What Makes “Free Bird” So Damn Good?

The other night I was hanging out at Late Nite Pie on the edge of Montrose, drinking Lone Star and shooting the shit with friends, when Lynyrd Skynryd’s “Free Bird” started drifting out of the jukebox.

“It’s fucking `Free Bird’!” I announced to my tablemates, who nodded in happy agreement. “I love this song. And don’t mean in a kitschy way, or a hipster ironic way. I just love this song. Period.” Then I paused in drunken contemplation. “But what do you think it is that makes it so good?”

No one could really answer me, but my friend Tamarie admitted, “This song always reminds me of `Forrest Gump.’ That scene when Jenny crawls out the window after snorting fat lines of coke.”

I rolled my eyes at her and strained to hear the notes, then said, “I hated that movie, but I love this song.” I grabbed a pen out of my purse and a napkin off the table.

What makes Free Bird so good? I scrawled. I stuffed the napkin in my wallet and went back to drinking.

This morning, I found that note. (Now you know how this blog comes to life, people. Over beer at Late Nite Pie.)

What makes “Free Bird” so good? Is it the solemn, wistful, almost like it belongs in church beginning? Is it the nearly five-minute guitar solo at the end of the song? Or is it the slow, sexual, climax-like build up from earnest ballad to rock-out with your cock-out guitar boogie?

What is it?

Is it the haunting, heartbreaking opening line, “If I leave here tomorrow, would you still remember me?” made only more heartbreaking by the thoughts of the plane crash that killed Ronnie Van Zant, Steve Gaines, Cassie Gaines, and a bunch more back in `77? Is it the unspoken understanding that we all know that despite therapy, relationships, God, or political movements, we really “can’t change” either? (And the Lord knows…)

Is it the fact that “Free Bird” has entered into the fabric of our collective American experience, complete with references on Guitar Hero (or so I’m told)? It’s not really very funny when someone calls out “Free Bird” at a concert, just like it’s not very funny when you’re leaving that concert in a big mass of people and someone goes, “Moooo…” But still, it happens. Because it’s part of our social consciousness.

“Free Bird.”

Back in 2001, I saw a note for note cover of “Free Bird” performed at the Engine Room by indie rock superstars Built to Spill. Lead singer and guitarist Doug Martsch, who has long admitted he has been influenced by legendary classic rock bands, closed his show with a perfect, reverent cover of the song, and deny it though they tried, the hipsters surrounding me were clearly captivated by the sweet, sweet melody pouring from the stage. For a moment, we were all enveloped together in a staple of Americana. And it felt so good.

“They’re playing `Free Bird,’” I whispered to Mr. Pop Rocks, who was standing next to me solemnly.

“I know,” he said, taking my hand. “I know.”

I dunno what makes it so. But I fucking love that song, man. – Jennifer Mathieu