By Rachel Bryan
I never saw Lynyrd Skynyrd, but I sure saw the Drive-By Truckers. As much as I love the Truckers, I know they wouldn’t sound the same if Lynyrd Skynyrd never recorded “Free Bird” in 1971 at the hottest studio at the time — Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in Muscle Shoals, Alabama.
If I leave here tomorrow
Would you still remember me?
For I must be traveling on, now
’Cause there's too many places I've got to see.
The gym teacher played “Free Bird” at the middle school dance the night I got my first kiss. “Sweet Home Alabama” has played at nearly every ball game I’ve ever attended. My sister and I drunkenly danced to “Gimme Three Steps” in a gas station parking lot in New Orleans during Mardi Gras. Lynyrd Skynyrd is as much a part of my heritage as my marble-mouthed Alabama accent, my affinity for biscuits, and the holes in the soles of my used Laredos. I’ll be damned if anyone tells me “Free Bird” shouldn’t define my South.
Growing up in Russellville, Alabama—a mere 15-minute drive from Muscle Shoals through the cotton flats on Highway 43—taught me a thing or two about music. I listened to the Drive-By Truckers as an elementary school student with a cool older sister. I was surrounded by the tracks of every musician the Swampers played with—mostly Aretha Franklin, but Percy Sledge, Wilson Pickett, and Bob Dylan made their respective ways into my boombox when my sister or parents were finished with the CDs. More than any of the talented acts that had that Muscle Shoals Sound, I remember my sweet, hard-working grandfather changing the cassette tape in his truck to Skynyrd after listening to an Elvis gospel record on the way to the Northside Grocery Store to get me a Dr. Pepper. A true Skynyrd fan can’t omit that fact that “Tuesday’s Gone” is perhaps the only song in the oeuvre of Southern rock that will make your pawpaw cry.
Like many Alabamians, I had a tortured relationship with Lynyrd Skynyrd and their confederate flag-flying ways. That was until I got older and came to understand our past, including George Wallace, segregation, and Reaganomics. Skynyrd became the soundtrack to my own rebellion and nostalgia, as I assume it has for most other like-minded Southerners, but only after I made peace with Skynyrd fans and distinguished the current iteration from the original lineup. The band’s use of the flag, according to some reports, was a “gimmick” fabricated by their record label, or it might have been Ronnie Van Zant trying to be the contrarian. Without dismissing the problematic marketing, the band did record a lot of progressive songs like “Things Goin’ On” and “Saturday Night Special,” which echoed the same progressive sentiments I was raised with. The point of the line, “in Birmingham they love the governor,” is the loud and proud “boo, boo, boo” that follows it. The original band was a metonym for the South’s problems writ large, stubbornly flying “Old Glory” while singing songs like “Free Bird” to re-frame what it meant to be part of the New South. I don’t know they occupied that space well, but they tried.
In July 1971, Lynyrd Skynyrd recorded their first ever album at Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in Muscle Shoals. On the record is a stripped-down version of “Free Bird,” and it doesn’t matter how many times you’ve heard the song. The Muscle Shoals version, released in 1978 after the infamous plane crash, warrants a second listen. Or a third. Just put it on repeat and you’ll hear it differently every time.
The ’71 version opens with a guitar lick that bounces around more than the anthemic, canonical version. This track isn’t an anthem—it’s anger, loss, and guitars dueling so loud that you can hear punk rock becoming a genre. When Ronnie gets to “lord knows,” you feel you’re halfway down a fifth of Buffalo Trace and the only thing that will free you is the bass line that jars your skull back into cognizance. You must listen to it at the right volume.
The song is an elegy to a collective loss that compels your thumb to reach for the clichéd Bic lighter. The lyrics are “juvenile” only to the folks without a poetic sense of universality or verisimilitude.
I know that the Drive-By Truckers, Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson, Hayes Carll, and all of your other Southern rock and Americana favorites wouldn’t sound the way they do without “Free Bird,” because I know that I wouldn’t talk the way I do without “Free Bird.” Yes, the song doesn’t know when to end, just like my stubborn people don’t know when to end.
When I am the dead or dying rural “white trash,” I hope my family knows me well enough to put “Free Bird” in my funeral video, followed only by “Poison Whiskey” as an homage to the way I’ll go out.
If you don’t like the song, then bless your heart, because you’ll have to miss out on the Methodist potato salad they’ll serve at my reception.