Not the Pazz and Jop 1973 #18

Lynyrd Skynyrd – (Pronounced ‘Leh-‘Nérd ‘Skin-‘Nérd)

Let’s start with a confession: I don’t really care all that much for “Sweet Home Alabama”. Sure, I’ve sung along to it in bars, got hopped up when it accompanied a great scene in a movie, and turned it up a bit louder when it came on while I was driving. On the other hand, I have also sung along with “My Humps”, got teary-eyed to “My Heart Will Go On”, and have at least once played “Friday” not as a hate listen, but out of some sort of perverted joy. The takeaway? My opinions can’t always be trusted, and my behaviours even less so.

But something about this song has always sat wrong with me. And because of that, it polluted my view of southern rock.

First, what exactly is southern rock? It’s a descendant of blues and country, but you can say that about outlaw country and cowpunk and maybe heartland rock a bit as well. It seems like it’s a style that you just know when you hear it, though people get that wrong, too – just because Elvin Bishop played southern rock didn’t mean that “Fooled Around and Fell in Love” was, too, especially when it’s a song that you just know Daryl Hall would have absolutely crushed (and I’m saddened that he appears to have never even tried), and Daryl may be many things, but southern is not one of them.

So, because I didn’t like “Sweet Home Alabama”, I would hear its echoes in other songs, and pull back. It’s no tragedy: there is a lot of music out there, and you need to filter it somehow. It’s a dumb way to do it, especially since I was perfectly fine with listening to one Nickelback song after another at one point in my life (I’d rather not talk about it), but it was all I had.

Now, here I am, closer to 60 than I care to think about, and I am finding myself enjoying southern rock. The Allman Brothers’ “Eat A Peach” was a revelation, and now I can add this Lynyrd Skynyrd album to the list of southern rock that I love (total: two albums).

From the opening drums that draw you in on “I Ain’t the One” to the howling guitars that play you out on “Free Bird”, there isn’t a song on this album that doesn’t justify the time spent in listening to it. It’s a record that grabbed me on the first play, and gets richer and more interesting with each repeat. The blues influences are more prevalent than anything that could pass as country at that time (“Gimme Three Steps”, a bouncy tale of cowardice in a bar that steers into cliche but knowingly and with a sense of fun, comes closest). The playing is selectively showy: the keyboard player has some nice moments and those guitars rule the second half of “Free Bird” and in a few other places as well. And while it’s all rock, it tests different waters, from the more conventionally bluesy sounding “Mississippi Kid” to the hillbilly honkytonk of “Things Goin’ On” to the beautiful prog rock-esque “Simple Man”.

In addition to ”Simple Man”, two other songs stand out for me. I have heard “Free Bird” dozens of times without paying it the least bit of attention before now. The opening keyboards and steady, clean drumming are the definition of “spine tingling”, then are joined by cool guitar. It invokes the freedom of a wandering spirit, but it’s also a love song, with a hint of regret in that declaration, and sadness (“If I leave here tomorrow, Would you still remember me?”). It then turns into a completely different song around the midpoint, only tangentially connected to the beginning. It becomes a showcase for some blistering guitar work and pounding drums. The song races along the open road – propulsive, maddening – ripping you apart with an ending that celebrates that freedom the narrator was seeking: an exuberant roar of delight. Magnificent.

But my favourite might be (it’s close) the plaintive ballad of loss “Tuesday’s Gone”, which feels like a bridge between blues rock and southern rock. The song never feels repetitive, despite the 7-minute length and simple declarative lyrics. It’s a true epic, with an orchestral feel from the electronic strings, and some beautiful and very delicate piano just past the 3-minute mark. It will envelop you if you let it. It will likely be the first song I think of whenever I hear southern rock referred to in future.

I still don’t like “Sweet Home Alabama”, and I’m fine with that: as it turns out, you can love Lynyrd Skynyrd without liking their signature song. I might just have to give The Black Eyed Peas another chance (yeah, no way that’s happening).

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