Graded on a Curve: Lynyrd Skynyrd,
Lynyrd Skynyrd

Remembering Gary Rossington.Ed.

During the 1970s Lynyrd Skynyrd was the premier name Southern Rock, and for scores of folks their first six records constitute something akin to the apex of that oft-derided genre. Universal offers exact reproductions of their ’73-’77 output, specifically five studio LPs and one live double, on 180gm vinyl tucked into a rigid, eponymous slipcase box.

Though I’m too young to remember pre-plane crash Lynyrd Skynyrd, I do recall a time before their status seemed to break down to extremes, with religious fervor on one side and a source of humor/target of mockery on the other. This is not to insinuate the outfit didn’t reliably stir intense devotion throughout their existence; indeed, youthful memories designate the band as one of the few for which uttering an unkind word in public could result in hostilities not excluding violence.

I’d never disparage Skynyrd as rednecks (the ‘70s incarnation, anyway), because I don’t think that’s accurate. But amongst their fans undeniably dwelt an intolerant percentage. Furthermore, prior to descending into unimaginative rock-club attention-seeking the entreaty to “Play Free Bird” essentially reflected the phenomenon of weekend booze-hounds harassing bar acts into committing a rather ornate tune to their book.

So please forgive me for thinking Skynyrd needs no introduction. And to this writer they became increasingly burdensome upon growing more omnipresent, just one more reason to tunnel deeper into the ‘80s underground. Later, upon making the acquaintance of such killers of obscure ‘70s southern rock (if not exactly Southern Rock) as the Hampton Grease Band’s Music to Eat and James Luther Dickinson’s Dixie Fried, I really couldn’t have cared less.

I’ll admit to Southern Rock being nowhere close to a favorite, my highpoints in the style running toward the erudition of the Allman Brothers and the non-purist power-boot of ZZ Top, though some dispute the latter’s inclusion in the form. But this is my review, thanks, and those blues-rocking Texans do inspire an observation; while Southern Rock consisted of many things, it frequently wasn’t terribly heavy, and as the hits display, Lynyrd Skynyrd regularly sidestepped weightiness in favor of finesse as they retained rock trappings such as distortion.

Supporting the populism is the amount of participants, the heaviest of rock units usually (naturally not always) featuring three or four players. Of course, massiveness isn’t everything, and I was curious after roughly three decades without hearing a Skynyrd LP in its entirety what my impressions would be. First up; ‘73’s Pronounced ‘Lĕh-‘nérd ‘Skin-‘nérd, “I Ain’t the One” delivering a riffy mid-tempo opener leading with little ado into what’s always been my personal zenith from the band.

“Tuesday’s Gone” succeeds through the emotional yet unstrained vocalizing of Ronnie Van Zant, the attractive guitar of Gary Rossington and Allen Collins, and as the song pads itself out, swells of canned strings courtesy of producer Al Kooper (who considered these cats ‘70s-rock saviors), his input (under the pseudonym Roosevelt Gook) providing a clear pointer to the group’s eagerness to enter into dialogue with pop schemes.

Therefore its airwave perseverance is no shock, and the same can be said for the self-deprecating yarn-spinning of “Gimme Three Steps,” a track that’s strong suit, a la numerous Skynyrd numbers, is the guitar. Also remaining wildly popular are the salt-of-the-earth overtures of “Simple Man.” To these ears its narrative is less rewarding and the crescendos linger as overwrought; however, the string-ripping continues to connect.

“Things Goin’ On” is highlighted by faux-barrelhouse piano that thankfully avoids showboating, the bluesy “Mississippi Kid” is a tad reminiscent of Little Feat circa-‘71, and “Poison Whiskey” returns to mid-tempo grooving, though it’d been even better if they’d turned up the rhythmic heat and pursued its guitar-funk angle with greater tenacity.

But I should make a point to review what is, not what might’ve been, and that brings us to the inescapable reality of Pronounced ‘Lĕh-‘nérd ‘Skin-‘nérd’s most famous tune. I persist in rating the slow-dance portion of “Free Bird,” particularly its initial two minutes (the buildup), much higher than the second half’s gradually overbearing string-lick mania (the letdown); over the years its domineering ubiquity has done it no favors, at least in this house.

Speaking of which, “Sweet Home Alabama,” a song performed by a pack of Floridians and a former member of Strawberry Alarm Clock (bassist/guitarist Ed King) that sees an immediate rise in pop savvy and topical jus’ folks-ism in general, begins Second Helping, allowing for a tidy, radio-friendly beat, piano accents, strategically employed backup singers and the overall avoidance of dissonance, though the wiry solo does trigger a surface grittiness connected to its predecessor.

A Top Ten single? You betcha! “I Need You” follows with a blues-rock reassertion of the debut’s mid-tempo excursions; at nearly seven minutes, it could’ve used an edit. And “Don’t Ask Me No Questions” sports a dab of Lowell George-ish slide as the horns assist in establishing a broader interpretation of the Southern Rock template; the most enjoyable nuance is the spoken-voice overdub of the chorus.

One record complete and Skynyrd was already dissatisfied with their label; one of the LP’s harder rockers, “Workin’ for MCA” is most effective in the instrumental sections. “The Ballad of Curtis Loew” is well-meaning pop-Americana; it’s got a white boy listing to a black man play the blues, on a dobro no less, and it gets side two off to a fairly slow if pictorial start. The brisk roots-homage of “Swamp Music” puts them on track and segues into “The Needle and the Spoon.”

Given Ronnie’s love of topicality and the era’s proliferation of songs concerning drug (ab)use, “The Needle and the Spoon” was inevitable; here it kinda impacts as a moderate success, most noticeably when stacked next to the disc’s best and closing number, a cover of J. J. Cale’s “Call Me the Breeze.” Somewhat comparable to the elevated boogie-science of Asleep at the Wheel, alongside “Tuesday’s Gone” it’s the only Skynyrd radio staple I’ve never felt conflicted about.

And relating in part to the common sense in its social commentary on handguns, I’ve had a largely positive rapport with “Saturday Night Special.” It opens Nuthin’ Fancy with increased oomph, enough so that the ‘70s synth currents are easy to miss. While bluesy, “Cheatin’ Woman” carries a decidedly urbane flavor principally through electric keyboard; the Southernmost element is Ronnie’s drawl. By contrast, the roots-oid harmonica and “Choo-choo” backing vocals of “Railroad Song” border on the goofily (but not disagreeably) down-home.

The title of “I’m a Country Boy” might lead one to assume it’s a rehash of “Simple Man,” but in kicking up sweeter dust it’s actually something of an environmental missive. Ronnie’s anti cities, pollution, cars, and even concrete; what an eco-hippy! “On the Hunt” is mainly a platform for soloing and bouts of soulful singing; it slows the pace to begin side two.

Better is the relaxed, almost Californian strum-fest “Am I Losin’,” and “Made in the Shade” finds them again exploring an Americana template through mandolin and a keyboard line courtesy of ace-in-the-hole instrumentalist Billy Powell that’s sorta situated like a New Orleans tuba on sabbatical. From there, the workmanlike “Whiskey Rock-A-Roller” assists Nuthin’ Fancy in coasting to its finale.

Trimmed to a sextet after the departure of King, Gimme Back My Bullets falters somewhat due to inconsistent material, and yet thanks partially to the presence of the great Tom Dowd in the producer’s chair, it’s by and large a cohesive record. The slightly ZZ Top-ish title-track gets things cooking and leads into “Every Mother’s Son,” a multilayered anthemic bit of pleasantness. I’m stumped that it wasn’t released as single.

“Trust” is lively groove-rock and a showcase for the best of their drummers Artimus Pyle (Bob Burns exited prior to Nuthin’ Fancy), and it flows very easily into the funky keyboard and bountiful slide-work of “(I Got The) Same Old Blues,” a second J. J. Cale composition assisting in a non-fatal disparity of quality on Gimme Back My Bullets’ sides. To elaborate, the backing vocals (by the uh, Honkettes) on the flip’s “Double Trouble” are a miscalculation, but they also register as an endearing one, and as Skynyrd utilized the tactic on every long-player since Second Helping it’s a familiar trait.

The backups are frankly better executed farther into the side via the dynamic “Cry for the Bad Man.” Between those selections is found “Roll Gypsy Roll,” which grows in value as it progresses and brandishes some welcome organ additives from Powell, and the intertwined riffs and leads that comprise “Searching.” Sensitive closer “All I Can Do is Write About It” is basically a prototype for contempo Country playlists decades later.

Like nearly all concert records, the unavoidable emergence of the double set One More For From the Road effectively serves as a substitute for shut-ins and a generous fix to sate rabid fans. It simultaneously functions in proving the band had a firm handle, obviously grasped through the trial and error of touring’s rigmarole, on the deep cuts to sequence around the ringers in their live show.

They also toss in a pair of covers; Jimmie Rodgers’ “T for Texas” is primarily an extended solo springboard, and a version of Robert Johnson’s “Crossroads,” that while openly replicating Cream’s model, is still startlingly raucous. Those thinking four sides was/is overkill should understand the 2CD deluxe edition expanded the contents. To Skynyrd’s credit, LP two is the strongest; anyone care to guess how it ends?

Street Survivors was the final album before tragedy struck, the plane crashing just three days after its release. It commences with one of the less egregious tales of rock ‘n’ roll road life in “What’s Your Name?” Leave it to these guys to maintain a measure of politeness in the depiction of rock stardom. Following it is “That Smell,” yet another treatise on excessive substance intake, this one an unambiguous warning; along with being a standout moment for The Honkettes it works due to its genuineness.

The almost folk-rock “One More Time” is a very nice surprise, and next is the county swing-flavored guitar boogie of “I Know a Little,” the cut written by and showcasing virtuoso addition Steve Gaines (the roster now back to seven). He and Van Zant swap vocals to start side two, “You Got That Right” continuing to develop the band’s lyrical themes and stylistic approach without succumbing to rote formula.

New wrinkles are common, “I Never Dreamed” flaunting a sterling opening instrumental section that keeps rolling quite nicely once Van Zant speaks up, and Merle Haggard’s “Honky Tonk Night Time Man” supplies a revolving spotlight for the group’s evolving skills. Closing Gaines-penned track “Ain’t No Good Life” stands as possibly their finest blues-based non-cover.

Possessing three FM staples, the remainder of Street Survivors is scaled-back and confident, and upon time spent it bookends exceptionally well with their debut. Gaines’ adeptness dependably falls within the bounds of classique flash, and it’s interesting to speculate on what would’ve transpired had that plane not run out of fuel.

As for myself, I can still say with conviction that Lynyrd Skynyrd will never reside close to my heart, but spinning the ‘70’s stuff has, at the very least, brought me to a greater appreciation of why they continue to matter so intensely to so many.

Pronounced ‘Lĕh-‘nérd ‘Skin-‘nérd
Second Helping
Nuthin’ Fancy
Gimme Back My Bullets
One More For From the Road
Street Survivors


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