Lynyrd Skynyrd: Telling the story
By Bobby Winters
Back in the middle of the 1980s, I used to regularly go between Stillwater and Harden City, Oklahoma. I was in my 1980 Ford F100 pickup. It has a stick shift on the floor--three gears and overdrive. I had no air-conditioning and frequently the air temperature was in the 90s, often over 100. No problem, you just make sure both windows are rolled down, both air-scoops are open, and drive a little faster.
It those days I was not yet married. I didn’t even have a girlfriend.
But I did have a boon companion in my stereo. In such listening conditions as those, the music you listen too has to have a certain robust quality. A good tune is essential of course but with wind rushing past you at 75 miles per hour your pleasure can’t be contingent on hearing the triangle be struck at just the right time.
It was in such setting that my fondness for Lynyrd Skynyrd grew.
I must confess that I had never heard of them before the plane crash that took the life of Ronnie Van Zant on October 20, 1977, the day before I turned 15. I’ve never know the band while RVZ was alive, and, quite frankly, until a concert by some of the surviving members of the band last night, I’d never thought of them artists.
There will be those who disagree with me and I claim no special expertise, but it seems to me that if you want to call something art you’ve got to have a couple of things in place. You’ve got to have something to say and you ought to have a way of saying it. I was going to put a subordinate between the it and the period in that last sentence but anything I thought was just too restrictive.
And, though there will be those who disagree with me most vociferously, I have to say there were points when RVZ came dangerously close to creating art.
Much of the problem of recognizing this is that the points where the art was committed are places where it was most deeply Southern and earthy. The song “I ain’t the one” describes a problem alien to standard American middle-class morality. There is a southern subculture in which when a sexually promiscuous young woman becomes pregnant she chooses not the most likely candidate for paternity among her paramours, but the one who is most attractive in some other particular way.
In “I ain’t the one” the singer protests, in very earthy terms once it’s de-coded, that he isn’t even a theoretical candidate for paternity. It reeks of a very blue-collar way of looking at the world.
It’s not just blue-collar. It’s rednecked blue-collar.
In “The Mississippi Kid” there is the line “because she was raised up on the cornbread / I know that woman will give me some.” It is a line which is opaque to the innocent and absolutely transparent to those in the know. It echos with the best lines of the tradition. There are things we want to talk to other adults about but don’t want the children to understand.
The lasting popularity among those of us who grew up within that rednecked blue-collar culture is a testimony to how effective Lynyrd Skynyrd was to communicating that culture to its members.
Much of the group’s most popular work has been heavily informed by the band’s life on the road. While this is very heavily colored by their southern culture, I find myself wishing that there had been aspirations beyond that. Though this may be simply the reality of the artist on the road. One can hold “What’s your name?” up against Bob Seger’s “Turn the page” and see similar slices of this world from two different perspectives.
I would like to have had his perspectives on other things, but he was taken. We are left to tell the story ourselves.