The death of a Skynyrd member signals the end of the era for Southern Rock
NORFOLK, Va. (AP) — Lynyrd Skynyrd guitarist Gary Rossington, who died Sunday, made it big when rock ‘n’ roll was still a defining cultural force on par with today’s TikTok trends and superhero movies.
The last surviving co-founder of the legendary band may also have been the last flagpole in what was once a powerful part of American music: southern rock. Or at least a rebellious version of it that later became loosely associated with conservative politics and didn’t shy away from some problematic Southern symbols.
“They’re the band that codified a lot of what we call Southern rock,” said Stephen Thomas Erlewine, a music critic who writes for AllMusic, Pitchfork and Rolling Stone.
Lynyrd Skynyrd sang about life in the South while playing a form of muscular and somber blues rock. The music could be raw or morph into an extended guitar solo like on their anthem “Free Bird”.
But 2023’s Lynyrd Skynyrd bears little resemblance to that of nearly 50 years earlier, when the original incarnation featured a group of long-haired musicians who fit into the American counterculture and certainly weren’t embraced by Nixon-era Republicans, Erlewine said.
The band’s use of the Confederate flag was seen at the time as “part of their rebellious streak,” Erlewine said. They didn’t really view the battle flag as “seditious or pro-slavery, but more like a garden rebellion,” he said.
In recent decades, however, the band represented a more specific type of politics, particularly after the distinctions between southern rock and country had blurred and their audiences had become mixed.
Some of the band’s current members have been openly political. Last year, current lead singer Johnny Van Zant, along with his brother Donnie — apart from the band — wrote a song praising Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a potential Republican presidential nominee in 2024. Erlewine said the band’s sound — and that of Southern Rock in General — eventually became “a kind of old-fashioned Red State rock.”
The original members of Lynyrd Skynyrd, who released their first album in 1973, had intense musical chemistry and were heavier and braver than other groups lumped under the Southern rock banner, such as The Allman Brothers Band and The Marshall Tucker Band.
They had three guitarists whose layers created a thick, beefy sound that could become “a locomotive for solos,” Erlewine said.
But the “Southern rock” label is nebulous at best, said Alan Paul, a music journalist who interviewed Rossington several times for Guitar World and for his forthcoming book, Brothers and Sisters: The Allman Brothers Band and the Inside Story of the Album That Defined 70s.”
The most accurate way to describe the genre, which has far-reaching influences, “would be rock bands that sounded distinctly Southern—they didn’t hide their Southernness,” Paul said.
The Georgia-based Allman Brothers Band hated the term, Paul said, because it was too limiting. But Lynyrd Skynyrd embraced the Southern rock label “to the point where people are uncomfortable,” Paul said.
The Florida band’s ubiquitous “Sweet Home Alabama” was a response to Neil Young’s “Alabama” and “Southern Man,” which condemned slavery in the South, and later softened his views.
The band’s original lead singer and songwriter, Ronnie Van Zant, claimed the reference did not endorse Wallace.
“A lot of people believed in segregation and all that. We don’t. We put the ‘boo, boo, boo’ there and said, ‘We don’t like Wallace,'” Rossington agreed in a documentary interview.
But Paul said he doesn’t really believe that – “I don’t think most people do.” Paul cites a memoir by the band’s original manager, Alan Walden, who said Ronnie Van Zant was “a Wallace guy through and through.” Man”.
And yet, Erlewine also points out that Van Zant wrote a song called “Saturday Night Special” in 1975 that subtly questioned the use of handguns.
“There was definitely a reactionary conservatism in parts of Skynyrd, but they couldn’t be viewed strictly in terms of conservative politics,” Erlewine said of her first incarnation.
A plane crash in 1977 killed Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines and backing vocalist Cassie Gaines and injured Rossington. The band reformed a decade later with Johnny Van Zant taking over the role of his older brother. Rossington was among the returning members and would remain as the line-up continued to change.
It was this reconstituted version of Lynyrd Skynyrd that really seemed to have a more conservative image, Erlewine and Paul said.
In the 1990s the group’s audiences began to overlap with those of Hank Williams Jr. and Charlie Daniels, a pioneer of Southern rock whose sound became country.
“A lot of the sounds that were progressive and rock-based in the ’70s were incorporated into country music and became the sound of country music,” Erlewine said. “Lynyrd Skynyrd doesn’t actually play country music, but there’s an overlap between listeners…it all becomes kind of Southern music.”
He added: “Certain images, certain sounds, certain ideas were implemented. And it’s easier to keep playing along to that stuff because that’s where the audience is.”
Today, musicians who honor and build on the cultural and musical ideas of 1970s southern rock tend to be more politically progressive, Erlewine said. These include Jason Isbell and groups like the Tedeschi Trucks Band and the Drive-By Truckers, who have also sung about life in the South.
The 2001 Truckers album Southern Rock Opera explored misconceptions about the South, Lynyrd Skynyrd’s legend and Wallace’s legacy, among other things.
“I was a (Skynyrd) fan in grade school when they were actually making records,” Patterson Hood told The Associated Press of the band in 2002, saying he rediscovered a love for their music after buying a vinyl copy of the previous release had bought. Crash doubles live set “One More for the Road” years later.
“After the crash, I didn’t really care about the other Southern rock that was being made at the time,” Hood said. “Much Southern Rock took a right turn after the plane crash.”
In the space of half a century, Lynyrd Skynyrd transformed from a central rock ‘n’ roll player to a band almost self-admiring. They were rebellious longhairs who settled into a culture consistent with the conservative establishment. And Rossington was there for all of that, with his rhythmic and crunchy guitar keeping the band rooted.
“That kind of rocker is gone now,” Erlewine said of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s last surviving original member.
Paul added: “Lynyrd Skynyrd was one of the biggest bands of the mid to late 70’s. When rock ‘n’ roll really became the focus of the cultural conversation – in a way that arguably hasn’t been since and certainly isn’t now.”
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