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Lynyrd Skynyrd: Inside the Band's Complicated History With the South

The Southern-rock group is much different than the one Ronnie Van Zant led in the Seventies.
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Inevitably, as this latter-day Lynyrd Skynyrd – which would eventually incorporate former Blackfoot leader Rickey Medlocke as its lead guitarist in 1996 – continued to tour and release the occasional new record, they complicated a legacy that was never quite as simple as recycled histories made it seem. From the outset, Skynyrd danced on the edge of controversy, performing in front of the Confederate flag and alluding to George Wallace, the segregationist governor of Alabama, in song. These incidents were later explained away by the band: MCA pushed the group to adopt the Stars and Bars, assuming it’d accentuate their Southerness and rebellion, while the “Sweet Home Alabama” lyric “In Birmingham they love the governor” was said to be undercut by the backing vocals chanting “boo boo boo” afterward. Such after-the-fact justifications paint Lynyrd Skynyrd in the best possible light, suggesting that any ugliness was not the fault of the band: either they had good intentions or were just playing the industry’s game.

This persistent narrative may soothe listeners of the liberal persuasion, who have difficulty reconciling how music this powerful may be telegraphing politics with which they disagree, but it also has the ultimate effect of widening the gap between Ronnie Van Zant and the latter-day Skynyrd, suggesting the two don’t share similar roots. The divide is crystallized within the contrast between Van Zant’s “Saturday Night Special,” a 1975 hit where he claims “hand guns are made for killin’, they ain’t no good for nothin’ else,” and “God and Guns,” the title track to a 2009 album where Skynyrd pledges allegiance to these two things above all else. These two songs would suggest that the Skynyrd of the 21st Century is considerably more conservative than the Skynyrd of the 1970s – a notion that is generally true, but with some important caveats. 

First of all, the Ronnie Van Zant of legend doesn’t quite square with the real Ronnie Van Zant. As detailed in If I Leave Here Tomorrow, Stephen Kijak’s first-rate Lynyrd Skynyrd documentary that premiered at South By Southwest earlier this year and recently screened at the Nashville Film Festival, Ronnie was hardheaded and contradictory, the kind of guy who would write “Saturday Night Special” while owning a .22 pistol

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