30. Lynyrd Skynyrd - Sweet Home Alabama

Growing up in the suburbs of Los Angeles, I couldn't have been less exposed to the culture of the American South.  I didn't grow up listening to Southern rock, having songs like "Sweet Home Alabama" ingrained into my brain.  My first real exposure to 70's Southern rock wasn't until my late teens, and I wasn't all that impressed.  Bands like Skynyrd, The Allman Brothers Band, Creedence Clearwater Revisited and even pre-80's ZZ Top didn't hold any interest to me.  I didn't slam them and sneer derisively as I called them rednecks, it just wasn't my kind of music.  I was all for anthems rooted in your heritage, but for me, it was Randy Newman's "I Love L.A.", not "Born on the Bayou."

But as I got older, my musical curiosity got the better of me.  In my twenties, I started listening to music that I had earlier dismissed as "not my thing" and giving things another shot to see if my opinion of them had changed.  In many cases, with my mind much more open, songs and artists that I had previously dismissed began to grow on me, none more than "Sweet Home Alabama" by Lynyrd Skynyrd.  It's probably the definitive Southern rock anthem, and as I listened to it over the years, it slowly but surely climbed up the ladder of songs that I really love.  If you'd told me in 1989 that I'd put "Sweet Home Alabama" as #30 on my list of the 100 greatest songs of my life, I'd have chuckled and shook my head said, "Yeah, right." 

Yet here it is.  And I'm not backing down.  I love the casual nature of the beginning of the song.  Leaving guitarist Ed King's count-in there.  Singer Ronnie Van Sant's "Turn it up" as the song builds in layers.  The funny thing is that Van Sant wasn't trying to pump everyone up, he was just asking the engineers to turn up the volume in his headphones so he could hear the instruments.  And, of course, you have that iconic guitar intro that King came up with.  The guitar line actually came to King in a dream, note for note, and luckily for us all, he was able to remember that one dream and he played the intro to the band the next morning and they loved it.  So they married that fantastic guitar line with their tribute to their Southern roots.

"Sweet Home Alabama" takes the "write what you know" dogma given to writers to heart.  They know (and love) Alabama, and are going to tell us why.  They take pride in their Southern Heritage while acknowledging its faults.  It's a tough line to toe, and they do it gracefully. 

Big wheels keep on turning
Carry me home to see my kin
Singing songs about the Southland
I miss Alabamy once again

Lynyrd Skynyrd makes it clear that their hearts are in the South, even when they're on the road away from home.  So as they return from a long absence, their yearning for home is undertandable.  The Alabama that they're returning to had its share of issues, and those issues were highlighted in Neil Young's scathing indictment of the South, "Southern Man."  Neil had this to say about Skynyrd's South:

Tall white mansions and little shacks.
Southern man when will you pay them back?
I heard screamin' and bullwhips cracking
How long? How long?

Then Neil addressed the reticence for the South to change their ways, referencing the Klu Klux Klan as he does so:

Southern change gonna come at last
Now your crosses are burning fast

The guys in Skynyrd did not take that criticism lightly.  They felt he only focused on the negative aspects of the South, ignoring the positive changes that the South had made.  So they replied in a very hip-hop fashion (without the cursing and, of course, fifteen years earlier):

Well I heard mister Young sing about her
Well, I heard ole Neil put her down
Well, I hope Neil Young will remember
A Southern man don't need him around anyhow 

Lynyrd Skynyrd even addressed the areas where the South had fallen short, referencing Alabama governor (and legendary segregationist) George Wallace:

In Birmingham they love the governor (Boo, Boo, Boo)
Now we all did what we could do 

Part of the problem was that the "boo"s after the governor weren't prominent enough and got lost in the shuffle, so people thought that Skynyrd was actually supporting Wallace when they were actually criticizing him.  It's something Ronnie Van Sant had addressed in interviews after the controversy boiled over, but it's easy to forget about that years later. 

Beyond the lyrics filled with pride, the music in "Sweet Home Alabama" is fantastic.   Of course there's the great guitar parts throughout the song, but that's not all.  There's some great sprinkling of piano from Billy Powell throughout the song, doing his own thing while also following the guitar line at times to give some extra body to a song that's already pretty full of body, but in that really good way.  Lots of body like Halle Berry, not like Kirstie Alley.

And once again, the rhythm section has to play it cool and lay the strong foundation on which the rest of the song can be built.  Drummer Bob Burns and bassist Leon Wilkeson keep a simple, yet strong rhythm, letting all those guitars steal the show.  Most bands have just one guitarist.  Sometimes, especially if you're a metal or jamming band, there will be a second.  But for Skynyrd, they had three guitarists in the band, so they were able to give their songs a richness in guitar that had rarely been heard - and they could replicate it live.  Other bands had complex guitar arrangements with multiple guitar tracks, but when they performed the songs live, they had to pare things down.  That's why Lynyrd Skynyrd was such a popular touring band.  They could do things live that few other bands could accomplish.  That, combined with the charisma of lead singer Ronnie Van Sant made their concerts a joy to watch.

"Sweet Home Alabama" ended up being a song that is so prevalent in the South that you can't attend a wedding without hearing it at least once, or drive down the street without another car blasting it with the windows down.  It's also become the unofficial state anthem of Alabama.  So a guy born and bred in Southern California can end up loving a song that was never really meant for him, and that's the true sign of greatness.  I'm sure that Skynyrd doesn't mind that a song I can't relate to is still one of my favorites.  I'd bet that they're pretty happy that a song that they did out of their love of community has reached across the nation and touched millions of "Southerners" who grew up anywhere but the South.  It's not just an anthem about Southern pride, it's an anthem of being proud of where you came from, and who can't relate to that?

(Fun Fact #624:  For three guys who wrote one of the definitive anthems of the American South, NONE of them were actually born in Alabama.  Ronnie Van Sant and Gary Rossington were born in Jacksonville, Florida, while Ed King was born in Glendale, California)
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