One of the most divisive artists in all of rock history, Lynyrd Skynyrd has been subject to all manner of stereotyping and unfair generalization throughout their extensive career. Known for their colorful Southern roots and themes, the band often attracts an ardent and vocal audience that seems mired in the ultraconservative ideals of the past. And while these fans don’t necessarily speak to the breadth of the band’s music, their raucous allegiance has wound up becoming innately tied to the band’s public persona, resulting in a backlash against what people perceive as a backwoods mentality toward social issues and broad personal philosophies.
But Lynyrd Skynyrd is just a rock band from Jacksonville, Florida-the Southern aspect of their work wasn’t even codified until some of their breakthrough hits, such as “Free Bird” and “Sweet Home Alabama,” made them unintentional speakers for the Southern states. And while the band didn’t shy away from the imagery and ideologies assigned to these various geographies, their work isn’t explicitly linked to any certain political or social mindset. They just knew how to create a loud and melodic rock drawl that appealed to all segments of their rock ‘n’ roll fan base. Lynyrd Skynyrd was a raucous and relevant burst of rock music that felt refreshing in its bucolic honesty.
The band traces its roots all the way back to the summer of 1964, when friends Ronnie Van Zant, Bob Burns, Allen Collins, Gary Rossington and Larry Junstrom founded the earliest iteration of the band, which they called My Backyard. Shortly after, they changed the name to The Noble Five and continued to switch their moniker before settling on One Percent in 1968. But even then, the band felt that the name wasn’t a good evocation of their rustic rock work, and so they finally agreed on being called Leonard Skinnerd, which was a dig at Leonard Skinner, their former PE teacher from Robert E. Lee High School. They used the canonical spelling of their name-Lynyrd Skynyrd-as early as 1970.
In the following years, the band developed a large base in Jacksonville and would often open for nationally touring acts as they passed through the area. Jacksonville native Pat Armstrong signed on as their manager and would stay with the band until 1974, when those responsibilities were handed off to Peter Rudge. Ever evolving, the band continued to work through their driving hard rock sound, incorporating aspects of British rock, country rock and the blues into their songs. This amalgam of influences felt dense but was conveyed perfectly by the band. The Southern aspect of their music slowly began to manifest in the stomp, howl and backwoods attitude that had started to permeate their songs.
During this period of time, the band experienced the first in a series of lineup changes that altered the face of the band. Junstrom left the band and was replaced by Greg T. Walker for a short time on bass. Ricky Medlocke also joined the ranks as both a drummer and vocalist to help fill in the percussive atmosphere that Burns was building. In a continued burst of shifting lineups, other changes would bring Leon Wilkeson on bass, while roadie Billy Powell would take his place behind the keyboard. And in 1972, this group of musicians came into contact with songwriter and producer Al Kooper, a man who signed them to his Sounds of the South label. He also handled production duties on their debut record.
And in 1973, their first record was released. Titled “(Pronounced ‘Leh-‘nérd ‘Skin-‘nérd),” it skyrocketed the band to stardom in a way that few bands starting out ever get to experience. Combining a blistering blues-rock foundation with the swagger of country music, they tied together a string of inspirations to form a coherent and inclusive sound that speaks to people of all tastes and geographies. Filled with songs that became staples of their live shows (and chart toppers in their own right), this isn’t an album of a band trying to feel their way through uncertain landscapes. It is the sound of a band determined in their own creativity and musical abilities.
Wilkeson left the band during the early recording sessions for this album, so his work appears on only two tracks. Ed King, the guitarist from Strawberry Alarm Clock, was brought on to perform in Wilkeson’s place, as the bass guitar parts had already been written. The band was down to six members at the time of the record’s release, but King was asked to stay on for the subsequent tour so that the live shows could retain the triple guitar assault that was found on their debut. However, Wilkeson rejoined the band just in time for the ensuing tour.
A handful of the songs (“Tuesday’s Gone,” “Gimme Three Steps,” “Simple Man” and “Free Bird”) would go on to become intrinsically linked to the sound and appearance of Southern rock. But what is Southern rock, except hard rock rhythms overlaid with the primal emotional weight of the blues? And so their sound isn’t so much about the ideology of the South as it is the effect of the combined musical lineages that connect the South to the rest of the country. Lynyrd Skynyrd was one of the first bands to successfully explore these sounds while maintaining their individual perspectives.
Over the course of their time as a band, politics began to creep their way into the background of their music, and so certain stereotypes manifested themselves throughout the years. But when viewed apart from the admittedly entrenched Southern dogma that surrounds their songs, the band’s debut is a masterpiece of rock revelations, creating a tangible sense of space and melody that holds up even now. Feel and hear the music, not the assumptions and expectations that have so often been applied to the band, and you’ll realize just how prescient and influential this first record was to countless generations of future musicians.
Joshua Pickard covers local and national music, film and other aspects of pop culture. You can contact him on Facebook, Twitter or by email. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.