JACKSONVILLE, THEY'RE COMING HOME TO YOU
Lynyrd Skynyrd’s roots run deep in Jacksonville and the Times-Union, Jacksonville.com and the old Jacksonville Journal were there for much of the band’s long history.
According to Skynyrd lore, the band formed in the mid-’60s when singer Ronnie Van Zant hit a line drive into the back of the head of drummer Bob Burns on a ballfield at Park Street and Lake Shore Drive. They recruited some friends, played countless shows at school dances and in dingy clubs and became international superstars.
A 1977 plane crash brought it all to a screeching halt – or so everyone thought. But a decade later, survivors of the crash recruited a few new members and put together a tribute tour. More than three decades later, they’re still on the road but Skynyrd’s end is in sight.
So put on a copy of “Street Survivors” or “Second Helping” and let’s explore the band’s history. Oh, and turn it up.
What might have been for Lynyrd Skynyrd?
[Editor's note: This story first appeared in The Florida Times-Union and Jacksonville.com on Oct. 19, 2017.]
Forty years ago, things were looking up for the Jacksonville boys in Lynyrd Skynyrd. They already were kings of the Southern rock scene, they’d added a new hotshot guitar player to the lineup and their new album, “Street Survivors,” had just been released.
Then came the plane crash. Forty years ago today, the band was flying from a show in Greenville, S.C., to the next stop on the tour, in Baton Rouge, La., when their chartered Convair CV-240 ran out of fuel and crashed in the Mississippi woods.
Singer Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines and backup singer Cassie Gaines, plus the band’s road manager and the two pilots died in the crash. Twenty others onboard were badly injured.
If the plane had not crashed, what might have become of Lynyrd Skynyrd? What if Van Zant and Gaines had not died and the band continued to build on the momentum that took it to the top of the rock heap? Would Skynyrd’s popularity have grown or would egos have driven them apart? Would they have changed their sound to fit in during the MTV ’80s? Would they have embraced country?
Lynyrd Skynyrd, of course, did survive that crash and has a huge following today. The group re-formed a decade later, with Van Zant’s brother, Johnny, taking over lead vocals. They’ve put out nine studio albums since the crash and continue to be a big draw on the road.
The band’s roots run deep in Jacksonville. It formed in the mid-’60s among students at Robert E. Lee High School and performed as My Backyard, the Noble Five and the One Percent before settling on a name that poked fun at Leonard Skinner, a strict teacher at Lee. The band’s first album was released in 1973.
The Lynyrd Skynyrd that’s on the road today still sounds a lot like the band that climbed on the plane that fateful night in 1977, but much has changed. Twenty musicians (not counting backup singers) have been in Skynyrd since the crash. Guitarist Gary Rossington is the only member left from the band’s heyday.
Guitarist Allen Collins, bass player Leon Wilkeson and pianist Billy Powell survived the crash but died years later. Drummer Artimus Pyle is still alive and playing, but estranged from the band.
Skynyrd’s albums don’t sell like they used to — the band’s first five albums all went gold or platinum; none of the subsequent studio releases have — but they can still sell tickets. The band played a sold-out show at the St. Augustine Amphitheatre just last week and has played more than 50 concerts this year. They’ve played more than 1,500 shows since re-forming in ’87.
The band is widely respected in the music world. Lynyrd Skynyrd was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2006. Bands as diverse as Uncle Kracker, Alabama and Cheap Trick have appeared on Skynyrd tribute albums, and jam band Phish and country rocker Eric Church both covered Skynyrd’s “The Ballad of Curtis Loew” during recent Jacksonville shows.
If you need further evidence of the band’s continuing popularity, just watch the crowd light up at a Jaguars game when they play “Sweet Home Alabama” over the stadium PA system.
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WHAT MIGHT HAVE HAPPENED
Had the plane crash never happened, Skynyrd might still be around and playing sold-out shows, but getting there wouldn’t have been pretty, said Gregory Reish, director of the Center for Popular Music at Middle Tennessee State University. Southern rock was on the wane by the late ’70s; and disco, electronic music, hair metal and MTV were just around the corner.
Two other bands with a similar sound — .38 Special and Molly Hatchet, both also from Jacksonville — managed to transition into the ’80s by changing their sound and bringing in outside writers.
“Maybe they would have adapted and transformed themselves into something that was closer to mainstream arena rock, which was becoming the rock flavor of the day,” Reish said. “But even if they had managed to turn that into a successful run, I think it would have been short-lived because that kind of rock didn’t last. I think there would have been some lean years in the late ’80s and into the ’90s, when they might have experienced a resurgence of popularity and achieved kind of an iconic status.”
Tommy Harrison, professor of music, business and technology at the University of Central Florida, said he can’t imagine Skynyrd changing its sound to fit the styles of the day.
“Skynyrd’s attitude was always ‘This is our style, we don’t compromise,’ ” said Harrison, who lives in Riverside and plays guitar in three bands, Raven Cain, Glutton and the Tommy Harrison Group. “I don’t see Skynyrd changing their style like those other bands did. Without that change of style, would Skynyrd have been successful in the ’80s? Probably not.”
Bill Bentley, author of “Smithsonian Rock and Roll: Live and Unseen,” which comes out next week, said he thinks the band’s talent would have taken it to new heights in the ’80s and ’90s.
“I think if Lynyrd Skynyrd had lasted, they would have become one of the foundations of American rock bands, much like Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers or Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band,” Bentley said. “I think Ronnie Van Zant had enough artistic strength to grow and they really would have been individuals, there wouldn’t have been another band like them.”
William Nesbitt, a pop music expert at Beacon College in Leesburg, said he suspects that Skynyrd without the plane crash would have ended up looking a lot like Skynyrd with the plane crash.
“They would have continued to enjoy a career, but it would have been much as it is now: tours for the faithful fans and modest record sales,” Nesbitt said. “They would have been bigger than they are now if they could have stayed together and maintained the same lineup.”
THE GUITAR HERO
Skynyrd already was evolving at the time of the plane crash, due largely to the influence of guitarist Steve Gaines, who was added to the band in 1976 and appears on the live “One More from the Road” and studio “Street Survivors” albums. Gaines brought a fresh guitar sound and songwriting perspective to Skynyrd. Gaines wrote or co-wrote half the songs on “Street Survivors.”
“I think with the addition of Steve Gaines — which, of course, happened shortly before the plane crash — I think he was really starting to change the sound of the band,” Reish said. “It’s pretty easy for me to imagine with a guitarist of Steve Gaines’ caliber — which was really top-shelf — his instrumental prowess might have become the driving force for the transformation of the band and he could have become a new ’80s arena rock guitar hero.”
Harrison points out that Gaines was a game-changer for Skynyrd, but he might not have been enough to carry the band through the lean ’80s. A year after Skynyrd’s crash, Van Halen released its first album and changed the whole rock scene. Long double- and triple-guitar solos were out.
“One thing I’ve always admired about Skynyrd is that they’re genuine,” Harrison said. “Skynyrd, I don’t think they could have changed.”
A good bit of contemporary country music sounds a lot like classic Skynyrd. So what are the chances Skynyrd would have become a country act?
“I don’t think they would have gone country, I just don’t think that’s what they were,” Bentley said. “Very few rock bands switch to country and last. I can’t think of anyone more different than Kenny Rogers and Ronnie Van Zant. I’m not slagging either; they’re very different kinds of artists.”
Harrison said they might have made it as a country act, but not right away. ” ’90s country would have embraced them, if they had gotten that far.”
Reish said the Americana scene would have been a more likely landing place for an act like Skynyrd. Americana acts like Drive By Truckers and Blackberry Smoke have more than a little Skynyrd to their sound.
“There’s a lot of ways one can imagine that audiences today, including younger audiences, would enjoy the music of Lynyrd Skynyrd live if they were still not a reconfigured band but something like the ’70s band that continued in an unbroken chain,” he said.
Regardless of the genre, said Bentley, Ronnie Van Zant’s songwriting would have served the band well.
“I think if Ronnie Van Zant had lived, Lynyrd Skynyrd would have thrived,” he said. “I think he was a real artist, man, he kind of hid behind a little bit of the redneck style, but he had poetry in him and I think he wasn’t afraid to express it. As he got more affirmation from his fans that they liked that side of him, I think he would have blossomed as a writer and lyricist. There really hasn’t been anyone like him since.”
12 Lynyrd Skynyrd songs you might not know (but probably should)
If you’ve ever even heard the name Lynyrd Skynyrd, you know at least a few of their songs — “Sweet Home Alabama,” “Free Bird,” “That Smell.” Casual fans will know a few others — “Gimme Three Steps,” “Call Me the Breeze,” “I Know a Little,” “Simple Man.”
Here are a dozen you might not know, but that are worth a listen (see video playlist at right):
1. “On the Hunt” from 1975’s “Nuthin’ Fancy”
Ronnie Van Zant and Allen Collins wrote this early rocker, with a riff similar to “Saturday Night Special” and some seriously sexist lyrics.
2. “Red, White and Blue” from 2003’s “Vicious Cycle”
“My hair’s turning white, my neck’s always been red, my collar’s still blue…” How Skynyrd can you get?
3. “T for Texas” from 1976’s “One More From the Road”
Steve Gaines had just joined the band when they headed to Atlanta to record a live album. He fits right in with the other guitarists on this smokin’ version of a country classic.
4. “Down South Jukin’ ” from 1978’s “Skynyrd’s First and … Last”
This one was recorded early but didn’t appear on an album until after the band’s 1977 plane crash (although it was added to later CD reissues of the band’s first album). There’s a sweet unplugged take on the song on “Endangered Species.”
5. “Four Walls of Raiford” from 1987’s “Legend” compilation
A harrowing tale of a Vietnam vet thrown in prison even though “only me and Jesus know that I never stole a dime.” The song, set to an acoustic slide blues guitar, was co-written by Ronnie Van Zant and .38 Special’s Jeff Carlisi.
6. “Santa Claus Wants Some Lovin’ ” from 2000’s “Christmas Time Again”
OK, so a Lynyrd Skynyrd Christmas album is sort of a goofy idea, but this song cooks pretty good and the lyrics are just suggestive enough that you can be sure you won’t hear it in church.
7. “Smokestack Lightning” from 1991’s “Lynyrd Skynyrd 1991”
Not to be confused with the Howlin’ Wolf classic of the same name, this gem from the re-formed band’s first studio album features some of Billy Powell’s finest post-crash piano work
8. “Don’t Ask Me No Questions” from 1974’s “Second Helping”
This one’s a message song (set to a rockin’ guitar riff) to the people who didn’t want anything to do with Skynyrd — until they became a big hit. And it’s got a great closing line: “well, if you want to talk fishin’, I guess that’ll be OK.
9. “All I Can Do is Write About It” from 1976’s “Gimme Back My Bullets”
One of the band’s country-est songs, with Ronnie Van Zant singing over a strumming acoustic guitar about the wonders of the Lord’s creations being paved over. “Lord, I can’t make any changes, all I can is write ‘em in a song.
10. “I Know a Little” from 1977’s “Street Survivors”
If you know someone who claims to hate Lynyrd Skynyrd, play ‘em this one. This is a hint of what Skynyrd may have become if guitarist Steve Gaines had lived longer. The song, written by Gaines, is built around some high-speed guitar picking that’s more jazz than rock and has some really clever lyrics.
11. “Swamp Music” from 1974’s “Second Helping”
This is Skynyrd in full swamp-boogie mode, with Ronnie singing about cane poles and hound dogs over snarling guitars. Hard to see how this one isn’t more popular.
12. “Preacher’s Daughter” from 1978’s “Skynyrd’s First and … Last”
This one was recorded before Lynyrd Skynyrd’s first album was released and sounds more like a Blackfoot song than something Skynyrd would do. There’s good reason for that — it was co-written by future Blackfoot frontman (and current Skynryd guitarist) Rickey Medlocke.
What's it like to cover Skynyrd? Former Times-Union music writer shares stories
I never thought this second incarnation of Lynyrd Skynryd would last this long.
Back in the day when my hair was long, curly and black, I was the music critic for the Florida Times-Union and its sister publication, the Jacksonville Journal. The surviving members of Lynyrd Skynyrd decided to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the airplane crash that killed frontman and singer Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines, backup vocalist Cassie Gaines and two flight crew members. The Lynyrd Skynyrd Tribute Band, as it was officially known, was to do a limited tour featuring surviving members, and it was my job to cover it.
Let’s fire up the “Wayback Machine” and see what I can remember.
The newspaper sent me to Northern California to cover the beginning of the tribute band’s fist tour. They were playing the Concord Pavilion outside San Francisco. To make this story meaningful, take yourselves back to 1987, when there were no cell phones, digital cameras, no Google maps and what served as a laptop computer was my trusty Radio Shack TRS-80.
The band rehearsed in the Oakland Armory but they stayed in what I recall as either a Marriott or Hilton in San Francisco. I was at the less plush Concord Days Inn. Logistics are big part of this story.
I met the band in Oakland with intentions of getting pre-show interviews before, during and after rehearsal. While the band rehearsed I talked extensively with the band’s patriarch, Lacy Van Zant. He was a short, stout man with a long white beard and mane. We talked extensively and he shared many stories with me. About every other one of them began with, “This is off the record.” He’d then proceed to share family gossip or regale me with hijinks from the boys' younger days.
When the rehearsal ended, I needed to speak with other band members. But they wanted to get back to San Francisco so I was asked to follow the van to the hotel. Lacy insisted I meet him there so I could assure him that none of the off-the-record material would be in the paper.
This was my first trip to California. I followed the van the best I could but I guess no one told the van driver that a reporter was following them to the hotel. In downtown San Francisco, the driver took a left turn on a yellow that quickly turned red before I could continue my pursuit. By the time I got the green, the van was long gone.
I found a phone booth and called each of the half dozen Hiltons or Marriotts (whichever one it was), pumping quarters in the pay phone asking if Lynyrd Skynyrd was staying there. It didn’t dawn on me that even if I got he right hotel, no desk clerk would reveal the band’s location. | Continue reading