Graded on a Curve: Lynyrd Skynyrd,
God & Guns

I’m a giant Lynyrd Skynyrd fan, but I’m not an idiot; I know damn well the greatest Southern Rock band of ‘em all played their last worthwhile gig at Greenville Memorial Auditorium just hours before their plane went down in that swamp near Gillsburg, Mississippi on October 20, 1977.

And the reason is evident to anybody with a functioning brainpan. Ronnie Van Zant wasn’t just the heart and soul of Lynyrd Skynyrd, he was The Talent, and his tragic death put paid to any notion that the band could again rise to greatness. You might as well try to recreate the Who without Pete Townshend.

But diminished or not rise from the ashes they did, and who am I to gainsay the legion of adoring fans who have faithfully followed Lynyrd Skynyrd Mark II down all the years? I never paid them much mind, although I did attend one of their shows as a writer for the Washington Post and went on to dismiss them as a meat and potatoes rock ’n’ roll band sans the meat.

For the most part we went our separate ways, Skynyrd and I–they minded their business and I minded mine. That is until I ran across a copy of their 2009 LP God and Guns and, intrigued by its take-that-pussyfooting-liberal title, decided to give it a spin. And not surprisingly, I was downright appalled. Or would have been, that is, if I didn’t have a healthy sense of humor.

This band of ringers and second stringers–by 2009, guitarist Gary Rossington and keyboardist Billy Powell were the only original members still around–goes out of its way to offend my tender sensibilities. And I have to hand it to ‘em, because they almost succeed; they love their god and they love their guns, and so far as I can tell their Jesus holds a Bible in one hand and a Smith & Wesson XVR 460 Magnum in the other. And he’s completely amenable to sending you to Heaven with it.

Johnny Van Zant calls ‘em like they seem ‘em, just like old Ronnie did. Except he come up short in the subtlety department, and subtlety was one of the things that made Lynyrd Skynyrd so great in the first place. Ronnie Van Zant played both to and against type; he was a truculent country boy for sure, but he was a very nuanced truculent country boy. He hated cities and rock critics and didn’t much like people saying nasty things about the southland, but he didn’t have any use for handguns or George Wallace for that matter. He spoke his unreconstituted mind, that’s his damn sure, but he had nothing in common with the America First or NRA crowds.

As for the music on God & Guns, it’s all over the place. You get some New Country, some hard rock that borders on metal, and a couple of songs the boys stole straight from the Ronnie Van Zant songbook. “Simple Life,” for example, is a simple-minded New Country take on “Simple Man”–younger brother Johnny looks back at a simpler and better time, but ain’t nothing stopping him from living the simple life in the here and now so far as I can tell.

He sounds less wistful than resentful on “Simple Life,” and the same resentment fuels the most-in-your-face songs on the LP. “Gods and Guns” has a likably lowdown and mean feel to it, but J. Van Zant strikes a recalcitrant and constitutionally ignorant note when he sings, “God and guns keep us strong/That’s what this country, Lord/Was founded on.” And he protests too much; I can kinda understand why feels the need to keep a peacemaker in his dresser drawer (I certainly don’t), but I’ll be damned if I understand why he sounds so happy about it.

As for “That Ain’t My America,” it cracks me up. It’s a rousing number, for sure, but you should know that in Johnny’s Ideal America you “slam old Uncle Sam” at your own peril, good citizens hold Holy Scripture in one hand and a hand cannon in the other, and kids are allowed to pray in school, not that anybody’s stopping them now. In short, Johnny bleeds red, white, and dumb, and he’s proud of the fact. Oh, and Johnny appears to think that in present-day America gasoline costs $100 a gallon, which makes me wonder where the hell he fills his tank.

“Southern Ways” is a cop straight from the Skynyrd songbook and ain’t half bad, that is until you consider that Johnny isn’t telling his story but Ronnie’s. Johnny never sweated it out at the Hell House, although he’d have you believe he did, and living on another man’s sweat is, to my way of thinking, no kind of living at all. That said, “Southern Ways” has its charms; Powell plays some pretty piano, the guitar players go at it real nice, and the echoes of “Sweet Home Alabama” bring back sweet memories of better times.

A quick rundown of some of the other ones. Keeper “Floyd” is all bayou moan and pretty damn tasty; the story of a backwoods bootlegger, it boasts a lot of mean guitar and some even meaner vocals by Van Zant and, believe it or not, Rob Zombie. This may not be Ronnie’s Skynyrd but I’ll take it. “Unwrite That Song,” on the other hand, is a commercial country tear-jerker about the death of Skynyrd bassist Leon Wilkinson; it doesn’t win me over, but it might just move you.

“Storm” is a serviceable Bad Company school hard-rocker; “Little Thing Called You” is updated hair metal with a country drawl. “Skynyrd Nation” is Molly Hatchet arena rock right down to its big shout out to the folks smoking that stuff out in the parking lot. Anthemic it is, and rock it does, but there’s no avoiding the fact that Skynyrd’s nation doesn’t want me as a citizen and vice versa. As for “Comin’ Back for More,” it’s generic hard rock and should make all you .38 Special fans happy.

The post-Ronnie Van Zant Lynyrd Skynyrd takes up a do-or-die position at the rightward side of America’s cultural divide and pretends it’s at the Alamo. Like a lot of white guys hereabouts, poor Johnny sounds like somebody’s out to take something from him. If you feel the same way you’ll be damn glad to know the Nu Skynyrd’s around to speak your mind for you. If you’re don’t, well, these southern men don’t want you around anyhow.

Which is fine by me. It’s a free country. But I’ll be damned if I’ll put up with anybody calling this bunch of second-string right wingers the true successors of Ronnie Van Zant and the real fucking Lynyrd Skynyrd.

Ronnie had a cussed streak, and he might well have hardened into the kind of right-wing reactionary that his brother is, but I doubt it. Because unlike his younger brother he didn’t see things in black and white, much less red, white, blue.

He was a deceptively world wise fellow, had mad songwriting gifts, and he sang real good. You can’t say any of the above about the new Lynyrd Skynyrd. Carrying on the Skynyrd tradition, my ass. They’re sullying it, and cashing in while they’re doing it. In short, their America ain’t my America, and they ain’t my Lynyrd Skynyrd either.

Turn it up? Turn it down.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
D+

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