I know that everybody in the Deep South knows the song “Sweet Home Alabama,” that anthem to my home state that balks at Neil Young, defends George Wallace in vague terms, and blows off Watergate as not worth worrying about. Yet, if you know more about Lynyrd Skynyrd than that one song, you may also know a song like “All I Can Do is Write about It.” If not, you’d probably be surprised by what you hear. That song, which was on 1976’s Gimme Back My Bullets, has co-writers Ronnie Van Zant and Allen Collins advocating for what sounds a lot like . . . well, environmentalism. Not left-leaning, Greenpeace/PETA kind of environmentalism, but still a clear endorsement for protecting undisturbed nature: “Did you ever see a she-gator protect her young / or a fish in a river swimming free? / Did you ever see the beauty of the hills of Carolina, / or the sweetness of the grass in Tennessee?” The song’s three verses end with a chorus that smacks of protest against suburban sprawl: “Yes, when I can see the concrete slowly creeping . . . Lord, take me and mine before that comes.”
I’ve always liked Lynyrd Skynyrd— that is, Lynyrd Skynyrd as it was originally, before the 1977 plane crash. (The band’s second incarnation . . . not so much.) Their biggest hit came out in 1974, the year I was born, so I can never remember a time when the band wasn’t a big deal here in the Deep South. Those boys from Jacksonville, Florida had grown up in rough circumstances and had used music to avoid what they saw as the only two clear options: hard work or prison. Their lyrics, which I like for their keen perception of gritty realities, are peculiarly honest.
What is impressive about Lynyrd Skynyrd’s lyrics is the gutsy and forthright way that the songs reply to people who hurt others and who hamper our ability to lead a decent life. For instance, the song “Things Goin’ On” from their debut album offers some choice words for powerful people:
Too many lives been spent across the ocean.
Too much money been spent up on the moon.
Well, until they make it right
I hope they never sleep at night
They better make some changes
And do it soon.
That was the early ’70s, right after the 1969 moon landing, during the Nixon era, and near the end of Vietnam, and those working-class Southern boys weren’t cutting the “Southern Strategy” types any slack. On that same album, “Poison Whiskey” decries alcoholism – a far cry from the “bro country” of today – and “Simple Man” extols an uncluttered life. On Second Helping, the band celebrates the backwoods in “Swamp Music” and again decries substance abuse in “The Needle and the Spoon.” 1975’s Nuthin’ Fancy contains a clear caveat, in the song “Saturday Night Special,” that “handguns are made for killing / they ain’t no good for nothin’ else,” which is followed by a clear solution: “why don’t we dump ’em, people, to the bottom of the sea / before some ol’ fool comes around here, wants to shoot either you or me!” Not exactly God-and-guns.
Some of my favorite Lynyrd Skynyrd songs come from their next-to-last studio album Gimme Back My Bullets. The title track is an anthem for those who recognize that the time has come for action, though “Every Mother’s Son,” which follows it, is a distinct reminder to stay humble and don’t get too big for your britches. Personally, I don’t see “Gimme Back My Bullets” as a pro-gun song, but as a hardscrabble metaphor for saying, “I’m through getting pushed around.” Later in the album, the song “Trust” is a reminder to be careful of who you deal with, and near the end of it, “Cry for the Bad Man” contains some of my favorite lyrics of all time: “You treat me right, baby, I’ll treat you right. / That’s the way it’s supposed to be.” That album ends with the song I mentioned first: “All I Can Do is Write about It.”
Skynyrd’s final album Street Survivors has its share of good-time songs that have gotten a lot of radio play over the last four decades – “What’s Your Name” and “You Got that Right” – but there’s also another warning against drinking and drugs in “That Smell,” and the last track on that last album, “Ain’t No Good Life,” shows the side of the band that I’m talking about here. Van Zant sings, “I don’t even know where last month went, / Well, I can’t make no money baby / ’cause my money’s already spent. / And I know where it went, / I said it went on that damn rent.”
Sometimes I hear people ridicule or stereotype Lynyrd Skynyrd has nothing but redneck bullshit. That’s not true or accurate. In the Deep South of the 1970s, Lynyrd’s Skynyrd’s songs stated bluntly what hard-working people were saying in bars, in church parking lots, in grocery store aisles, and around kitchen tables. Those guys knew hard work – they practiced relentlessly in an un-air-conditioned shack they called Hell House, toured constantly, and put out six albums in five years – because they came from a culture that taught them that’s how life is. There’s a lot of classic Southern posturing there, sure, but there’s also a nuanced, real-world, and distinctly blue-collar understanding of inequality, substance abuse, the environment, and guns— all issues that we still struggle with today. The band had its share of songs about partying, women, and drinking, but what I like (and respect) about them is their honesty about facing the hardships that are always right there at arm’s length. And if Ronnie Van Zant were here today, I think he’d say to all of us: how about less talking and politicking and more simple, clear action that makes it where hard-working people aren’t getting the shaft.