I think I’ve already mentioned that any interest I had in country music died before I was born.
What a curious statement! That sentence would imply that either I was between lives in my form as an eternal soul floating around on the astral plane who tuned into the earthly music scene while waiting to reincarnate, or that I was born with a gene that decreed that I loathe the sound of twanging singers. Isn’t syntax fascinating?
What I really mean is that my studies of popular musical history have led to me to conclude that the quality of country music plummeted some time in the late 60’s or early 70’s. My research uncovered several clues that could explain this phenomenon. The first was the appearance of a dreadful variety show called Hee Haw in 1969, a show that celebrated stupidity, cornpone humor and superfluous airhead broads with ratings-positive big jugs. Another is the appearance of counter-revolution songs like Tammy Wynette’s “Stand By Your Man” (1968) and Merle Haggard’s “Okie from Muskogee” (1969). These songs celebrated female oppression and blind patriotism, two features that automatically come to mind whenever I hear the twang of a Baptist preacher. The third clue takes us to the same source that is always present during the decline of any form of music: big money. All three seemed to converge at about the same time, leading me to conclude that the true source of the decline in the quality of country music began with deep resistance to change. Once the backlash against those filthy, flag-burning, bra-burning hippies gained momentum and people started looking for traditional sources of comfort and entertainment, country music began to grow in popularity. When the fat cats saw that, they did what they always do: remove any signs of life from the music and produce precisely packaged pap for the dumb fucks who never developed a sense of aesthetics that would enable them to distinguish between good music and bad. Country music has never been a particularly imaginative art form, and given its existence within a culture that looks backwards instead of forwards and cherishes old-fashioned values (just like Al Qaeda!), it’s highly unlikely you’re going to see much in the way of development. There really isn’t anything substantial that distinguishes country music of the 70’s between country music today except that it’s louder, slicker and bathed in all the debilitating recording effects that suck the life out of most forms of music today.
I have a lifelong gay male friend who still lives in The City and keeps me in touch with happenings in my old stomping grounds. I generally look forward to his emails because he’s full of wit and tells great stories about what’s happening with the people I left behind. I say “generally” because he is also a rabid modern country music fan and he is forever sending me links to YouTube videos and MP3’s of people like Shania Twain, Kenny Chesney, Tim McGraw, George Strait, Miranda Lambert and a host of others whose music I find despicably dreadful. Country music today, like what’s left of rock music, is seriously overhyped and seriously overproduced. The best country music, which you hear in artists like Patsy Cline, Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams, Chet Atkins and pre-70’s Johnny Cash, has a sincerity that is completely missing from what I hear today. The opportunities for more depth and richness in country music vanished when Nashville chose to ignore those who tried to offer it, most notably Townes Van Zandt.
Today’s Nashville doesn’t have any songwriters who come within light years of approaching Townes Van Zandt . . . or the subject of this essay, Hank Williams.
This collection of twenty of his songs is a superb compilation of many of his best tunes and a couple of covers. There are one or two misses, but serious students of Hank Williams can grab a copy of the 40 Greatest Hits collection if the omissions are too troublesome. The primary problem I have is with the cover, because the bust makes him seem like an old fart. Due to a combination of alcoholism and serious back problems that led to drug abuse, Hank Williams, like Ronnie Van Zant, didn’t live to see thirty. He was another young musician who died way too young.
He started his musical career in his early teens, after learning guitar at the hands of Rufus Payne, a black street musician who taught him the blues. More than anything else, the blues influence added a depth, texture and rhythmic quality to his work that makes it unique and accessible to a larger audience . . . as I hope to demonstrate to the skeptics in the reading audience.
“Your Cheatin’ Heart”: Written about his first wife, Hank dictated the lyrics to his about-to-be second wife as they drove to Shreveport to meet her parents. Man, I’d love to see a full transcript of that conversation! Considered one of the great songs of country music, Hank gives a heartfelt performance backed up by exquisite steel guitar and fiddle from his backup band, The Drifting Cowboys. The tone is more sadness than bitterness, and what I love about the lyrics is that the suffering he predicts for his ex is the same suffering he experienced as the victim of her cheating: sleepless nights, pacing the floor, plenty of tears and that curiously-expressed emotion called “pining.” There’s a certain karmic justice working here that gives the song an artistic wholeness.
“Move It on Over”: A tune later repurposed by Bill Haley and the Comets into “Rock Around the Clock,” “Move It on Over” was a monster hit way back in 1947, in no small part due to the playfulness of the lyrics and the mythical eternal conflict between rule-making, civilizing women and those wild and crazy guys. In this case, the guy has stayed out too late, no doubt cheatin’ or drinkin’ or both, and is literally sent to the dog house to sleep with the mutt. A lazy songwriter wouldn’t have bothered, but Hank Williams felt the need to vary his instructions to his canine roommate in each chorus: move it, get it, scoot it, ease it, drag it, pack it, tote it, scratch it, shake it, slide it, sneak it, shove it, sweep it on over. He does the same with the last line in the chorus several times (“Move over ____ because the _____’s comin’ in.”): little dog/big dog, skinny dog/fat dog, old dog/new dog, nice dog/mad dog, short dog/tall dog, good dog/mad dog, cold dog/hot dog. In addition to the language play and overall good fun, the first lead solo is honky-tonk hot, and my detective work led me to an old-time rockabilly picker with a stage name of Zeke Turner aka James Cecil Grinshaw. Then again, it could have been his brother Zeb, who was really William Grinshaw. Shee-it! Whoever it was, I’ll bet it made a lot of southern boys want to pick up the gee-tar . . . it is one hot piece of guitar work.
“I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”: As close to a poetic masterpiece as you will find in modern popular music, this is my #1 favorite Hank Williams song. I was amazed to find that he had originally intended this to be a spoken word song, which would have been one of the worst mistakes in musical history. His vocal here is so deeply expressive that it achieves a symbiosis with the melody and lyrics like few vocals I’ve ever heard, and the only cover of this song I will abide is Bill Frisell’s instrumental version. The lyrics, full of crisp images from nature and colors that evoke both personal and universal isolation, are a masterpiece of poetic economy, and deserve to be quoted in full.
Did you hear that lonesome whippoorwill?
He sounds too blue to fly
The midnight train is whining low
I’m so lonesome, I could cry
I’ve never seen a night so long
When time goes crawling by
The moon just went behind a cloud
To hide its face and cry
Did you ever see a robin weep
When leaves begin to die?
That means he’s lost the will to live
I’m so lonesome, I could cry
The silence of a falling star
Light’s up a purple sky
And as I wonder where you are
I’m so lonesome, I could cry
“Ramblin’ Man”: This song stands out because it’s in a minor key, something you don’t hear too often from Hank Williams. Similar in theme to Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird,” Hank takes the theme a step further by painting the rambler as a social outcast (“Some folks might say that I’m no good/That I wouldn’t settle down if I could”). Also in contrast to “Free Bird,” where the choice of freedom over the structure of civilized life is an existential choice, Hank’s excuse is “that’s the way god made me,” as if he’s trying to deflect blame. The minor key paints the narrator of “Ramblin’ Man” in dark colors, like he is a condemned man rather than one with a passion for the open road, emphasizing the reach of the social oppression he longs to escape.
“My Heart Would Know”: The steel guitar is best used in establishing the motif for a song and providing counterpoint fills. The introduction here is classic steel guitar, just a few bars based on the final line of the chorus, which is the line people most remember in a popular song. I like Hank’s honesty here: he could hate the broad who’s putting him through hell, but putting his machismo aside, he croons, “My lips could tell a lie but my heart would know.” Way to own up to emotions, dude!
“Kaw Liga”: This novelty piece is a fanciful tale of a wooden statue of an Indian who remains “wooden” and cold though he is facing another lifeless statue of a beautiful squaw perched outside an antiques dealer’s shop. The brave remains stolid and impassive even when the squaw is sold off. Although it does confirm his active imagination, this is not one of Hank’s strongest pieces, falling in the same sad class as The Big Bopper’s “Running Bear,” which somehow became a #1 hit for Johnny Preston during the peak years of the American fascination with Wild West barbarism in the early 60’s. Prior to the development of any sense of responsibility for the destruction of Native American culture, Americans spent hours in movie theaters and in front of their televisions watching macho white guys like John Wayne and Clint Walker ride to the rescue of settlers and damsels threatened by the country’s legitimate inhabitants. Going in this direction really isn’t a stretch for Hank; after all, the genre used to be known as “country and western” to include the many popular songs about gunfights, saloons and Indians. Marty Robbins is a good example of the “western” half of the equation. Don’t expect a review of Marty Robbins any time soon.
“Cold, Cold Heart”: Anticipating Bill Withers’ “Let Me in Your Life” by a couple of decades, this is one of those rare B-sides that kicked up a disk jockey revolt and proved to be a more durable tune than the A-side, “Dear John,” a cliché-ridden number that didn’t even make the cut for this album. “Cold, Cold Heart” is far superior, for after the steel guitar intro, we hear some positively brilliant musical decisions. Hank’s choice to hold the note the length of a dotted half note on the third line of the verse heightens the emotional build tenfold. The abbreviated steel guitar fills add a sweetness to the mix without wasting time better spent on the powerful emotional narrative. That narrative, dealing with Hank’s attempts to help a woman he loves overcome her bitterness about her last romance, is told in simple rhyming couplets consisting of carefully chosen images depicting the enslavement of overwhelming passion and the paradox that love often pushes the person we want in the opposite direction:
There was a time when I believed that you belonged to me
But now I know your heart is shackled to a memory
The more I learn to care for you the more we drift apart
Why can’t I free your doubtful mind and melt your cold, cold heart?
“Lovesick Blues”: Okay—y’all know me, right? Y’all know me as a sophisticated, educated, literate, erudite, fashionable and reasonably attractive young woman with discriminating taste, right? Y’all know in the matter of sexuality that I am “inclined to acts refined,” to borrow a phrase from Ian Anderson, indulging in a form of pleasure-seeking that evokes images of secluded chateaus where adults gather to engage in erotic pursuits beyond the comprehension of the average Joe and Jane. And given the previous two sentences, you have probably (and somewhat accurately) identified a streak of snobbishness that is often part of the package in a woman of French descent. Y’all think I think I’m pretty hot shit, right?
Okay, I’m going to blow your image of me to smithereens. I love the fuck out of yodeling!
Personally, I don’t care that Hank Williams, in the fashion of Slick Willie Shakespeare, “borrowed” this song from an old 1920’s musical. Hank Williams could yodel “100 Bottles of Beer” and I’d scream in ecstasy as each bottle was pulled from the wall. My only regret here is that Hank doesn’t do a full yodel that lasts the length of a verse like Jimmie Rodgers . . . only “spot yodeling.” Hank Williams, you insufferable tease! You’re killing me! Cigarette!
“Honky Tonk Blues”: Country blues at its best! Po’ boy’s all tuckered out from all-nighters at the honky-tonk and headed back to his daddy’s farm! Hank sings this sucker with hard-edged confidence, showing just how much he learned about bending the blue notes from Rufus Payne. The steel guitar and fiddle respond to his voice with some fire of their own, making this one goddamn hot song that deserved its spot at the top of the hit parade. And how can you not love that phrasing, “I got the haw-aw-wonky-tonk blue-oohs?” Shee-it!
“Honky Tonkin'”: Recorded in 1948 before Hank abandoned that honky-tonk scene, this is a lively little number that his kid took to #1 over three decades later. Hank’s version is more suited to allowing The Drifting Cowboys show their stuff, and the highlight is the blue-note fiddling in the second solo.
“There’ll Be No Teardrops Tonight”: Recorded in the old Herzog studios in Cincinnati around the time of “Lovesick Blues,” the highlight is hearing Hank deliver some unexpected and extended blue notes in the mini-bridge . . . it’s like he wanted to let loose more than the song’s structure permitted. Well, just wait a spell and I think good ol’ Hank will get his mojo workin’ faster than a knife fight in a phone booth . . .
“Jambalaya (On the Bayou)”: Un air du français cadien! Hank borrowed the melody from a Cajun French song called “Grand Texas,” and All Music (among others) claims that Moon Mullican, an old C&W singer and piano player, should receive half-credit. I won’t dispute that, but let’s be honest: there’s no way you can identify “Jambalaya” with anyone else but Hank Williams. A wedding celebration song full of likker in old fruit jars, crawdads and gumbo, it’s a hoot to hear Hank croon this tune about “ma chaz ami-o,” a phrase that would explode the language centers in the brains of present-day Parisians. This is one of his most varied vocals, combining free release of sheer joy with tender tones of bayou romance.
“Hey, Good Lookin'”: This was the first Hank Williams song I ever heard, the song that ended Ray Charles’ masterpiece, Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music. Ray also covered Hank’s “You Win Again” on the same album, and that is what led curious little me to find out more about Hank Williams at the ripe old age of twelve. My father, much to his everlasting discredit as a music collector, had NO Hank Williams albums in his vast library, so I had to cough up the bucks for the CD from the hard-won income earned through babysitting (one experience that helped turn me into a card-carrying member of the Never Have a Kid League). Another “borrowed” tune (this time from Cole Porter), Hank has good, clean fun (if there is such a thing) with romance, drinking “sody pop” instead of hooch. I’ll take “Jambalaya” and party with those Cajuns any day, but I have to admit this is a fun song to sing. The long instrumental passage with the steel guitar and fiddle is one of the best in Hank’s catalog.
“Window Shopping”: This was written by someone by Michael Joseph, who had the nerve to berate a woman for “window shopping” for a male partner. Well, fuck you, Michael Joseph! If Smokey Robinson can shop around, so can the ladies! Hank really should have let this one slide.
“I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still in Love with You)”: Hank had a hard time letting go of lost love, but though his heart broke a hundred times, we did get some fine music from the experience. I prefer Patsy Cline’s version from a musical perspective, as her silky voice has always been irresistible to me. Then again, there’s nothing I love more than a man who knows when he’s licked, so I’ll pass along some kudos to Hank as well.
“Half as Much”: Most famously covered by Rosemary Clooney, this time I have to go with Hank’s version as more sincere and a lot less over-the-top. Rosemary runs every syllable through the wringer and is backed up by those sickeningly sweet strings that scream melodrama. I also love men who show vulnerability, and Hank had no qualms there. The fiddle is a little more rough-sounding here, reminiscent of the Roy Wood form of attack on ELO’s first album. The song features a great melody that could have been greatly enhanced by simple harmony, but I guess Hank just wasn’t into that sort of thing.
“Why Don’t You Love Me”: A lot of folks have covered this one: Jerry Lee Lewis, Van Morrison, even My Morning Jacket. The most offensive of the bunch was the cover by my hero Little Richard, and believe me, it’s not Little Richard at fault here. Vee-Jay Records (remember them, Beatle fans?) released a total ripoff compilation album called Friends from the Beginning: Little Richard and Jimi Hendrix, using the fact that Hendrix had been a session man on some of Little Richard’s recording sessions in 1964-1965 to justify exploiting a dead rock star. One of the most ghoulish acts in an industry given to ghoulishness, they managed to tarnish Hendrix, Little Richard and Hank Williams in one shot.
Getting back to the song, although Hank is struggling again with female rejection, this is a paradoxically cheery little number that he sings with great verve and plenty of octave leaps. I get a kick out of the line, “What makes you treat me like a piece of clay?” to which I always respond, “Because that’s how women are supposed to treat men, silly! Everyone knows men are for molding! Sheesh!”
“You Win Again”: Up to this point, I’m willing to believe that Hank had serious potential as a submissive male, with the proper training. After listening to this tune, I’m afraid I’d have to reject him as being far too masochistic for my tastes. A heartless, shameless woman is cheating on him with abandon and all he can say is “I love you still, you win again.” That’s not the way it’s supposed to work, Hank! I need that self-esteem to rise, baby, or what’s the fucking point? What’s remarkable here is that I think this is one of Hank’s best vocals, one loaded with emotion and character. By the way, what’s with all this sneaky, behind-the-back sex in The Bible Belt? I thought Southerners actually obeyed the seventh and tenth commandments, but there sure seems to be a lot of cheatin’ and covetin’ goin’ on down there!
“Baby We’re Really in Love”: Hank’s finally in love, and boy, is he one cheerful dude! One of the features of Hank Williams’ music is that his songs are so singable. This one is perfect for the morning shower when you’re in a gay and silly frame of mind.
“Take These Chains from My Heart”: Hank’s last #1 hit was written in part by Fred Rose, who wrote “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain.” I love the way Hank pronounces the word “care”: kyeer. No one delivered these broken-hearted ballads as well as Hank Williams. Released posthumously, it’s easy to interpret this in the context of Hank’s often painful existence as a liberation song, in the sense of breaking free of the mortal chains. True artists like Hank often find it difficult to reconcile their sensitive natures with a cold, cruel world, so I think the interpretation has solid biographical validity.
With barely five years of recording to his credit, Hank Williams had an enormous impact on music in multiple genres. His songs have been covered by artists identified with rock, R&B, soul, pop and easy listening in addition to the endless covers by country artists. When you have the talent to write so many songs that cross boundaries to reach so many people, you’ve found the key to the universal language of music. Hank Williams is one of the few to do just that.
In my review of the wonderful book Sleeping with Patty Hearst by Mary Lambeth Moore, I made the following contribution to the travel literature of the former Confederate States of America:
Churches, churches everywhere. Bugs, bugs, everywhere. I’ve been to Memphis and the Mississippi Delta, Atlanta and environs, and on one particularly painful vacation in my teens, my dad, in his ongoing effort to imbue his daughter with social consciousness, took me on the route taken by the Freedom Riders, from D. C. to New Orleans. I appreciated the wonders excessive humidity did for my skin, but sweating like a pig for two weeks wasn’t my idea of a good time. I didn’t feel safe until we got to the French Quarter, a place I will always cherish as an oasis of sanity in the Bible Belt, the city where I later celebrated my twenty-first birthday by proudly displaying my tits from the balconies of Bourbon Street.
Given my distaste for southern culture, cuisine, politics, religion, history, nostalgia, hypocrisy, weather and obsessions with football and auto racing, you may wonder why on earth I love a band that not only celebrated the virtues of such a culture but frequently performed with a Confederate flag as a backdrop. I’ve always considered the attachment to the flag of a deservedly short-lived nation created to promulgate the ludicrous idea of racial superiority a debilitating condition, somewhere between a lingering sickness and a terminal illness. By all logic, celebrating the Stars and Bars should exclude Lynyrd Skynyrd from a spot in my musical library.
Possible theories for my fascination with this band include a secret desire to be Scarlett O’Hara, a repressed desire to ruin my figure on Po’ Boys and buttered grits, and the old stand-by, “opposites attract.” None of them really work. Scarlett was never a role model for me because she preferred Ashley the wimp to Rhett Butler, a man who would have been much more challenging and fun to bring under heel. The fat theory doesn’t work because gooey, greasy and gritty may work for sex but not when I sit down to dinner. The theory of opposites doesn’t fly because I’m just as attracted to blondes as I am to brunettes, my own gender as well as the inferior one, and all ethnic varieties, including my own. We French-Irish women are seriously fucking hot!
No, it all has to do with that promise I made to myself to return to The Big Easy as soon as I could barhop without a fake ID. Shortly after I passed that milestone, I kept my eye on the music listings in New Orleans and finally found a musical bookend to structure the trip: Frank Black and the Catholics and Queens of the Stone Age, appearing on back-to-back Fridays at The House of Blues. Knowing the city’s reputation for high crime and out-of-control drunks, and having only started my martial arts training the summer before, I felt I needed a big strong male bodyguard in case some drunken bubba wanted to give me more than beads for displaying my delectable nipples. To my great good fortune, I knew a slightly more attractive version of The Incredible Hulk who always wanted to fuck me, so I invited him along with the understanding that: a.) we’d go Dutch all the way, b.) we’d stay in separate rooms, c.) I might fuck him if he was a good boy, but it was my call and d.) I didn’t want to hear any fucking whining on the flight home if he failed to hit the jackpot. He readily agreed to my terms and in a few weeks I was jiggling my tits and pinching my exposed nipples from the balconies of The French Quarter while The Hulk collected the beads for me.
We were club-hopping on Bourbon Street one warm spring night the week after Mardi Gras, and I was feeling somewhat antsy. Hulk had failed to meet my already low expectations when I found out he was not only a lousy fuck but also a lousy dancer, a serious problem in a city where you simply have to get down and boogie. All the clubs seemed to be playing mushy jazz and half-hearted blues and I really wanted to get my hips moving to some baseline rock ‘n’ roll. Plus, I was wearing my come-fuck-me outfit, consisting of a low-cut teal satin blouse over a black leather skirt with garters and no undies, finished off by a pair of stilettos that were easy to kick off when it was time to hit the floor. It looked like all I’d get for my efforts was the sound of The Hulk’s drool hitting the Bourbon Street pavement.
We’d come to the cross-street leading back to the hotel and I was just about to say fuck it when the sound of “Brown Sugar” burst out from the bar on the corner. I peeked in and saw a cover band and a pretty active dance floor, so I waved The Hulk over, slipped my lithe arm in his overdeveloped one and led him straight to the dance floor. The band had a great rhythm section, so I left The Hulk standing there holding my high-heels (it was pretty much all he could do anyway), sashayed between the other bodies, grabbed a couple of Jello shooters from a passing tray, drank them down in two quick gulps and shimmied back to hand the empty glasses to The Hulk. The song ended, everyone roared their approval and the band launched into the next song: “Sweet Home Alabama.”
The crowd went fucking nuts and filled every inch of the dance floor in seconds, wiggling their generally ample bottoms, clapping their hands and shouting out the chorus in rebel-yell style. I joined in with the natives, thrusting my ass to the beat, until my green eyes connected with the ebony eyes of a hot little short-haired brunette dressed in a man’s white shirt with the sleeves rolled up and the buttons opened to the top of her diaphragm. Beneath the bead strings dancing on her shirt I could make out a beautiful set of D’s, and I noticed that she too wore a leather skirt and was accompanied by a Neanderthal escort with a less appealing midsection than the six-pack The Hulk loved to display. We moved together to the music, and even though we were occasionally separated by layers of moving bodies, our eyes always managed to reconnect in the gaps. The song ended to more hoots and hollers, and when it died down a little, I screamed, “Gimme Three Steps!” The band immediately obliged and I walked straight up to the brunette and pulled her out to the dance floor while the band covered one of my favorite rock ‘n’ roll songs ever. She and I engaged in what can only be described as long distance pseudo-fucking and cleared the floor in twenty seconds. The hoots and hollers for the two chicks with the racks almost drowned out the band. About halfway through the song, she sidled up to me and shouted in my ear, “You’re hot, honey, but we’d better pay attention to the boys or they’re likely to get a little cranky.” I nodded, reminded myself I wasn’t in San Francisco anymore and that while lesbian fantasy was hot to guys looking at porn on the Internet, real lesbians were an entirely different matter to them Southern boys. She slithered over to her partner, threw her arms around his neck and bent him over to give him a big kiss. I strode over to The Hulk and grabbed his very obvious hard-on. “You go, girl!” the men shouted with approval.
We hung out at the bar for a few more songs, a couple of drinks and more than a few surreptitious glances in the brunette’s direction. As I guided The Hulk towards the door and another chance at my pussy, the brunette dashed up, darted her tongue in my ear and said, “Meet me in front of The Blue Nile tomorrow ’bout nine?” I smiled, gave her a nod, went back to my hotel and gave The Hulk the time of his life, which consisted of yet another premature ejaculation. The next night, I met my mutual crush at the appointed place, bought her a drink in a quiet back street bar, then took her back to my place for some real, no holds-barred cat-scratching poontang!
So, whenever I hear Lynyrd Skynyrd, I see a hot brunette on top of me with one of my hands pinching her rock-hard nipples and the other delving into her sweet wet pussy while she’s pushing her fingers deep inside me screaming, “Bring it, baby, bring it!” How could I not love a band that brings back one of the most intensely erotic highlights of my life?
Okay, I’ll admit it’s more than the mammaries . . . er, memories. In its original form Lynyrd Skynyrd was one of the best rock ‘n’ roll bands in history. Those guys knew how to kick ass like few others, had one of the best lead singers ever, a triple guitar attack that sent sparks flying and a horribly underrated rhythm section that always kept the groove going. The musical discipline of the band was absolutely remarkable, and though they partied hard in their spare hours, they were intensely professional when it came time to play. The Essential Lynyrd Skynyrd deserves the descriptor, as it consists of two CD’s worth of the best shit they ever put on record. While the horn-rimmed researcher within me bemoans the fact that the songs aren’t arranged in chronological order, I get over it once I start listening to one of the most completely satisfying rock ‘n’ roll experiences imaginable. Let’s rock!
“Sweet Home Alabama”: I guess they had to open the record with this one, the famous answer song to Neil Young’s “Southern Man.” I like both songs, and I think it’s silly to take sides because both points of view are grounded in truth. Neil Young expresses genuine and valid outrage through stark imagery to describe the pervasive racism in the American South of the time. Fair enough, but it’s bad change management strategy to show disrespect to the people you want to change—all it does is piss them off and force them to defend themselves. Neil himself admitted as much, saying “I don’t like my words when I listen to it. They are accusatory and condescending, not fully thought out, and too easy to misconstrue.” Lynyrd Skynyrd’s lyrics are open to interpretation as well, but it’s easier to understand where they’re coming from. When they sing “In Birmingham, they love the governor” and follow it with “Boo, boo, boo,” they’re certainly not saying that they love Governor Wallace; they’re distancing themselves from Birmingham and Wallace because both are symbols of a racist history. Later when they sing “Watergate does not bother me,” they’re not saying that Nixon was a good guy, but “Don’t you Northerners have plenty of your own problems to deal with instead of picking on us?” Merry Clayton, who sang on both records, has a very interesting take on her experience. Putting all the hoo-hah aside, this is one great record, with the crisply picked guitar work, Billy Powell’s sweet piano fills and solo, and Ronnie Van Zant’s confident, clear and often playful vocal riding high over the female background singers. As Neil Young said in an oral history on Lynyrd Skynyrd, “They play like they mean it . . . I’m proud to have my name in a song like theirs.” Neil got the words right that time—Lynyrd Skynyrd always played rock ‘n’ roll like they meant it.
“I Ain’t the One”: The opener to their first album, (Pronounced ‘Lĕh-‘nérd ‘Skin-‘nérd), begins with processed cymbals and drums fading into the kind of strong guitar riff that marked much of the band’s music. Allen Collins takes the lead guitar solo here and just fucking rips it, and Ronnie bounces from growls to falsetto in a tour-de-force performance that says, “We have arrived, people!” This song is so sleazy-sexy that it regularly appears on my fuck playlists, designed to appear when the foreplay is over and it’s time to get serious!
“Was I Right or Wrong”: A fascinating song originally recorded in the Muscle Shoals sessions that took place before they hooked up with Al Kooper to record their maiden album, it was not included on any of the five original studio albums and had to wait until the Muscle Shoals sessions were released on the first posthumous album, Skynrd’s First and Last. It shouldn’t have had to wait so long. The story of a guy who leaves his home to become a successful rock star and prove his daddy wrong, the narrative takes a tragic turn that drives home the messages that nothing matters as much as family and that rebellion can be both a liberating and bittersweet experience:
Then one sunny day, the man, he looked my way
And everything that I dreamed of, it was real.
Money, girls, and cars; big long cigars.
And I caught the first plane home so Papa would see.
When I went home to show ’em they was wrong
All that I found was two tombstones.
Somebody tell me, please, was I right or wrong?
Lord, it’s such a sad song.
First I got lost, then I got found
But the ones that I loved were in the ground.
Part of the reason the song may have been left off the early albums is that it uses a guitar riff from one of the great songs from the début album, which is . . .
“Gimme Three Steps”: One of my top two or three favorite rock songs of all time, “Gimme Three Steps” has it all: a killer opening riff, fast-moving bass runs, exciting syncopation, an outstanding lead vocal and great good fun. Based on a true story, this tale of Ronnie Van Zant getting a .44 pulled on him in a biker bar in Jacksonville is the definition par excellence of a hoot! I love the way he pokes fun at himself through physical description (“Hey, fat fellow with your hair colored yellow”) and his anti-macho admission of sheer terror (“I was scared and fearin’ for my life/Shakin’ like a leaf on a tree’/Cause he was lean and mean/And big and bad, Lord/Pointin’ that gun at me.”) He even admits to pissing himself in front of the crowd! The dual guitars are as tight as it gets, and the fills between the verses are perfectly designed to get those in the audience or on the dance floor to shake and scream in holy ecstasy. Fuck yeah!
“Workin’ for MCA”: One of the more honest songs about success in the music business, “Working for MCA” starts by recounting the “Lodi”-like seven years of playing in shit joints for little pay, then relates the story of how Yankee slicker Al Kooper signed them for $9000 (divided by six or seven, that ain’t a whole lot of dough). Always rebels and never ones to take the stardom thing too seriously, Lynyrd Skynyrd played the song for an audience of record executives at Kooper’s “Sounds of the South” press party. The song kicks ass, with the triple guitars working to perfection and Bob Burns having a field day on the skins.
“Simple Man”: As rough and raucous as they can be, Lynyrd Skynyrd was exceptionally strong on the slower stuff, imbuing those songs with the same power they brought to the high-speed rockers. If there’s one thing I’m a sucker for, it’s a heartfelt song about the family, for although my family is rather unique, I cherish our closeness. What I love about these lyrics is that though mama gives Ronnie the usual stuff about the man above, she also expresses unconditional love, a feeling deeper than even the strong religious norms that characterize the South:
Boy, don’t you worry you’ll find yourself
Follow your heart and nothing else
And you can do this, oh baby, if you try
All that I want for you my son is to be satisfied
“Simple Man” is exceptionally well-arranged, with masterful use of dynamics. The verses tend to be quiet and sparse while the fills between and the choruses are pure power. The link is Bob Burns’ drumming, which hints at the coming explosions with tiny syncopated skips and perfect lead-ins. The fact that this song, “Gimme Three Steps” and “Free Bird” were on their first album is simply amazing. These guys worked their asses off in the shit joints mentioned above, just like The Beatles did in Hamburg, and that kind of hard-won experience really paid off when it came time to hit the studio.
“Swamp Music”: A lighter, bouncier song that’s a definite toe-tapper, “Swamp Music” reminds us that these guys knew their blues, a quality that I consider a prerequisite to producing great rock-and-r0ll. All I’ll say about this song is I’d rather listen to Ronnie Van Zant than Son House, because when Son House comes up on my annual blues jag I always feel like he’s yelling at me.
“The Ballad of Curtis Loew”: Ronnie Van Zant’s respect for blues and blues players ran deep, as demonstrated in this amazing song about defying social norms and racial taboos to hear a black man play the blues. The character has been described as an amalgam of several experiences from Ronnie’s youth, and while the guitar picking here is wonderful, what makes the song is the sincere and genuine appreciation Ronnie expresses in his vocal, especially when he dials it down on the last line of the chorus:
Play me a song Curtis Loew, Curtis Loew
Well I got your drinking money, tune up your Dobro
People said he was useless, them people are the fools
‘Cause Curtis Loew was the finest picker to ever play the blues
“Saturday Night Special”: One feature of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s music that seems to escape notice is that they wrote and played some of the most compelling opening passages in rock. Several accounts describe Ronnie Van Zant as a perfectionist demanding exact reproductions of studio work on stage because that’s the music the fans knew. I found this interesting because I’ve always looked at Lynyrd Skynyrd as taking a classical approach to rock, limiting their improvisations to the extended guitar passages in their live performances, and focusing their energies on building songs with exceptional staying power. They built their songs around core rock patterns and possibilities, and though their music may never be described as “innovative” in the sense that progressive rock is innovative, they made a complete commitment to play their music at the highest level of excellence they could achieve and were one of the most disciplined bands I’ve ever heard. In that sense, they’re much closer to Beethoven than to Miles Davis. The triple-guitar attack of Rossington, King and Collins had to be precisely arranged to not only cover the harmonies and rhythms but to take advantage of each guitarist’s personal style within the overall structure. That takes hard work and commitment, people!
Where they were innovative is in their intuitive, gut feel approach to rhythms and syncopation. “Saturday Night Special” defiantly opens on the second beat of the second bar with a mini-overture that borrows the background theme from the bridge, adding guitar layers and melodic variation. After a hot drum fill from new drummer Artimus Pyle supported by a high note from Ronnie Van Zant, the song glides perfectly into the opening riff. You can’t help but give them your full attention because the passage is so well-executed. A tidbit on Songfacts describes how Al Kooper tried to convince the band to come in on the conventional first beat or they’d be “a beat short.” Fortunately, the band won out.
And what’s this? Southern boys talking about gun control? Mercy me! Dumping all those cheap handguns in the ocean, my stars! Only in the USA would such an idea be controversial; other countries would look at the idea as quite rational. All it takes is too much liquor, a split-second of fright or untreated mental illness and you have a tragedy that could have been avoided had a gun not been available to the perpetrator. Rather than going legal or psychological on the subject, Lynyrd Skynyrd uses familiar language that reeks of common sense:
Hand guns are made for killin’
They ain’t no good for nothin’ else
And if you like to drink your whiskey
You might even shoot yourself
So why don’t we dump ’em people
To the bottom of the sea
Before some ol’ fool come around here
Wanna shoot either you or me
“Mr Banker”: The B-side to “Gimme Three Steps” is an old-style blues tune about a guy pleading with a banker to loan him the money he needs to bury his daddy. “How much does money mean?” is a question that has a haunting meaning in a society that values profit more than humanity. The song never tells us whether or not the banker does the right thing, but I doubt that the banker had either the heart or any idea just how much a 1950 Les Paul was worth. The arrangement is appropriately spare and true to form, and Ronnie definitely qualified as a guy who knew how to sing the blues.
“Comin’ Home (original version)”: Another gem from the Muscle Shoals sessions, the song features some lovely piano runs from Billy Powell and verses where Ronnie Van Zant’s voice is unusually beautiful and sweet. The band does ramp up the power for the choruses and fills, but in this song, it’s the quiet parts that are the most moving. The lyrics are superb, especially because after Ronnie tells his story “Of broken dreams and dirty deals” and sleeping at the streets, he feels the need to defend his urge to come home: “And please, don’t blame me ’cause I’ve tried.” It’s tragic that coming home should ever be seen as a failure, but it’s a common experience in our success-oriented societies—those who stay put are labeled as people who have died before their time. That’s nonsense, people! Not everyone has to climb the success ladder, and all of us need the sanctuary of home now and again, especially to lick our wounds from the cold, cruel world.
“Call Me the Breeze”: Lynyrd Skynyrd did surprisingly few cover songs, but two of them were by J. J. Cale, which makes perfect sense. This is a straight rockabilly number following the standard three-chord blues structure, a song with only one purpose in mind: to get your ass a-shakin’! I could have done without the horns here, but that’s only because I could listen to those guitars forever.
“Free Bird” and “Free Bird” (live): The studio version closes out the first disc; the live version ends the second. Both are structurally similar in form and substance, and both are great listening experiences. I personally prefer the live version because the bass presence is noticeably stronger. Needless to say, the guitars on the live version are simply amazing and the lead solo is a musical achievement for the ages. From the slow tempo verses to the acceleration into the guitar passages, “Free Bird” is a remarkable song, balancing simplicity in message with complexity of passion, combining accessibility with a rich listening experience. While some might dismiss the message “and this bird you cannot change” as another example of perpetually stubborn Southern resistance to progress, Ronnie Van Zant’s lyrics are really talking about the essence of our personalities, the core that makes us unique, the compass that guides us to be true to ourselves. The narrator whose life goal was to mirror the freedom of a bird in flight could be Duane Allman . . . but it could be James Dean, or Richard Thompson’s James in “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” or Ronnie Van Zant himself (it is said he predicted he wouldn’t make it to thirty). The hero in this story is the one who has to live life at full throttle, the one who takes carpe diem to the maximum.
The song also has significant meaning for those of us who don’t fit society’s expectations or norms . . . those of us who are odd ducks. This is the reason I find myself comforted by “Free Bird,” for though it feels oppressive to have to hide my bisexuality in many contexts, and my passion for BDSM would make me unemployable unless I entered the porn industry, those are two parts of this bird that you will never change.
“What’s Your Name”: This should be a much better track than it turned out to be. There’s nothing wrong with the music or storyline; the problem is in the mix, which minimized bass and drums. Whenever this song comes up on rotation, I turn on the bass booster to give it some more oomph, but I can’t help the drums. Damn.
“Whiskey Rock-and-Roller” (live): This live version of the song that closed Nuthin’ Fancy features hot guitar parts that occasionally get surprisingly melodic and a no-nonsense vocal from Ronnie Van Zant. I would definitely put a life of “women, whiskey and miles of travelin'” at the top of my alternative lifestyle options if the travel was on the road and the hotel room beds didn’t squeak.
“Tuesday’s Gone”: This song calls up one of my great regrets of the New Orleans trip and that magical night on the dance floor. A song or two after the brunette suggested we cool it for the safety of all concerned, the band launched into this perfect slow dance number during which I gazed at the brunette longingly in between pulls on my rum-on-the-rocks and long drags on my cigarette. Even worse, I hadn’t brought the CD with me so I had no opportunity to slow dance with her to this song during our fuck the following night (we fucked to a combination of Candy Dulfer, Sade and the Brazilian singer Simone instead). Sigh. Hormones aside, I think “Tuesday’s Gone” is the most melodically beautiful song in Lynyrd Skynrd’s catalog. The music sometimes sounds more Byrds than Lynyrd Skynyrd with the unusually bright lead guitar from Gary Rossington, but The Byrds never came close to delivering a song with such a strong, soulful foundation (and I’ll take Ronnie Van Zant over McGuinn any day). The rare harmonies are simple and beautiful and Al Kooper’s mellotron strings are brilliantly understated so that they don’t turn the song into a mushy mess like “A Long and Winding Road.” The realization that boring old Tuesday is (pun intended, I believe) “gone with the wind” shows fascinating insight into how people often have second thoughts about realizing a dream because realizing that dream will destroy the life they knew.
“Double Trouble”: Not one of my favorites from my least favorite Skynyrd album, Gimme Back My Bullets. That album was Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Beatles for Sale: they sounded a bit worn out from the constant touring.
“I Know a Little”: The intro on the high hats tells you that the high heels are going to start clicking’ and the bodies are going to start oscillating wherever you can find the room to dance. “I Know a Little” was one of the songs designed to show off new guitarist Steve Gaines on the album Street Survivors, tragically released only a few days before the crash that would claim the lives of Gaines, his sister and Ronnie Van Zant. This song shows that Gaines was a great addition to the band, giving it new energy and perspective at what should have been the early midpoint of a long career. His guitar runs are to die for and Ronnie Van Zant must have loved singing that line, “I know a little about love/And baby I can guess the rest.”
“Four Walls of Raiford”: From the Legend album, a wonderful collection of outtakes for the serious collector, this sad tale of a Vietnam vet locked in a modern version of Les Miserables is a bitter indictment of America’s hypocritical attitude towards veterans. Heroes if they die but often ignored and mistreated if they return, Ronnie Van Zant’s no bullshit lyrics make the sense of betrayal crystal clear:
Well, when Vietnam was over, there was no work here for me
I had a pretty wife awaitin’ and two kids I had to feed
Well, I’m one of America’s heroes when they shoot me down
Won’t fly old glory proudly, put my medals in the ground
The pattern of the song is nearly identical to Johnny Cash’s “Long Black Veil,” but the acoustic blues picking and Ronnie Van Zant’s world-weary vocal make for a compelling listening experience.
“I Never Dreamed”: This is as close to a pop song as these guys ever came, a lovely number about finding and losing “the one.” Performed with relative restraint, there is a certain tenderness about the song that is very compelling. Leon Wilkerson, one of the great, underrated bassists, has another superb turn here, and the guitar solos make this one rise far above the traditional pop number. I’m surprised there haven’t been more covers of this tune.
“Gimme Back My Bullets”: Not one of their stronger efforts from their weakest album. The “bullets” are Billboard bullets; the lyrics seem to be asking for a return to the Top 40 despite the fact that they were partying way too much at the time (“I drank enough whiskey to float a battleship around”). They’ll deal with this topic more honestly in “That Smell.”
“You Got That Right”: Somewhere between blues and music hall, this tune was another opportunity for Steve Gaines to strut his stuff on Street Survivors. Nicely played, but it lacks the power and originality of some of their better works.
“All I Can Do Is Write About It” (acoustic version): Yawn. This one reads more like a travel brochure for the South, and neglects to mention the humidity, the bugs, the shitty food in Waffle Houses and ubiquitous bible-thumping. The lyrics are somewhere between corny or sappy, and the environmental concerns related to rampant urbanization seem superfluous.
“That Smell”: This is a dark and ominous warning to fellow band members (and self) of the need to tone down the use of drugs and booze, that too-common outcome of rock ‘n’ roll stardom. Performed with great power, the background vocals of The Honkettes really shine here. Unfortunately, it’s impossible for a listener to disassociate the line “the smell of death surrounds you” from the tragedy that would occur only a few days after Street Survivors’ release.
I have always considered the loss of Ronnie Van Zant and Steve Gaines a tragedy equal to the loss of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper in that Iowa cornfield. The group was getting tired on Gimme Back My Bullets, but the combination of Ronnie’s wake-up call when it came to drug and alcohol abuse and the addition of the enormously talented Mr. Gaines re-energized the music and presaged an exciting future. Lynyrd Skynyrd played rock ‘n’ roll like there was no tomorrow; I only wish they could have extended that tomorrow for as long as they continued to feel the groove. I’ve heard good things about the re-formed band, but I have to admit I haven’t listened to them. The originals left such an indelible impression that I’m worried I might be too critical and unfair to the new guys. Ronnie Van Zant is one tough act to follow, even for a relative.
Like Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, I’ve never been back to New Orleans, but I did reconnect with the hot brunette a few months later when she came to visit me in San Francisco after I graduated from college. Although the San Francisco BDSM scene was a bit too much for that Southern belle, we did have one great last roll in the hay before she moseyed on back to her down home life in old Dixie, got hitched and had a slew of kids.
Even though the romance didn’t turn out to be as long-lasting as I would have liked, she was one of the greatest pieces of ass I ever had, so don’t tell me I don’t love the South! With a passion!