Graded on a Curve: Lynyrd Skynyrd,
Nuthin’ Fancy

It is my unreconstituted thunk that Lynyrd Skynyrd is America’s second greatest rock’n’roll band, right behind the Velvet Underground. Hyperbole? Mebbe. But during the four short years before fate shot their airship down, the Southern rockers produced a veritable shitload of immortal (and yes smart) tunes that I, for one, have been listening to with pleasure for decades.

1975’s appropriately titled Nuthin’ Fancy isn’t the best Skynyrd LP out there. It may even be the worst of the five albums the original Lynyrd Skynyrd—which is the only Lynyrd Skynyrd that matters—recorded between 1973 and 1977. It lacks the sublime touches that make Skynyrd’s first and second albums rock landmarks, and the assortment of to-die-for songs (“That Smell,” “One More Time,” “All I Can Do Is Write About It”) scattered throughout the two LPs that came after it. The way I see it, Nuthin’ Fancy only boasts two songs—I’m talking about “Saturday Night Special” and “Am I Losin’”—that are truly indispensible.

The biggest problem lies in the songs, natch, and the problem with the songs is that they were written in a rush, in the studio between tours. I’ll stand Ronnie Van Zant up against any American songwriter (exceptin’ B. Dylan) ever, but when it came to Nuthin’ Fancy he simply didn’t have the same amount of time he’d had to write such immortal tunes as “Sweet Home Alabama,” “Tuesday’s Gone,” or “Simple Man” from 1973’s (Pronounced ‘Lĕh-‘nérd ‘Skin-‘nérd) and 1974’s Second Helping. (Indeed, he’d never again have the time to sit down and do some leisurely songwriting during his lifetime, which is why Lynyrd Skynyrd was never able to top the transcendental brilliance of its first two LPs.)

Another problem is that Van Zant, whose idea of a great band was Bad Company, opted for the ‘eavy touch rather than the light one on such songs as “I’m a Country Boy” (anti-NYC rant), “On the Hunt” (misogynistic rant in which Ronnie at least has the decency to concede he’s a slut too), “Cheatin’ Woman” (typical anti-woman rant distinguished only by cool organ and Van Zant’s wonderfully lazy but knowing vocals), and “Whiskey Rock-A-Roller” (self-explanatory). He may have believed that driving it right down the audience’s throat constituted the basis of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s success, but he was wrong.

Sure, Lynyrd Skynyrd could produce very good hard rock—both “On the Hunt” and “I’m a Country Boy” boast riffs every bit as barbarous and stripped to the bone as anything by his English heroes in Bad Company—but in this reviewer’s humble opinion the band was at its best when it boogied. And while Nuthin’ Fancy has its charms, the fact that four of its eight songs are gravel simple hard rockers is not one of them.

Of the remaining songs, “Saturday Night Special” is the only one has that characteristic Lynyrd Skynyrd sound. Van Zant’s condemnation of dirt-cheap man-killers was written before the ordeal in the studio and it tells—it’s heavy but slinky at the same time, and Van Zant is at his storytelling best. The song is both funky and full of menace, and new drummer Artimus Pyle does things on the kit—just listen to them cymbals!—that are positively hair-raising. Meanwhile, “Am I Losin’” is a bona fide sweetheart; the melody is country pretty in a Dickey Betts kinda way, and this is Ronnie Van Zant like you’ve never heard him—tender, vulnerable, and a bit confused by the end of a long friendship. And the six-string solo—presumably by the soon to split Ed King of Yankee Blue New Fucking Jersey for Christ’s sake—is exquisite, and as sweet an example of Dixie-fried guitar slinging as you ever will hear.

“Railroad Song” is a harmonica-fueled, chug-a-lugging salute to Jimmie Rodgers, and Van Zant’s vocals are sly, insinuating, wonderful. If you don’t believe a fella can sing the words “choo-choo train” without making a fool of himself, here’s your proof. And Pyle—who started drumming at the age of eight atop a bulldozer, mimicking its primal noise—sure knows how to produce steam. As for “Made in the Shade,” it’s a jaunty jug band lark, and the kind of mandolin and dobro-tinged sound you might hear emanating from a down south juke joint before things get really ripe and raunchy. The bass is a thing of beauty—ditto that honky-tonk piano.

Don’t get me wrong; if it’s heavy you want, Nuthin’ Fancy will most definitely strike your fancy. And there’s no denying that hard rock was always an essential weapon in the Lynyrd Skynyrd armamentarium. But me, I’d sooner boogie than bump and grind every time. Lynyrd Skynyrd may have gone down in history as a three-guitar army but when I think of them, it’s Billy Powell’s fancy piano runs that come to mind. Like Guns ‘N’ Roses, Lynyrd Skynyrd was a hard rock band that won you over not with its bluster, but with the way it could make your heart dance. At their best—such as on the sublime “Tuesday’s Gone”—Lynyrd Skynyrd soared rather than roared, and that’s what distinguishes ‘em from the nasty and brutish likes of Bad Company. They didn’t jam it down your throat—they made you fall head over heels in love with it. And that’s a gift granted to very few bands indeed.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B

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