The Intrigue of ‘Sweet Home Alabama’
Neil Young could certainly appreciate the bounty that hit singles and albums provide. After all, there’s the ranch in California, not too far south of San Francisco. When asked by the ranch’s caretaker (the inspiration for Young’s song, “Old Man”) how a young guy like him could afford such a vast piece of land, Young replied, “Just lucky, Louie, just lucky.” It was more than luck.
Young, in the course of seven years, played a major role in the highly regarded rock band Buffalo Springfield and recorded four critically and commercially successful solo albums. He also joined with Crosby, Stills and Nash, forming a band that many thought of as the American version of The Beatles. It all happened quickly and could just as quickly turn the head of any person. Or, as in Neil Young’s case, it could leave one disconcerted. Maybe he was not comfortable that high schoolers of America were buying his “Heart of Gold” along with “Precious and Few” by Climax or Sonny and Cher’s “All I Ever Need Is You.” So Neil Young decided to go in a different direction. The change in course was considered artistic suicide by more than a few.
According to plan, Young veered from the middle of the road to the ditch. He found more interesting people there. But he did not find as many people interested in his songs as before. In a little more than two years he released three albums. The “Ditch Trilogy,” as the albums are known, includes Time Fades Away, On The Beach, and Tonight’s The Night. All three of the albums have terrific and probing songs, but the high schoolers were not ready for this. They might have preferred some lighter entertainment, choosing to see The Exorcist at the cinema instead. Young sang of ambulances, terror, violent envy and drug overdoses. He had witnessed squalid scenes and lived to sing about them. At the same time, a new rock band was singing about him.
The group that called out Young was from Jacksonville, Florida. They were known as Lynyrd Skynyrd, named in honor of a not-so-beloved high school teacher. Their first album, Pronounced Leh-nerd Skin-nerd, released in the summer of 1973, featured lively and relentless rockers such as “Gimme Three Steps” and “Free Bird.” The group’s songs could be free wheeling and then anthemic. The band certainly had presence.Three lead guitar players, a terrific keyboardist, solid pros on the drums and bass with a dynamic lead singer and primary songwriter in Ronnie Van Zant. It was little wonder that Lynyrd Skynyrd quickly gained a national audience. Critics and fans alike came to realize that The Allman Brothers Band was not the only Southern rock band deserving close attention.
In the spring of ’74, Second Helping, a worthy follow-up album, was released. The album opened with a song that commanded really close attention. It featured catchy guitar notes, an infectious chorus and a mighty spirit. Lynyrd Skynyrd had not only given the world a sprightly song, they were speaking up for the world they knew. That song, “Sweet Home Alabama” would naturally engage the people back home and appeal even to McGovernites. How can one deny such a snappy tune? Yet some people swaying and bopping to the song wondered about its words. Some thirty-six years later, debate over those words continues.
Lyrically the song begins pleasantly enough as Van Zant relates of wanting to be back in Alabama. It’s the second verse that started a lively controversy. Van Zant sings, “I heard Mr. Young sing about her. I heard ole Neil put her down. Well, I hope Neil Young will remember, a Southern man don’t need him around, anyhow.” Agree with the sentiment or not, it was intriguing that the emerging band would poke at the widely popular Neil Young, even though Young had sung of shameful racial discrimination in Lynyrd Skynyrd’s part of the country. A lot of Southerners, even those sympathetic to Young’s point of view, might have been put off by the words of his “Southern Man,” and Alabama.” Many Southern rock fans felt Lynyrd Skynyrd was speaking for them. They believed there were a lot of good-hearted and open-minded people in the Deep South. It was important they not be overlooked.
Neil Young does not come up again in the song. The next verse includes a perceived slight directed at Alabama Governor George Wallace, a complacent remark about Watergate and a vague appeal to conscience. It’s random stuff, but compelling. The song’s final verse offers a tribute to the Swampers of Muscle Shoals, the legendary group of musicians who had “been known to pick a song or two,” curing the blues of all those who heard them play. Van Zant once told a reporter that except for the part about the Swampers, “who taught us how to play music,” the song had been written as a joke.
But studious listeners continue to pick the song apart. As the song closes with rounds of the chorus, Van Zant sings that Alabama is “where the Governor’s true.” And during the sizzling instrumental fade, he belts out, “Montgomery’s got the answer.” What did he mean by that? Montgomery, the state capitol, where Governor Wallace worked? Or perhaps Montgomery, as in the bus boycott. Later, performing the song in concert, Van Zant sang, “Mr. Carter’s got the answer.” Lynyrd Skynyrd had performed a benefit concert for Jimmy Carter in his successful 1976 bid for president of the United States. Also bidding for the presidency that year, quite unsuccessfully, was the same George Wallace. That was his fourth consecutive and final Presidential campaign. Carter’s win in the Democratic primary of Florida, Lynyrd Skynyrd’s home state, signaled the end of Wallace’s national political aspirations. Jimmy Carter, a new breed of Southern politician, proved to be popular with traditional Southern Democrats as well as with Southern rock and rollers.
More than eight months into the Carter Presidency, Lynyrd Skynyrd was faring much better than Mr. Carter. The Bert Lance controversy and a host of problems due to an unwillingness or inability to deal with the Washington establishment made it tough sledding for the new administration. But Lynyrd Skynyrd was rocking with even more bravado.
The band’s upcoming album, Street Survivors, due October 13, 1977, showed its continuing progress. A hot new guitarist, Steve Gaines, replaced Ed King, providing a new spark for the group. He had a hand in writing two of the songs on “Street Survivors.” The band was reaching another peak. At least a couple of hit singles were on the horizon.
Then a week later there was the plane crash. It ripped the heart out of all those who heard about it. Here was a group of very talented young people, making great music and achieving fame on their terms. But all that was lost with the death of Cassie Gaines, one of the back-up vocalists, Steve Gaines and Ronnie Van Zant. Members of the plane’s crew were killed as well as Lynyrd Skynyrd’s assistant road manager. Other band members suffered serious injuries.
Surviving members eventually formed new bands but things could never be the same without Ronnie Van Zant. He commanded center stage when he sang but happily moved into the background so his band-mates could share the spotlight. Van Zant knew how his band could shine and how he could shine with them. He provided the inspiration for his bandmates and the thousands who packed each of their concerts. Until the very end they continued to play for the people, all the while gaining critical and peer admiration.
There naturally existed a mutual sense of admiration between Lynyrd Skynyrd and Neil Young. Being called out on “Sweet Home Alabama” did not bother Young at all. Van Zant learned that Young thought the lines about him were “clever and cute.” Van Zant stated that Neil Young was one of the band’s favorite people. He was seen many times wearing a Neil Young T-shirt. Young’s bassist, Billy Talbot, wore a Lynyrd Skynyrd T-shirt. Young told Al Kooper, Lynyrd Skynyrd’s legendary producer (more on Kooper in a future entry), that he loved “Sweet Home Alabama.” There had been talk about Young joining Lynyrd Skynyrd on stage to sing the song. Gary Rossington, one of the band’s guitarists, claimed it actually happened. Others say Rossington’s hazy memory got in the way of facts. But if such a performance had occurred, it would have reflected the spirit Neil Young voiced when he sang “make friends down in Alabama.”
Note: This story is another in the continuing series, Southern Song of the Day.