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The tragic history — and complicated legacy — of Lynyrd Skynyrd

In light of founding member Gary Rossington’s death, let’s revisit the complicated history of Lynyrd Skynyrd

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Rickey Medlocke, from left, Mark Matejka, and Gary Rossington of Lynyrd Skynyrd seen at KAABOO Texas at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.

Rickey Medlocke, from left, Mark Matejka, and Gary Rossington of Lynyrd Skynyrd seen at KAABOO Texas at AT&T Stadium on Saturday, May 11, 2019, in Arlington, Texas.

Amy Harris, Invision, Associated Press

I often credit my parents for my extensive and eclectic taste in music (but they might say otherwise!). Growing up, we listened to Celia Cruz, Otis Redding, Fleetwood Mac, Toni Braxton, Marc Anthony, Led Zeppelin and much, much more.

Somewhat surprisingly, Lynyrd Skynyrd was part of the mix. While my family seemingly had an aversion to any other country music, I have very distinct memories of dancing (very badly) with my parents in our kitchen, singing along to “Gimme Three Steps” and “That Smell.”

With founding member Gary Rossington’s death on Sunday — he was 71, according to CNN — I’ve been revisiting Lynyrd Skynyrd’s place in my past and in what they symbolized for the South.

Lynyrd Skynyrd’s history is controversial and turbulent — I wouldn’t expect a band that’s been around for 40 years to be anything less — but is equally as hopeful and important to remember.

The beginning of Lynyrd Skynyrd

Lynyrd Skynyrd had humble beginnings. In 1964, founding members and then-teens Gary Rossington, Ronnie Van Zant and Bob Burns crossed paths when playing on rival baseball teams in Florida, according to Lynyrd Skynyrd’s official site. The three formed the band after a casual band practice in Burns’ house, and shortly thereafter, Allen Collins and Larry Junstrom joined.

Where is Lynyrd Skynyrd from?

All five founding members met in, and are from, Jacksonville, Florida. After they officially formed in 1964, the band “began entertaining Jacksonville audiences” and become one of the top bands in Jacksonville.

How did Lynyrd Skynyrd get its name?

The band went by My Backyard, The Noble Five and One Percent before finally landing on the name Lynyrd Skynyrd in 1969. According to the group’s official site, the band name was inspired by a PE teacher at the band members’ high school who “was known for his strict policy forbidding long hair on boys.”

Lynyrd Skynyrd’s rise to fame

After spending years perfecting a unique blend of country, blues and rock that the band would soon become known for, Lynyrd Skynyrd recorded its first demo with Muscle Shoals Sounds Studio in 1970, per the group’s website.

The group released its first album, “Pronounced Leh-Nerd Skin-Nerd,” in 1973, per Brittanica. The album became an immediate sensation, with “Free Bird” (a tribute to Duane Allman of The Allman Brothers) hitting No. 19 on the Billboard Hot 100, according to Billboard.

‘Second Helping’

Lynyrd Skynyrd quickly followed up with “Second Helping” in 1974, opening with “Sweet Home Alabama.” Lynyrd Skynyrd credits this album as what catapulted the group to fame, calling “Second Helping” “the album that would change everything,” per its website.

According to its website, “In addition to introducing the world to the three-guitar attack that would become their hallmark, the album also featured some of Ronnie Van Zant’s finest moments as a songwriter — with tracks like Sweet Home Alabama and The Ballad of Curtis Loew establishing a blueprint for Southern rock that would inspire artists of all genres for decades.”

Rolling Stone reviewed the group’s album in 1974, comparing Lynyrd Skynyrd to The Allman Brothers but concluding that they lack “that band’s sophistication and professionalism.” Rolling Stone continued, “They do, however, play a solid brand of Allman-influenced blues rock, drawing on gospel and other components of southern music as well.”

Despite Rolling Stone’s lukewarm review, “Second Helping” proved to be popular — “Sweet Home Alabama,” the band’s most-known song, hit No. 8 on the Billboard Hot 100, per Billboard.

What does ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ say about Neil Young?

It’s almost ironic that Lynyrd Skynyrd wrote “Sweet Home Alabama” and that it became the band’s most popular song — as NPR points out, “It was written by two guys from Florida and one from California, none of whom ever lived in Alabama.”

But it was written in response to Neil Young’s 1970 song “Southern Man,” a song that “took the entire South to task for the bloody history of slavery and its aftermath,” per NPR. The band took offense to Young’s oversimplistic view of South, especially considering that Young is Canadian.

In the documentary “If I Leave Here Tomorrow,” which chronicles Lynyrd Skynyrd’s history, lead vocalist Van Zant asked of Young, “What are you talking about, you know? From what I’m told you were born in Canada.”

“Sweet Home Alabama” famously addresses Young directly, with the lyrics saying: “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.”

While “Sweet Home Alabama” was created to counter certain stereotypes about the South, as NPR points out, Lynyrd Skynyrd embraced other Southern stereotypes. At the suggestion of their record label, Lynyrd Skynyrd performed the song with a Confederate flag behind the group.

Many view the song as an American classic. As one Lynyrd Skynyrd fan told NPR, “It’s honestly an American anthem — it really is. I feel like that personifies a lot of America.”

‘Nuthin’ Fancy,’ ‘Gimme Back My Bullets’ and ‘Street Survivors’

Over the next three years, Lynyrd Skynyrd came out with three albums: “Nuthin’ Fancy” in 1975, “Gimme Back My Bullets” in 1976 and “Street Survivors” in 1977. The band saw some conflict over this time, with “personal issues (taking) take their toll on the group,” per Lynyrd Skynyrd’s website.

This led to a change-up to the band — guitarist, lyricist and co-vocalist Steve Gaines joined, adding his talents to “Street Survivors.” The album went gold and eventually double platinum in 1987. Tragically, it would be the last album featuring the original members of Lynyrd Skynyrd.

The Lynyrd Skynyrd plane crash

Fresh off of its album release, tragedy struck. On Oct. 20, 1977, just three days after “Street Survivors” was released, Lynyrd Skynyrd was flying from South Carolina to Louisiana when their plane crashed, according to the group’s official website.

According to an article from the Eugene Register-Guard in 1977, the plane ran out of gas and dove nose-first into a thicket of trees. According to the article, the plane crash-landed only “200 yards away from an open field which the pilot apparently was trying to reach.”

Crash survivor and sound technician Kenneth Petden recalled the crash at the time, saying that “the right engine developed trouble and it began to sputter.”

“We began losing altitude and eventually the left engine started sputtering and we lost it,” Petden said. “Everybody knew at that point that he (the pilot) was going to try to make an emergency landing.”

Who died in the Lynyrd Skynyrd plane crash?

Band members Ronnie Van Zant and Steve Gaines, as well as the band’s back-up vocalist and Gaines’ sister Cassie Gaines and road manager Dean Kilpatrick perished. Both the pilot and co-pilot also died, according to Lynyrd Skynyrd’s official website.

Twenty people survived the crash, according to Fox News. Survivors include Gene Odom, band security manager and lifelong friend of Van Zant and the other Lynyrd Skynyrd founding members. Odom told Fox News, “It took from me a lifelong dear friend and fishing buddy.” 

Odom spoke of Steve Gaines, saying, “He was going to be a star, a rose that never got to bloom.”

Where did Lynyrd Skynyrd’s plane crash?

Lynyrd Skynyrd’s plane crashed on the Louisiana-Mississippi boarder, according to Fox News. Per Lynyrd Skynyrd’s official website, the plane crashed in a heavily-wooded are five miles from Gillsburg, Mississippi.

Lynyrd Skynyrd’s 1987 comeback

In 1987, the band reunited for what was only intended as a tribute tour, per its website. The group released “Southern by the Grace of God: Lynyrd Skynyrd Tribute Tour 1987” with Johnny Van Zant, Ronnie Van Zant’s youngest brother, on lead vocals and backed by the surviving original members of Lynyrd Skynyrd, including Rossington. The album also included Ed King and a new addition, guitarist Randall Hall.

While the tribute tour was meant as a one-off, it was so successful that Lynyrd Skynyrd was reformed. According to the group’s website, there were “legal battles with the widows of Van Zant and Gaines over the use of the name,” but eventually, Lynyrd Skynyrd released its first album of new music since 1977: “Lynyrd Skynyrd 1991.”

Lynyrd Skynyrd continued to release music throughout the years, with various members of the band coming and going. After years of new albums — including “Twenty” and “Edge of Forever” — and a few tours, Lynyrd Skynyrd was inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2006.

Lynyrd Skynyrd’s best songs

Out of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s entire discography, I’ve always been drawn to the group’s earlier stuff — most likely because that’s what we’d listen to when I was a kid. So you probably won’t be surprised to find that my favorite Lynyrd Skynyrd songs are entirely from the ’70s. Here are my top five favorite Lynyrd Skynyrd songs.

1. ‘Gimme Three Steps’

2. ‘Simple Man’

3. ‘That Smell’

4. ‘Free Bird’

5. ‘Sweet Home Alabama’

Lynyrd Skynyrd’s complex legacy

Lynyrd Skynyrd’s legacy is both hopeful and contradictory, progressive and, at times, regressive. The group was born out of “Sweet Home Alabama,” perplexing in that none of the members were from Alabama, but hopeful in its eagerness to rid the South of a reputation of pain and turmoil.

Of the band, Rolling Stone wrote, “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.”

But Lynyrd Skynyrd was contradictory in its view of the South — its use of the Confederate flag, for example, symbolizes for some the pain and suffering that “Sweet Home Alabama” was, in theory, eager to shed.

“Sweet Home Alabama” also alluded to George Wallace, an Alabama mayor and avid segregationist. Some interpreted that the lyric implied Lynyrd Skynyrd’s support of Wallace, while the band maintained that the inclusion of boos at the end of the lyric illustrates their distain for Wallace, per Country Living.

Lynyrd Skynyrd has displayed other contradictory politics — its views on guns, for example — that could be expected for a band that has undergone such turbulence and change over 40-plus years.

Perhaps Rolling Stone said it best: “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.”