Southern Rock Opera
Freebirds: The Lynyrd Skynyrd Story
by Marley Brant
It’s been said many times that white southerners are one of the last cultural groups it’s socially acceptable to make fun of. In response there has evolved a virtual cottage industry of answer-back, of which Jim Goad’s Redneck Manifesto is perhaps the most notorious specimen (it starts out promisingly, but in later chapters degenerates into anti-intellectualism and dubious rationalizations of race relations). The most eloquent riposte, however, even after almost 30 years, is probably still Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama.” Written as a crack at their admitted idol Neil Young–whose “Alabama” and “Southern Man” presented racism as though it were something all southerners (and only southerners) were guilty of–it has inspired countless inferior and more jingoistic imitators. But nothing matches the sly wit and double-edged righteousness lurking in the verses between that fist-pumping chorus, or the gospel fierceness coming from the backup choir (which includes Merry Clayton, whose voice also induces goose bumps in the Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” and who, interestingly, would later cover “Southern Man”). “In Birmingham they love the gov’ner, hoo hoo hoo / Now we all did what we could do / Watergate does not bother me / Does your conscience bother you?” sneered Ronnie Van Zant. According to Marley Brant’s recent Skynyrd bio, Freebirds: The Lynyrd Skynyrd Story, the song was written as a joke and became a hit against all expectations, released as a single after radio stations commandeered it as an album track that sent the call-ins off the scale.
I’ve sat through a great many boozy debates over whether the redneck national anthem is really “Sweet Home Alabama” or “Free Bird”–but still, no one seriously disputes that it’s a Skynyrd song. There’s a lot more to being southern than mere defensiveness, and Skynyrd’s discography captured a good deal of it, with a level of wit few others have approached. Unfortunately, the band literally went down in flames–on October 20, 1977, their plane crashed into a Mississippi swamp, killing Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines, his sister and backup singer Cassie Gaines, and tour manager and longtime friend Dean Kilpatrick. Since then, almost no one has attempted to portray southern identity through rock ‘n’ roll (as opposed to country) in anything but the broadest of strokes–flying the stars ‘n’ bars or the Jack Daniel’s logo or both–even though at our best, southerners both white and black have traditions of regional and cultural humor and self-knowledge that maybe only New York Jews can rival. Though the white south has had fits and starts of rock prominence since, until very recently most of the artists–and particularly those of the indie stripe–have sidestepped the issues, aiming for that mythically homogeneous rock audience, doing the equivalent of training like a newscaster to develop the perfect accentless accent. Even R.E.M., whose early perceived incomprehensibility stemmed from a distinct Georgia drawl and a sense of kudzu-draped rural mystery, eventually managed to breed out their southernness.
Brant’s bio assumes from the get-go that Skynyrd’s a worthy subject; it’s a straight-up retelling of the band’s story, from one lighter-wielding fan to another. She’s not interested in cuddling up to the rock establishment that’s snubbed the band over the years (if she were, surely she’d manage to spell Robert Christgau’s name correctly). The story starts with the childhoods of founding members Van Zant, Allen Collins, Leon Wilkeson, Gary Rossington, and Bob Burns and ends with the current lineup’s performance at an Atlanta benefit for September 11 victims (which took place, as it happened, on the 24th anniversary of Skynyrd’s own plane disaster). She’s stubbornly reverent and a tad defensive all at once; she’s also relentless in laying out the long, sad tale of illness, substance abuse, backstabbing, and eventual artistic bankruptcy.
But if you want to know why Skynyrd’s worthy, the item to pick up is the most recent release by the Drive-by Truckers, an indie-rock outfit based in Athens, Georgia. Front man Patterson Hood–the son of a session bassist who recorded at the legendary Muscle Shoals with luminaries like Aretha Franklin, the Staple Singers, and Traffic–has a more complicated relationship than most with his southern heritage. He admits to having been one of those southern kids who scorned southern rock, vastly preferring the Replacements to anything homegrown and desperately wanting to be an intellectual (which to him, as it once did to me, implied being something other than southern–O’Connor and Faulkner both had to leave the south for a good long time in order to write their best work). But since founding the southern-identified Truckers in 1996, he’s devoted himself to singlehandedly proving Thomas Wolfe wrong. The band walks the line between slapstick and painful honesty, going with a corny name and calling albums things like Alabama Ass Whuppin’ but then turning it all on its head with songs about good ol’ boy poet friends dead from AIDS. Hood’s chosen flavor of irony isn’t all that far from Ronnie Van Zant’s: consider “Gimme Three Steps,” which might be the most ass-whuppin’ song ever about being a total pussy, and “Saturday Night Special,” which managed to sell blatant antihandgun sentiment to the crowd least likely to embrace it.
The Truckers have made good records before, but their latest, the double album Southern Rock Opera, is an unexpected masterpiece. “The Southern Thing” articulates the modern white southerner’s plaint far more eloquently and with less dodge than Goad: “Ain’t about excuses or alibis / Ain’t about cotton or cotton-picking lies / Ain’t about the races, the crying shame / To the fucking rich man all poor people look the same.” Hood spends the entire work trying to explain what he calls the “duality of the southern thing,” and it’s so complicated that nothing seems particularly extraneous. In his unblinking gaze, for example, George Wallace winds up in hell–not for having been a white supremacist, but for pretending to still be one to cadge votes even after he knew better. “Proud of the glory, stare down the shame,” Hood sings, and I know what he means: shame in feeling or being made to feel backward, pride in a long memory and a talent for preserving one’s heritage; shame in being stereotyped as a bunch of ignorant fundamentalists, pride in keeping faith alive in a world often perceived as abandoning it; shame in having treated great black artists shabbily, pride in having grown up with so many of them; shame in being poor, pride in refusing to sell out.
Throughout the record Hood maintains two main narrative threads: one is semiautobiographical; the other, appropriately, is the biography of Lynyrd Skynyrd, from obsessive early rehearsals driven by a whip-cracking Van Zant through final moments of consciousness aboard a sputtering and then silent airplane. At moments the two rock bands seem to merge, linked by rock ‘n’ roll constants and the resonance of the Skynyrd cosmology. Nods and allusions to the much imitated Skynyrd style are woven into the music; there’s no reason any die-hard fan of southern rock wouldn’t enjoy it even without the commentary. The Truckers have a pretty good grasp on the way Skynyrd never got very far from the blues. Their version, of course, was the blues by way of Cream and the Yardbirds–same as virtually all 70s hard rock. But boys from the wrong side of the tracks in Jacksonville, Florida, were better equipped than just about anyone to understand that British rockers of the 60s and early 70s, in pocketing the blues, were appropriating not just blackness but also southernness. The inflections Mick Jagger spent years trying to perfect in imitation of Muddy Waters by way of Elvis came naturally to Ronnie Van Zant, as they do to Patterson Hood.
The duality of the southern thing is also success and failure, comedy and tragedy: lost causes make the best poetry centuries later, which can make it seem as if burning out and fading away are the only choices available. The ghostly calm of the album’s final track, “Angels and Fuselage,” which details the tragedy that cut through the apex of Skynyrd’s creative arc, is about the acceptance of death in a horrid moment that seems to last forever: “The engines have stopped now / We all know we are going down / Last call for alcohol / Sure wish I could have another round / And I’m scared shitless of what’s coming next / Scared shitless, these angels I see in the trees are waiting for me,” sings Hood, with Kelly Hogan playing Cassie Gaines to raise goose bumps of a Merry Clayton caliber.
There was a certain nobility about the surviving band members’ decision to dissolve the band after the crash. The survivors even signed an agreement with Van Zant’s widow, Judy, that no continuation or reunion under the Lynyrd Skynyrd name would occur. It took ten whole years (and the artistic and commercial disaster that was the Rossington-Collins Band) for them to break it. But you have to cut them a little slack: as detailed in Brant’s book, the tragedy only began with the plane crash. To guitarist Allen Collins–who lost his pregnant wife to a sudden hemorrhage, then a few years later was paralyzed in a drunk-driving accident that killed his girlfriend, and was later trotted out from the wings on a Skynyrd tribute tour to watch a lesser guitarist play his parts–those who got death over with in their prime might seem fortunate.
Dying young certainly helps your chances for sainthood–Ronnie Van Zant ranks only slightly behind Robert E. Lee in the pantheon of southern saints. But his younger brother Johnny, who’s fronted the band since the first reunion tour, will never inspire that kind of devotion, dead or alive. It could be that his white sneakers look far dorkier than Ronnie’s bare feet ever did, or that his voice doesn’t have that indigenously southern blend of laziness and urgency, or simply that he didn’t write those songs nor could he have–in fact, the two younger Van Zant brothers put together couldn’t do it (Donnie, you might recall, leads .38 Special). According to Brant, Johnny didn’t especially want to be there, feeling nervous and uncertain, drafted by popular demand–his MO is the perfect opposite of Ronnie’s drive and desperate cockiness. He’s the reluctant heir, not the hungry underdog, and it shows. Brant gamely defends the “reunited” band as best she can, but the fans’ admirable (and occasionally unnerving) devotion aside, it’s a story of diminishing returns. Not only can the people caught up in the drama not get past their tragedies, they can’t move beyond their triumphs either.
That’s the kind of stagnation fast-talking, fast-moving urban types fear above all: the sensation of having outlived one’s own life. And if you happen to believe that the climax of life always happens in youth, the only way to avoid that situation is to die young. (Most hipsters waffle on this, of course–just as their postadolescent glow is fading, they conveniently announce that their priorities have changed.) It was from a point of view of passionate youth that Ronnie Van Zant asked the eternal rhetorical question “If I leave here tomorrow, would you still remember me?”
Almost a quarter century after his death, the answer’s still a roof-shaking yes. When Hood brags/laments in “Let There Be Rock” that “I never saw Lynyrd Skynyrd but I sure saw Molly Hatchet / With .38 Special and the Johnny Van Zant band,” he’s not just expressing regret for the missed show. He’s alluding to a small but significant cultural truth: even now the Skynyrd legacy has never left that high school parking lot. They still mean more to a lot of southern kids born ten years after Ronnie Van Zant’s death than many current hit makers ever will. They’re the south’s own Led Zeppelin, more pervasive and mighty than ever in their premature demise. (As Hood hints in “Days of Graduation” and “Plastic Flowers on the Highway,” any subset of the population given to driving drunk at night or maneuvering huge rigs on badly paved highways is bound to have its own special relationship with tragedy. The white south prides itself on its resistance to flickers of fashion the same way California and New York boast of sparking them; I suspect Hood’s grandchildren might still be nervously deciding with whom to take that all-important last slow dance of the night, and that the last slow dance might still almost always be to “Free Bird.”
Lynyrd Skynyrd aren’t usually thought of as a particularly economical band, but the verbose sprawl of Southern Rock Opera makes them look like haiku masters. But this is part of the southern thing too: if a southerner doesn’t live to finish his sentence, he can have some confidence that future generations will be able to pick up his story and run with it. And, at least as often as not, they do–with a passion and a pride that some find perverse.