Though the plane crash that claimed the lives of singer Ronnie Van Zandt and guitarist Steve Gaines looms horrifically large over the history of Lynyrd Skynyrd, the band's legacy is as much about survival as it is tragedy. More than 35 years since the band was nearly snuffed out for good, their classic '70s material remains as popular and perhaps even more influential than ever.
Strains of the band's pioneering Southern rock sound are evident in both modern rock and modern country, and hits like "Sweet Home Alabama" have become time-tested musical staples on the radio and in bars all over the world. Lynyrd Skynyrd has survived because the fans refuse to let the music die.
While the original band's songs may be etched into the musical consciousness, there's another Lynyrd Skynyrd out there, too. Formed ten years after the plane crash as an explicit tribute to the band that once put Southern rock on the map, today's Skynyrd soldiers on with guitarist Gary Rossington as the sole original member left. Although the fans may be buy tickets to the new group's shows to hear "Free Bird" and the other classics, Lynyrd Skynyrd 2.0 now has a legacy of its own.
Skynyrd is scheduled to play a fundraiser that helps kick off the Republican National Convention this Sunday in Tampa, and this week also saw the release of the post-crash Skynyrd's eighth album, Last of a Dyin' Breed. They've now put out plenty more music than the original group did, which feels strange. Like a lot of Skynyrd fans, I've comfortably skipped everything that came after Ronnie's death. I mean, why bother? The "real" Skynyrd is gone. But after listening to the new record's titular lead single, though, I was struck with the realization that this new stuff might not be half bad.
"Last of a Dyin' Breed" is a nice piece of slide-guitar boogie that honors the past while reckoning that the present ain't such a bad place to be, either. Sure, Johnny Van Zandt ain't Ronnie, but his sweet and earnest voice undeniably works for this style.
The tune's got no frills and no solos; just honest, workmanlike rock. And hey, "An open highway's all I need" is the kind of Southern rock sentiment that I can get behind with no reservations. I give it a solid B+.
Hearing it, though, I couldn't help but wonder if I've been missing out on more good stuff from Skynyrd over the years. Have I been cheating myself out of some good tunes because they didn't fit the narrative of the band in my head?
I decided to find out. Thanks to the power of YouTube, it was easy to revisit the songs I've skipped from Skynyrd's second act. Could any of them hold a candle to the original band's output?
"Keeping the Faith"
"Keeping the Faith" is a single from Skynyrd's first post-crash album, Lynyrd Skynyrd 1991. I'll let you guess what year it was released. The highlight of this tune is Billy Powell's rollicking trademark piano licks, which go a long way toward making this sound like the real deal and not some unnecessary tribute act. The song is no classic, but it's unpretentious.
With only a modest guitar solo, this track's got none of the early-'90s excess of Guns N' Roses and other chart-topping hard rockers of the day, so at least the band wasn't trying to be something that they're not. The song's not great and maybe not too promising, either, but at least it's not embarrassing.
"Red, White and Blue (Love it or Leave)"
Let's try something a little more recent. Remember 9/11? I'd managed to completely forget about it (not) until I unearthed this single from Skynyrd's 2003 album Vicious Cycle. Much like Randy Travis' "America Will Always Stand," this song was part of a wave of jingoistic anthems that appeared in the run-up to war in Afghanistan and Iraq. So right out of the gate, it's more dated than Skynyrd songs that are 25 years older.
It's kind of interesting to see Lynyrd Skynyrd wrapping themselves in Old Glory for a change instead of the Stars and Bars, but the Americana they're glorifying here is a little odd. Johnny namechecks Sturgis, Camel cigarettes and, uh, paying taxes. OK. In reality, this is an out-and-out country song that's as much a tribute to Skynyrd itself as to America. The original band was never this self-aggrandizing, and it's a little sickening, to be honest.
The tune does have some sharp triple-guitar harmonies toward the end, but it's too little, too late to care much. This is a blatant cash-in.
"God and Guns"
Much as I don't care for "Love It or Leave," the song did manage to put Skynyrd Pt. 2 back on the radar of fans who prefer stealth bombers to carefully orchestrated diplomacy. They doubled down on the conservative angst for their first album of the Obama years, God and Guns, which was their highest-charting record since reforming.
Skynyrd may prize the Southern traditionalism of small-town church life, but they won't be beating swords into plowshares anytime soon. This titular track seems to take it for granted that the Almighty Himself is packin' heat, presumably to protect himself from Allah. Incongruous as they may be, though, there are certainly many pleasures to be found in both God and guns --and in this song, too.
Johnny proves yet again that he isn't half the lyricist that his brother was, but the toe-tappin' twang of the early verses gives way to some nice, hard guitars that had this ol' country boy bangin' his head a bit. The balls-out rock of the cut-time section toward the end is good enough to get even a Frenchman's feet stomping. As a Tea Party anthem, it works.
"That Ain't My America"
And here's where we go off the rails. Clearly intended to be a stinging rebuttal of modern life in Obama's America, "That Ain't" sounds way too slick and calculated to be genuine. The band's heart just doesn't quite seem into it: Van Zandt complains about being "mad as hell" about $100 tanks of gas and kids who "can't pray in school," but this is no protest song. It's political, pandering dreck with nothing much going on musically.
Just in case you weren't sure which side of the political divide Skynyrd has chosen, the song is dedicated to the women and men "holding a Bible and a gun." While that's something of a slap in the face to the man who wrote "Saturday Night Special" and spent more time in jail than church, it wouldn't matter as much if this song wasn't dull as fuck. But it is.
For this track from God and Guns, Skynyrd drops the modern country trip and gives modern rock a try. Clearly intended to be a live anthem, "Skynyrd Nation" owes more to Nickelback than to Ronnie Van Zandt. The song features some decent soloing as the guitarists trade bars, but there's not heck of a lot of feeling in there.
Give them credit for exploring a Clear Channel-worthy rock sound with a few Southern-rock flourishes, I guess, but we've already got more Nickelbacks than we need. Inoffensive as it is, I don't have any particular desire to hear this song ever again.
So, did I uncover any hidden gems in Lynyrd Skynyrd's post-plan crash catalogue? Not really. Some of it was better than I expected, but some of it was much worse. Maybe the band's strength really does lie in being the world's best tribute act after all.
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Then again, "Last of a Dyin' Breed" still gives me hope. If nothing else, Lynyrd Skynyrd's story of survival has proven that the past need not dictate the future. As the Bush years fade into the rearview mirror, maybe they'll find the inspiration to write songs that once again resonate beyond the Deep South.
In meantime, boys: Keep that Southern rock legacy alive. I wouldn't mind hearing "Free Bird" one more time.