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

Currently on its farewell tour, the venerable Southern-rock group is much different than the one Ronnie Van Zant led in the Seventies

The Lynyrd Skynyrd currently on its farewell tour is different in worldview than the one led by Ronnie Van Zant in the Seventies. Credit: Ian Dickson/REX/Shutterstock

Lynyrd Skynyrd launched its farewell tour earlier this month, confident in the knowledge that they'll be remembered as one of the great American rock & roll bands of the 20th century. Their place in history seems secure not merely because they were one of the progenitors of Southern rock – the hybrid of country, blues and hard rock that swept through the 1970s – but also because the ending to their story seemed to be written decades ago, when its leader Ronnie Van Zant perished alongside guitarist Steve Gaines, backing vocalist Cassie Gaines and assistant road manager Dean Kilpatrick in a Mississippi plane crash on October 20th, 1977. The tragedy seemed to provide a neat conclusion to Skynyrd's story, forever tying the band – and, specifically, Ronnie Van Zant ­– to the New South of the 1970s, an era when the states below the Mason Dixon line attempted to refashion themselves as progressive in the wake of the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

Except, that's not exactly true. Lynyrd Skynyrd remained a vital part of the cultural landscape for the next 40 years, which is the reason why their retirement from the road is garnering attention. The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inducted the band in 2006; Skynyrd's songs remain a staple of classic-rock radio; calling for "Free Bird" during a concert is still a rite of passage; 1973's Pronounced Leh'nerd Skin-Nerd and 1974's Second Helping (and sometimes 1977's Street Survivors) regularly appear on lists of the greatest records ever recorded; and "Sweet Home Alabama" is often called the National Anthem of the South, a cry of Southern pride no longer tied to the titular state – which, not incidentally, was not the homestate of Lynyrd Skynyrd, who by and large hailed from Jacksonville, Florida. More importantly, at least in terms of their ongoing cultural presence, Skynyrd resurfaced a decade later with a lineup consisting of all of the surviving members – Gary Rossington, Leon Wilkeson, Billy Powell and Artimus Pyle, every one of who made it through the crash, alongside Ed King, who split in 1975 – plus Van Zant's younger brother Johnny, who stepped into his sibling's shoes as Skynyrd's singer. While they'd shed members over the years, either due to disagreement or death, this reconstituted group kept the flame burning another 30 years, more than tripling the lifespan of the original band.

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. A wobbly stance on gun control can be waved away – Van Zant claimed he used his gun for hunting, and in archival footage in If I Leave Here Tomorrow, he says he only owns a rifle – but it's harder to grapple with the suggestion Ronnie may have supported some of Wallace's politics. Both Ed King and Charlie Daniels are quoted by journalist Mark Kemp in his excellent Dixie Lullaby: A Story of Music, Race and New Beginnings in a New South claiming that Ronnie was a "big fan of George Wallace" and "had great respect" for the governor, a fact that skews the conventional notion of "Sweet Home Alabama" of being a protest song against the governor.

It's also difficult to lay the blame of Lynyrd Skynyrd's use of the Confederate Flag entirely at the feet of MCA. Maybe the record label instigated its use in 1974 but Skynyrd made the Stars and Bars an integral part of their visual iconography, letting it appear on T-shirts, caps, belt buckles and ceramic mugs until 2012, when the band decided that it was time to retire it from their stage. A fan blowback ensued, leading Gary Rossington to clarify the band's stance in a Facebook post, claiming that the group would still use the Rebel flag but only alongside the U.S. flag, "'cause at the end of the day, we are all Americans.'" On their farewell tour, Skynyrd eschews any overt display of the Confederate flag, choosing instead to perform in front of the U.S. flag and, during "Sweet Home Alabama," that state's colors, illustrating Rossington's point about how there isn't much daylight, at least in his eyes, between the South and America.

Rossington is hardly alone in this view. In 2004, during the thick of George W. Bush's presidential re-election campaign, The New York Times claimed the Republican Party's "Southern Strategy" amounted to "Cranking up Skynyrd" – a concession that signified how thoroughly Lynyrd Skynyrd was associated with the South, but also signaled how far the band – and the South – had come since the 1970s. 

Back then, Lynyrd Skynyrd were leaders among the rebels forging a New South in the aftermath of the 1960s, creating music that soundtracked the ascent of Jimmy Carter to the White House. Unlike the Allman Brothers Band, who were friends of Carter, or Charlie Daniels, whose "The South's Gonna Do It (Again)" was adopted as Carter's campaign song in 1976, Skynyrd wasn't especially tight with the President; the closest their paths crossed is when they had to bail on a fundraising concert also featuring Daniels, the Marshall Tucker Band, the Outlaws and .38 Special in '76. This may be a thin thread to connect Skynyrd with Carter, but the overarching fact remains that during the group's prime, Southern Rock was not a regressive music – it was a rowdy, progressive vision of the future, representing how the South was eager to put the turmoil of the 1960s in the past. That version of a New South died when Ronald Reagan won the presidency in 1980 in an election that turned the South red. From that point forward, Southern rockers made it a point to carry a tradition forward instead of blazing new ground and nobody was prouder than Lynyrd Skynyrd.

Perhaps the latter-day version of Skynyrd never cut an album that could hold its own with the work of the original band – they lacked a songwriter as sharp and humane as Ronnie, and Johnny Van Zant had a hard time resisting some cornball tendencies, like bellowing in a bluesy bluster and punctuating his renditions of Ronnie classics with incessant stage banter. Still, it captured the sentiments of the South just as thoroughly as the classic lineup did in the 1970s. Far from diluting the band's legacy, the seemingly conflicting politics of the two incarnations deepen their story. Listening to their music, from the high points to the lows, reveals how America's culture shifted over the course of four and a half decades, and that is no small feat for a rock & roll band.