When Lynyrd Skynyrd released “Sweet Home Alabama” in 1974, it was seen, among other things, as a clear swipe at Neil Young. He was very critical of the South in his recent songs “Southern Man” and “Alabama,” and it’s hard to get less ambiguous than Ronnie Van Zant’s lyrics: “Well, I heard Mister Young sing about her/Well, I heard ol’ Neil put her down/Well, I hope Neil Young will remember/A Southern man don’t need him around anyhow.”
A couple of years after the song came out, though, Van Zant clarified the group’s intentions. “We wrote ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ as a joke,” he said. “We didn’t even think about it. The words just came out that way. We just laughed like hell and said, ‘Ain’t that funny.’ We love Neil Young. We love his music.” In case anybody thought he wasn’t serious, he began wearing a Tonight’s the Night shirt onstage.
The feeling was mutual, and Young sent the group a demo of his song “Powderfinger” to see if they wanted to record it in their next album. Tragically, Ronnie Van Zant and other members of Skynyrd died in a plane crash before they had the chance. (According to legend, Van Zant was buried in his Tonights the Night T-shirt, though this remains a hotly disputed topic.) Just weeks after the accident, Young played a show in Miami to raise money for a children’s hospital. Near the end, he played a medley of “Alabama” and “Sweet Home Alabama” as a tribute to the band. There’s no video, but you can hear an audience tape right here.
Young has not played “Alabama” a single time since that night. “‘Alabama’ richly deserved the shot Lynyrd Skynyrd gave me with their great record,” Young wrote in his 2012 book, Waging Heavy Peace. “I don’t like my words when I listen to it today. They are accusatory and condescending, not fully thought out, too easy to misconstrue.”