The words just flew out of my mouth. I was inside the Theater At Madison Square Garden for the 4th annual Jammy Awards when I issued my not-so-subtle plea. A representative of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was approaching the stage and I couldn’t keep the injustice of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s absence from the Hall of Fame to myself any longer. It’s not like the balloting for Cooperstown. Indiscretions and sorted vices cannot thwart an artist’s admittance. In rock and roll, those things are not just accepted, but expected. But just as is the case in the world of sports, enshrinement is not simply a testament to the longevity of one’s career. It serves as permanent evidence of the artist’s impact and a measure of their legacy. Since they became eligible in 1999 Lynyrd Skynyrd has been nominated for admission and has come up short.
To some, Skynyrd is just confederate flags and reckless whiskey drinking. To others, they are just the handful of tunes that are still in heavy rotation at almost every classic rock station in this country. For many, Skynyrd’s lasting legacy is “Free Bird,” not only for the song’s gargantuan length, but for its mystique. People scream out for it, albeit sometimes sarcastically, at shows to this day. It has become Southern rock’s answer to “Stairway To Heaven.”
But, just as was the case with Led Zeppelin, Skynyrd had a tougher time pleasing critics than it did selling albums. Although the concept for Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous was initially based on his 1972 interview with the Allman Brothers Band, there are no two bands that he still writes about than Zeppelin and Skynyrd. The former group has its legacy cemented inside and outside of the Hall of Fame museum in Cleveland. Zeppelin will be remembered as the grandfathers of every hard rock genre, while those listen more closely will discover the skill with which they transformed the delta blues. They always resented the critical praise seemingly reserved only for the Rolling Stones, but continue find legions of fans in each coming generation.
By 1973, after deaths of Duane Allman and Berry Oakley, the Allman Brothers Band began a slow descent that would last until the end of the decade. Lynyrd Skynyrd began their meteoric rise as the Allmans were fading away. They began by opening for The Who on their Quadrophenia
tour, but would be blowing the Stones off (according to most in attendance, including Sir Paul McCartney) at their Knebworth concert in 1976. But to lump Skynyrd in with all the rip-offs that rode the Southern Rock wave is as blasphemous as dismissing them as a band of rednecks.
Lead singer Ronnie Van Zant, the most notable victim of the band’s tragic 1977 plane crash grew up in the Shantytown, a ghetto in on the west side of Jacksonville. This was one of the few parts of town that wasn’t segregated. Lynyrd Skynyrd grew up as “street survivors,” a title they would use for their final album before the plane crash. Being street people meant that they had their share of fights, but they also developed a sense of adventure and a love of the characters, both black and white, they met in their travels. They were influenced by both blues and country, but their sound was pure rock and roll. They began their recording career in 1970, in the same Muscle Shoals studio that Aretha Franklin and the Stones worked in. Those demos, containing stripped down renditions of what would become Skynyrd’s most famous material, only saw public release after the plane crash.
Listening now to Skynyrd’s First: The Complete Muscle Shoals Album
, it is amazing to hear not only the power of the melodies, but the depth of the lyrics. Al Kooper produced Skynyrd’s first three albums after playing in both Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix’s bands. He took a chance on the band due to Ronnie Van Zant’s songwriting. He penned the tale of a rocker who goes out to follow his dream against his parents’ wishes, strikes it rich and returns only to find them dead in “Was I Right Or Wrong.” It’s staggering to imagine that Van Zant described his bleak vision before the band had even secured a recording contract.
Cameron Crowe’s Rolling Stone piece on the Allmans caught the eye of Ronnie Van Zant when Skynyrd got their first big break opening for The Who. Crowe spent many nights with the band during their three-year climb to the top. It was also during this time that the band’s label, MCA was increasingly marketing Skynyrd’s “southern rebel” image. While they never took shit from anyone or each other, it’s the negative connotations of that image that hurt Skynyrd’s legacy. In a 1998 interview, Crowe recalled, “That’s the heartbreak of it. I’m not sure that in the basic image that came up, people understood how deep they really were. Musically, you can tell they’re deep. They didn’t stumble into those records—they came from their hearts.”
However, the band had serious reservations about the label they were tagged with. Particularly troubling was the Confederate flag that often hung behind the stage. In 1975, Van Zant mused, “That was strictly an MCA gimmick to start us off with some label. It was useful at first, but by now it’s embarrassing except in Europe, where they really like all that stuff because they think it’s macho American.” The “stars and bars” that eventually began popping up in the band’s crowds became more than embarrassing. It was bad enough to be portrayed as ignorant hayseeds. It was entirely another to be categorized as racist.
Their music and subsequent fame brought pride to the forgotten folks in the South, but Van Zant never condoned discrimination of those who were most forgotten. In fact, when they name-checked George Wallace in “Sweet Home Alabama” it was only meant to take a swipe at his pro-segregation stance. When Van Zant referred to Birmingham loving the governor, the back-up singers sang “Boo! Boo! Boo!” in criticism. However, listeners didn’t notice the criticism among the catchy harmony.
Although the song is perceived as an anthem of southern pride, “Sweet Home Alabama,” was actually intended not only as the band’s fond recollection of their first time in a recording studio but as a reminder to the rest of America that not all southerners were rednecks. When Skynyrd criticized Neil Young’s “Southern Man,” it was for the sweeping generalization of all southerners as rednecks. Don’t condemn southerners now for what their ancestors did. “We thought Neil was shooting all the ducks in order to kill one or two,” Van Zant said. “We’re southern rebels, but more than that, we know the difference between right and wrong.” In fact, the band was quite outspoken about their disdain for Wallace’s policies.
As for the supposed feud with Neil Young, it turned out he a huge Skynyrd fan. Young was certainly no stranger to social commentary through cynicism. He always said he was proud to be mentioned in the song and that Skynyrd reminded him of his days with Buffalo Springfield. Van Zant, on the other hand constantly wore a Neil Young shirt on stage during the last two years of his life and not only for a “tongue in cheek” effect. He didn’t mind chiding the Canadian (who also penned the critical tune “Alabama”) in song, but admitted to owning every one of Young’s albums. In 1998, Cameron Crowe recalled Young even offered up eventual Rust Never Sleepsclassics “Sedan Delivery” and “Powderfinger” to Skynyrd for what would be their final album. The tunes didn’t appear on Street Survivors, although Ronnie Van Zant wore his Young shirt for the cover photo and supposedly had it on the day he died.
In a recent issue of Rolling Stone,
Slash admitted that while recording Appetite For Destruction
in their tiny Los Angeles apartment, Guns n’ Roses listened to Skynyrd’s albums constantly. It wasn’t the power or the style that GNR wanted to replicate. They wanted their debut album to sound like it came from the heart. During their heyday, GNR received more attention for their image and antics than for their musical innovation. With Axl Rose in another world and the rest of the band in “Velvet Revolver,” there has recently been a reexamination of the bands music. Their impact, recently chronicled in an episode of “Behind the Music,” has found a new level of appreciation. It will be curious to see what will happen when GNR become eligible for the Hall of Fame.
Southern Rock has been slowly returning to prominence. However, the image still dwarfs the actual music. Kid Rock has built his entire stage persona on Skynyrd’s image. Gretchen Wilson worships the band in her songs and wears their tour shirts on stage. But this has done more for the cause of trucker hats and “white trash chic” than for a reevaluation of Lynyrd Skynyrd. Their music is still played on every classic rock station and dive bar in the country. However, they are no closer to being recognized as the band they were. They blended the power of rock and roll with the earnest songwriting of country. All the cries of “Free Bird” seem to do is evoke the novelty image of trailer trash. I love ZZ Top and Bob Seger, but didn’t their admission to the Hall seemed to be more of a “lifetime achievement award?” The only way for the band to get their just due is to simply induct Skynyrd.