputed kings, even after Duane Allman’s untimely demise. Skynyrd played second fiddle, but what they lacked in jazz chops they made up for in boogie-able riffs and solos that kick you right in the balls. If the Allmans were Southern rock’s Steely Dan, Skynyrd were the Doobie Brothers — perhaps not quite as titanic as musicians, but pretty damn good. Considering such competition and compatriots as The Marshall Tucker Band and The Elvin Bishop Band, second place really isn't bad at all. Besides, "losing" to the Allmans is like losing to God. You only win if He lets you.
Like many bands, Skynyrd's first album is the best. “I Ain’t the One” kicks the doors open with a bang. That electric piano and guitar tone will stick to your ribs for days. “Tuesday’s Gone” anticipated every power ballad of the 1980s. “Gimme Three Steps” is a great little rocker that tells a fun story about a man getting a gun stuck in his face. Never forget that Southerners are tougher than you, my fellow Yanks. Something about having your entire identity revolve around defeat turns you into a real badass.
No discussion of Skynyrd would be complete without mentioning “Free Bird.” It’s one hell of a song, often mocked for what’s considered an overly indulgent solo. I’d argue that the solo is actually what makes the song. On its own, it’s a fairly forgettable country rock ballad. At the 4:55 mark, however, everything changes as perhaps the most notorious solo in rock begins. The solo starts getting really awesome at around the 7:45 mark and you think it can’t get any better, but then it changes into a nearly totally different solo at about 8:10.
It sounds like the band’s entire guitar army, but nope. It's just Allen Collins. One guy.
Second Helping isn’t half bad, either. Classic rock radio might have run “Sweet Home Alabama” into the ground, but it’s still a killer ode to the band’s home state. “Don’t Ask Me No Questions” is a fine song Lucero built a career on rewriting. “Workin’ for MCA” is a way better song about hating the record industry than “Radio, Radio,” in no small part because the band actually meant it. “The Needle and the Spoon” is a great song about how gross dope is, but with a minimum of preaching and some tasty guitar work. Nuthin’ Fancy and Gimme Back My Bullets aren’t my favorites, but it’s clear that in the absence of Allman supremacy, the band are doing all they can to bring their “A” game.
Street Survivors is just tragic, because the band were destroyed by that infamous plane crash just as they were about to take over the world. But hey, Skynyrd lived on in the form of everything remotely listenable on country radio (admittedly not much), Southern metal (try and tell me that Eyehategod and Skynyrd have nothing in common), the Drive-By Truckers (how many songs do they have that sound like much-maligned Skynyrd track “That Smell”?) and the country underground of Whitey Morgan, Doop and the Inside Outlaws, Sturgill Simpson and all the rest.
Go give the first couple records a spin. You won’t regret it.
Note: This article is dedicated to my main man, the Freebird Michael "PS" Hayes.
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