In Memoriam pays tribute to those who have left this world, and the songs they left us to remember them by. Full Albums features covers of every track off a classic album. Got an idea for a future pick? Leave a note in the comments!
This is a hybrid piece, melding together two Cover Me staples, “In Memoriam” and “Full Albums,” prompted by today’s anniversary of the plane crash that killed Lynyrd Skynyrd members Ronnie Van Zant, Steve Gaines, and his sister Cassie Gaines. We’re remembering them by giving the Full Album treatment to the band’s debut album, (Pronounced ‘Lĕh-‘nérd ‘Skin-‘nérd). While neither of the Gaines siblings appeared on it, they certainly played its classic songs in concert, and probably even some of the lesser-known ones. So this piece may lack a certain consistency, but if a band can tour as Lynyrd Skynyrd with only one original member, then we can still do this.
Despite their eternal connection to Alabama, Lynyrd Skynyrd’s roots are actually from Jacksonville, Florida, where singer Ronnie Van Zant and guitarists Allen Collins and Gary Rossington formed The Noble Five in 1964. They went through names and members until they decided, in 1970, to call themselves “Leonard Skinnerd,” in mocking tribute to their high school gym teacher, Leonard Skinner, who annoyed the musicians by enforcing the school’s policy against long hair. (He was so insistent on enforcing this critical pedagogical rule that it caused Rossington to drop out of school. Which is what any teacher would want.) After some more changes, they were “discovered” in 1972 by Al Kooper, and the band became “Lynyrd Skynyrd.” Today’s featured album, their debut, was released on August 13, 1973, and featured Van Zant, Collins, Rossington, drummer Bob Burns, keyboard player Billy Powell, bassist Leon Wilkeson and bassist/guitarist Ed King.
The album is pure Southern rock, a mix of rock, blues, country and soul, but without most of the jazzy influences that informed the Allman Brothers’ sound. It set the stage for pretty much every other band that is lumped into the genre, whether willingly or kicking and screaming. It reached #19 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, propelled in part by the legendary “Free Bird,” a song that will be played as long as rock music exists.
The follow-up, Second Helping, neatly dodged the sophomore jinx, hitting #12 on the Billboard charts; it featured the top 10 single “Sweet Home Alabama,” which created the myth of a rivalry between the band and Neil Young. Album three, Nuthin’ Fancy (featuring new drummer Artimus Pyle), was a bit of a letdown, and after its release, Ed King left the band, destroying their trademark three-guitar barrage. The next album, Gimme Back My Bullets, despite the great title, was another disappointment. During this period, new backup singer Cassie Gaines suggested that her brother Steve might be a fit. He actually auditioned onstage and got the job, appearing on the live One More From the Road, which included the epic, 13-minutes-plus version of “Free Bird” that concertgoers still yell for, no matter who is performing, and despite the fact that the joke stopped being funny decades ago.
Steve Gaines’ contributions to 1977’s Street Survivors rejuvenated the band. Van Zant was enthralled by Gaines’ talent, and expressed excitement about the band’s future.
That future lasted exactly three days after the release of Street Survivors. On their way from Greenville, South Carolina to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, their chartered plane ran out of fuel and crashed in Mississippi. Van Zant and the two Gaines were killed, along with the pilot, co-pilot and the band’s assistant road manager. The rest of the band, manager and crew all suffered serious injuries. The publicity about the crash (and, to be fair, the quality of the music) made Street Survivors a success, peaking at #5 on the Billboard charts and spawning two successful singles: the raunchy “What’s Your Name” and the cautionary “That Smell.”
After recovering from their injuries, most of the survivors started their own bands or played with others over course of the next decade. In 1987, however, Lynyrd Skynyrd reformed with Rossington, Powell, Wilkeson, Pyle and King, along with vocalist Johnny Van Zant, Ronnie’s younger brother, and guitarist Randall Hall (replacing Collins, whose drunk-driving accident left him paralyzed and killed his girlfriend). Initially planned to be a one-off tribute, the band decided to record and tour, leading to inevitable litigation with the widows of Ronnie Van Zant and Steve Gaines. They are on tour even as this piece is published (with Rossington the only remaining original member of the band), commemorating the anniversary of the crash on the seventh annual “Simple Man Cruise” sailing from Miami, still performing the pre-crash songs that continue to be a staple of classic rock radio and influence musicians across the musical spectrum.
Pronounced is a remarkable album, incredibly accomplished and self-assured for a debut; of course, the band had been playing together for nearly a decade by the time it was released. And, by all accounts, they didn’t lack for confidence.
Preacher Stone – I Ain’t The One (Lynyrd Skynyrd cover)
Surprisingly, the album starts with what sounds like backwards drumming, but this little bit of psychedelia quickly resolves into “I Ain’t the One,” a boogying rocker. Supposedly based on a woman who insisted that Van Zant was the father of her baby (despite the fact that she apparently would have had a hard time narrowing down the suspects), the song features Van Zant brushing her off and declaring that he is moving on. Not one of the most well-known songs on the album, it is rarely covered. This version, by Preacher Stone, a self-described band of “hard country rockers” from Charlotte, NC, is a pretty faithful cover, maybe with a harder edge than the original. Preacher Stone will be appearing on the cruise this week with Skynyrd, so there must be some mutual appreciation.
Metallica – Tuesday’s Gone (Lynyrd Skynyrd cover)
“Tuesday’s Gone” is either another song about a man leaving a woman, or a meditation of the effect that fame was about to have on the band. Or maybe both. Unlike the first track, this song, a slow one with chiming guitars, is one of Skynryd’s most popular — it is often covered, and has appeared on a number of soundtracks, and in commercials and video games. The Metallica cover is also pretty similar to the original, and was recorded live for a radio broadcast. Guests on the track include founding Skynyrd guitarist Gary Rossington along with Les Claypool from Primus, Jerry Cantrell of Alice in Chains and John Popper from Blues Traveler, who adds one of his trademark harmonica parts.
Uncle Tupelo – Gimme Three Steps (Lynyrd Skynyrd cover)
The influence of Lynyrd Skynyrd is clearly felt in “No Depression” music, the melding of country, folk, punk, and classic rock, spearheaded by Uncle Tupelo. That band, which featured Jeff Tweedy and Jay Farrar, created a body of incredible music in a very short time, before imploding due to the fact that the two leaders hated each other. The last Uncle Tupelo show was on May 1, 1994 at Mississippi Nights in St. Louis, and the last song they played was this cover of “Gimme Three Steps.” Onstage with Uncle Tupelo were Mike Heidorn, their former drummer, and the members of the Bottle Rockets, whose singer (and former Uncle Tupelo roadie), Brian Henneman, handles the lead vocals here. It is, as could be expected, a raucous, sloppy, but exhilarating mess, which you can see here. The original, on the other hand, is a tight, funny story song with an incredible opening riff. It’s also another song that allegedly came from Ronnie Van Zant’s apparently colorful and exciting life.
Gov’t Mule – Simple Man (Lynyrd Skynyrd cover)
Another passionate ballad that has remained one of the band’s most popular songs, “Simple Man,” recounts a mother’s advice to her son, who is on the verge of stardom. Clearly, the songwriters of Lynyrd Skynryd were concerned about what would happen to them when the money and fame arrived. Gov’t Mule, featuring two latter-day members of the Allman Brothers, takes a pretty straightforward approach to the song. If anything, their version ratchets up the emotion even more than the original.
Rachel Wise – Things Goin’ On (Lynyrd Skynyrd cover)
The reputation of Skynyrd as Confederate-flag-waving rednecks is put to lie by this song, which decries the money spent on the Vietnam War and on the space program, when people were suffering in the ghetto. What exactly the band and its members believed about politics and race is a question, and there are clues that lead in all different directions. Much of this is addressed, directly and otherwise, in the Drive-By Truckers’ epic Southern Rock Opera, which discusses Skynyrd, the power of music, the “duality of the Southern thing,” politics, and whether Ronnie Van Zant and Neil Young were enemies or friends. This cover, by Memphis singer Rachel Wise, demonstrates that despite the heavy testosterone level in their music, covering Skynyrd is not the sole province of men.
David Zollo and the Body Electric – Mississippi Kid (Lynyrd Skynyrd cover)
“Mississippi Kid” is an outlaw song with a real country blues feel, and seems to owe something to “99 Year Blues,” originally recorded in the 1920’s by Julius Daniels, but possibly better known through Hot Tuna’s stoner version, released a year or so before our feature album. (Maybe. When you try to figure out which blues song influenced who, you can find yourself chasing your tail.) David Zollo, a keyboard player from Iowa who has played with Todd Snider, William Elliot Whitmore and Greg Brown, and his band, the Body Electric, turn it into a rollicking piano based blues in this live performance from 2007.
Ramon Levy – Poison Whiskey (Lynyrd Skynyrd cover)
A cautionary tale about excessive drinking, the warnings were likely honored more in the breach by the band, but that’s what the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle is all about, right? Of course, a few years later Rossington and Collins had alcohol-related car accidents, leading to “That Smell,” another cautionary song penned by Van Zant, who was cleaning up his act (which, as discussed above, didn’t prevent Collins from driving under the influence again, with disastrous consequences). This live cover, recorded just over a month ago on a kibbutz by Israeli bassist Ramon Levy, adds harmonica, which many artists who cover Lynyrd Skynyrd apparently believe was a glaring omission from their sound.
Martin Sexton – Free Bird (Lynyrd Skynyrd cover)
Where to begin? One of the most classic of classic rock songs, “Free Bird” almost defies discussion. Some now profess hatred for the song, where others have canonized it; let’s just call it an iconic song and leave it at that. Of course, it has been covered, and in endless permutations – there’s a cover by the Blue Man Group, an a capella version by Phish, your requisite bluegrass cover, and the covers most bar bands keep in their back pocket. This version, by Martin Sexton, is probably not the best cover, but it is a little different than most. Sexton slows it down, strips it to its bones and uses his astonishing voice to coax the emotion from the song, reminding us that its power does not only derive from the three-guitar barrage.
As a bit of an aside, here is Patterson Hood of the Drive-By Truckers discussing, in his inimitable fashion, the genesis of the Southern Rock Opera album and the band’s fear that the crash survivors wouldn’t like it, and how those survivors proved him right – and wrong.
Oh, yeah – at the beginning of the story, some idiot yells “Free Bird!” and someone, possibly the same idiot, yells “Free Bird sucks!” Which it doesn’t.