A Facebook posting made the rounds on social media recently, involving some kids who came across a Lynyrd Skynyrd cassette tape in a Georgia creek bed. Confused, they asked if it was “from the Civil War.” Indeed, the kids had discovered a relic from a bygone era: The cassette format is long outdated, as is the music. Lynyrd Skynyrd is the standard-bearer of Southern rock, a subgenre disappearing faster on the American landscape than Confederate statues.
As for the American Civil War, it’s still going strong.
Carrying only one of its original members, the group played Budweiser Stage in Toronto on Saturday, the same weekend white nationalists rallied near the White House on Sunday, one year after clashes in Charlottesville, Va., left one person dead and elevated racial tensions in America. At the anniversary gathering in Washington, two dozen nationalists were significantly outnumbered by a mass of counterprotesters.
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At the Toronto concert, which is part of an extended farewell tour, Skynyrd singer Johnny Van Zant (the much younger brother of Ronnie Van Zant, the singer who was killed along with two other band members in a plane crash in 1977) asked if there were any Americans in the audience. People booed at that instance, but otherwise lustily applauded a retiring group “singing songs about the South land.” They cheered the loudest for the show-closing Free Bird, a euphoric anthem, a defiant declaration of the band’s rebel spirit – “Lord help me, I can’t change” – and, ultimately, a farewell.
There’s a certain romance to the band’s rebellious spirit. Nostalgia is a part of it as well. But, mostly, the material was the main appeal of the night. It stands up, even if some of its most important creators no longer do. Sweet Home Alabama still has the ability to “pick me up when I’m feeling blue,” all these years later.
The tour coincides with the release of If I Leave Here Tomorrow, Stephen Kijak’s superb new documentary about the band which premieres in Canada on CraveTV and The Movie Network on Aug. 18. Featuring fresh interviews with sole remaining original member Gary Rossington and archival ones with Ronnie Van Zant, the film searches the band’s soul, from its hellish, mosquito-infested rehearsal space where they began to the airplane disaster that spelled the end to the group’s glory days.
In the 1970s, the band used the Confederate flag almost as an insignia, part of its brand. In the documentary, it’s explained that the connection to the flag was a “gimmick” perpetrated by record label MCA Records in order to “hype” the group’s Southern heritage. (Skynyrd, by the way, was not native to sweet home Alabama, but to Jacksonville, Fla., where many of the original members attended Robert E. Lee High School. )
On its farewell tour, Skynyrd sings Red, White & Blue and flies an American flag (and, in Toronto, showed a Canadian one). The song, from 2003, is a patriot’s ballad and a Skynyrd simple-man manifesto:
My hair’s turning white, my neck’s always been red, my collar’s still blue/ We’ve always been here, just trying to sing the truth to you.
Stylistically the song is as much New Country as it is Muscle Shoals and swamp rock. Also on the bill was ZZ Top, 38 Special (co-formed by another Van Zant brother, the now retired Donnie) and Blackfoot. All told, the event was a celebration of Southern rock bands, a breed which thrived in the age of cassette tapes but is now dying out. On stage, Skynyrd rocked with a distinctive swampy, feel-good rhythm that countrified modern counterparts such as the Zac Brown Band and others do not try to imitate. This new Nashvillian breed barely boogies, and “woogie” is not a word to them at all.
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During Skynyrd concerts, old concert footage is used to bring Ronnie Van Zant briefly back to life. The title of the documentary If I Leave Here Tomorrow takes its name from a line in Free Bird. Talking about Van Zant, the band’s chief lyricist, his widow says he was a “prophet” who sang about things which were “true or would come true.”
His 1977 song That Smell referred to the smell of death. Skynyrd had a hit with J.J. Cale’s Call Me the Breeze, with its “I got to keep movin' on” spirit. And Gimme Three Steps was a requested head start to a hasty departure.
Now Skynyrd is retiring, more or less taking Southern rock with them, the music soon to be talked about from front-porch rocking chairs and in the past tense only. At its heart, Free Bird was a question of legacy: “Would you still remember me?”
As for race issues and the Civil War, Sweet Home Alabama (a response to Neil Young’s Southern Man and Alabama) was about Yankee hypocrisy as much as anything. The current Trumpian state of affairs reveals a nation in deep divide, not just along North-South lines. Some things buried in creek beds are better left there. Other things, like Skynyrd and Southern rock, are worthy of occasional revivals.