Southern Rock Opera – Ronnie Van Zant, Neil Young and “Sweet Home Alabama”
As 105.7 The Hawk works its way through the A-Z Anthology, we’ve spent some time looking into the back stories of some of rock’s most famous anthems.
It’s as good a time as any to talk about one of the most famous musical “rivalries” in rock history and the song that inspired it: “Sweet Home Alabama” by Lynyrd Skynyrd.
The song was a single on the band’s sophomore album, 1974’s Second Helping and reached number eight on the Billboard charts.
“Sweet Home Alabama” become a southern anthem of sorts and was landmark in the resurgence of southern rock as a genre.
Though Skynyrd hails from Jacksonville, Florida, their connection to Alabama is deep. Much of their early work was recorded in some of the famous studios in the state, but more on that later.
The song’s lyrics proved controversial. Overt references to Alabama’s then-governor George Wallace, a noted segregationist, as well as the Watergate scandal fueled some political fire.
But perhaps most notably, Ronnie Van Zant’s lyrics ignited a supposed feud between Skynyrd and Canadian singer/songwriter Neil Young, which has grown into a sort of rock and roll folk tale.
“Sweet Home Alabama” was written in direct response to Young’s “Southern Man” and “Alabama,” songs critical of the southern United States in general and the state of Alabama specifically.
The lyrics of the song’s second verse are as follows:
“Well I heard mister Young sing about her
Well, I heard ole Neil put her down
Well, I hope Neil Young will remember
A Southern man don’t need him around anyhow”
If you listen closely, the voice of Studio One producer Al Kooper can be heard impersonating Young and singing the words “southern man.” Kooper suggested that the band also include the words “better keep your head,” but Van Zant declined, not wanting to plagiarize Young.
While the song was a direct response, the idea that Van Zant and Young were rivals of any kind is an exaggeration. In fact, the two were mutual fans who had hoped to collaborate until those plans were dashed when Van Zant along with band mates Steve Gaines, Cassie Gaines and members of their touring crew were killed in a 1977 plane crash.
Rumors of Van Zant being buried in a Neil Young t-shirt have never been confirmed, but astute fans may notice that Van Zant is wearing a t-shirt bearing the cover of Young’s album Tonight’s The Night on the cover of Skynyrd’s third album, Street Survivors, which was released just three days before the crash.
Neil Young’s song “Powderfinger,” which appeared on his 1979 album Rust Never Sleeps, was originally written by Young for Lynyrd Skynyrd to record.
The story doesn’t end there, however.
Flash forward to 2001 when the southern rock band Drive-by Truckers released their seminal double album, Southern Rock Opera.
Truckers frontman Patterson Hood has a deep connection to the music of Lynyrd Skynyrd himself.
A native of Muscle Shoals, Alabama, Hood is the son of David Hood, a noted session musician and founder of the famous Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, where Skynyrd did much of their recording.
The elder Hood’s Muscle Shoals session band, The Swampers, actually receive a shout out in the fourth verse of “Sweet Home Alabama.”
Southern Rock Opera is a semi-autobiographical album written by the younger Hood about his youth in Alabama and about the life and times of Lynyrd Skynyrd.
On the track “Ronnie and Neil” he explores the unclear relationship between the two icons and declares that “rock stars today ain’t half as real.”
Hood laments never having the chance to see Skynyrd on the track “Let There Be Rock,” noting that he had tickets for a show that was rescheduled for the Street Survivors tour and “the rest, as they say, is history.”
“Cassie’s Brother” explores the unusual circumstances surrounding backup singer Cassie Gaines’ brother Steve joining Skynyrd after sitting in at a gig. The album’s finale, “Angels and Fuselage” is an epic and moving eight-minute track about the crash itself.
After a 10-year hiatus, Lynyrd Skynyrd reformed in 1987 with Ronnie Van Zant’s younger brother Johnny taking over on lead vocals. The band continues to tour today.