By Warrington Williams
The damned thing caught me again this week. This time, I was watching a video of an old acquaintance’s funeral. He was something of a biker — we’d ridden together occasionally in Texas and he hailed from Alabama. We were not close. He was just a guy I knew.
Whoever produced the video put a lot of effort into it. Lots of nice transitions, well framed shots, etc. I mean, what can you really do with a funeral video? The only thing that moved was the procession — a rent-by-the-hour Home Depot flatbed truck with his bike and coffin on it, followed by a ragged formation of bikers and their underdressed wives or girlfriends.
And of course, there was the soundtrack, the damned thing that has fascinated and irritated me most of my life: effing “Free Bird,” by the once talented band Lynyrd Skynyrd. It seems every time a cheesy movie about dead or dying rural white trash comes on, “Free Bird” is not far behind. I’ve heard it in horror flicks and romantic comedies, played by pep bands at basketball games, even once at a graduation ceremony.
It somehow became the “Stairway to Heaven” of Southern rock. People call for it as a joke in public places. I expect to hear it at Jimmy Carter’s funeral.
I admit I am totally deranged about all this. It’s a nice enough tune, with its juvenile lyrics and a musical formula — a soft, slow part, followed by a loud, fast part — that the grunge movement seemed to like a decade or so later.
Here is my issue. Once, I was a semi-talented guitar player who had abandoned rock and roll for the progressive acoustic music in the early 1970s (stuff we’d call Americana these days). The Allman Brothers made this a difficult position to maintain. There was no denying their superb musicianship, songwriting and incredible arrangements. Then came a flood of less talented wannabes (Black Oak Arkansas, Marshall Tucker, Charlie Daniels, etc.), all waving the flag of “Southern rock.” I know that surviving in the music business involves jumping on hot trends, but these people were shameless.
As a Southerner, I was pissed. The juvenile, mushy, and melodramatic lyrics embarrassed me ("heard it in a love song," my ass). I could live with it until I took a job tending bar at a local dive in Darlington, South Carolina (my hometown, sort of). That was the summer of “Sweet Home Alabama.”
Folks have written cheesy songs about shooting a jukebox, but buddy, I've been there. The bar owner loved his jukebox and had the volume set high enough to share this love with all of Darlington County. Our patrons were not fans of Thomas Wolfe (more a Cale Yarborough set), but they really, really liked “Sweet Home Alabama.” One particularly dark evening, “Sweet Home Alabama” played for 73 percent of my entire shift. I did the math.
I still flinch when I hear it, but I’m not here to bitch about “Sweet Home Alabama.”
I did, however, come away with a deep, burning hatred for Lynyrd Skynyrd.
Mixed into all this were the series of tragedies that beset both Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Allman Brothers. (For anyone too young or not Southern enough to know, the truly talented members of both bands were killed in unrelated accidents just as the bands were peaking). Naturally, they got canonized by their fans while diminished versions of the bands carried on. More room in the car.
You might have noticed I didn’t include Lynyrd Skynyrd on my list of wannabe Southern rock bands. That is because I have to admit that (musically, anyway) they were the real deal — a true sound of their own, technically very capable (when they chose to be), and reliably able to play really tough music on stage.
But here is the strange part: “Free Bird” as a single was just modestly successful. It never got above No. 47 in the U.S. when it came out in 1973, four years before the plane crash. It wasn’t until the 1980s when I noticed "Free Bird" creeping into mass media and still turning up with alarming regularity at cover-band shows. Despite my burning hatred, I tried to give it a chance. Then, I listened to the lyrics: A virginal, seventh-grade boy might have written them. They are melodramatic nonsense. This is very far from Skynyrd's best stuff. But people seem really touched by these words.
But I’m as free as a bird now
And this bird you cannot change
Oh lord, I can't change.
What? Seriously? Sorry, I know I’m badly outnumbered here. This little rant means nothing to anyone who really likes “Free Bird.” It’s like complaining about Trump. Or reality TV. One of us just doesn’t get it.
Like I said, I’m deranged here. But as a Southerner, I’m also embarrassed. Maybe we shouldn’t be in such a hurry to celebrate every little success that comes out of the South. Like “Free Bird.”