Ronnie & Neil (and Jimmy Johnson)

by Patterson Hood

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EDITOR’S NOTE: Late last Thursday afternoon, a text arrived from Patterson Hood: “Now Jimmy Johnson has passed away. F***ing sucks.” Just a week earlier, he’d sent the text alerting us to the passing of another Muscle Shoals, Alabama, music legend, Donnie Fritts, and volunteering to write a tribute. After the news of Johnson’s death, we asked Hood if he was up for another. He said he might have something a little different for our readers. Hood has been writing a still-unfinished book, “Heathen Songs,” and he told us one of its completed chapters centered entirely on Jimmy Johnson. Here is that chapter, which will tell you much about how the great Swamper lived — and why he will be so fiercely missed.


 

First, a little rock and roll mythology:

When they were first starting out, the boys in Lynyrd Skynyrd were avid fans of bands like Free and Faces, the Who and the Rolling Stones, and, like most young people of taste in that era, Buffalo Springfield. 

As they got better and better, they no doubt emulated Neil Young as he embarked on his solo career and his day job in Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. Skynyrd was attempting to stake out its claim in the annals of rock stardom, which led them to my hometown of Muscle Shoals, Alabama.

That’s where my dad’s partner, Jimmy Johnson, produced Lynyrd Skynyrd's first recording sessions.

In the early 1970s, the Skynyrd boys were wild-ass redneck hell raisers, for sure, but they were very smart, especially their fearless leader, Ronnie Van Zant. They also possessed a deep and steely work ethic, and they spent a lot of time in the studio.

That’s where Jimmy Johnson showed them how to translate their great songs and arrangement ideas into a studio recording. 

Jimmy had grown up in Sheffield, just like my dad. He was a jock, a football player, but he had a keen ear for music. Both his dad and uncle had been aspiring musicians with a lot of talent and some level of local and regional success. Jimmy’s Uncle Dexter started the area’s very first recording studio in the back of his house in Sheffield, several years before FAME Studio opened. Dexter recorded the very first demos on a young Tanya Tucker a few years before she got discovered.

Jimmy played in a band called the Del-Rays with drummer Roger Hawkins. They were friendly rivals of my dad’s band, the Mystics. When the recording-studio scene erupted in the Shoals in the early 1960s, Jimmy and Roger were quick to get involved and soon were in the front end of a movement that later included my dad.

In 1965, Percy Sledge recorded “When a Man Loves a Woman” at the tiny Quinvy Studio, which acted as a bit of an overflow and demo studio for the more established FAME Studio down the road). Jimmy Johnson was the engineer.

After the massive success of the Sledge single, Jimmy and the rest of what became known as the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section played on an astounding number of hit records, mostly in the soul and rhythm-and-blues genres. Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Etta James, Clarence Carter, and many others all had hits recorded at FAME. 

In 1969, Johnson, Roger Hawkins, Barry Beckett, and my dad, David Hood, left FAME and started Muscle Shoals Sound Studio a couple of miles away in Sheffield. Jimmy engineered and played rhythm guitar on a vast array of records by the likes of Cher, Lulu, Boz Scaggs, The Staple Singers, Paul Simon, Cat Stevens, Linda Ronstadt, Simon & Garfunkel, Willie Nelson, Rod Stewart, Bob Seger, Julian Lennon, Jimmy Cliff, Bobby Womack, and many more. They also made two albums and toured the world as part of the band Traffic with Steve Winwood.

That same year, when the Rolling Stones came to town and recorded “Wild Horses,” “Brown Sugar,” and “You Gotta Move” at Muscle Shoals Sound Studios, Jimmy Johnson was the chief engineer on the session. Their producer, Jimmy Miller, had been detained at the border, so Jimmy effectively produced the session, even though he’s not credited as such. If you watch the 1970 documentary “Gimme Shelter,” you can see Jimmy right there, manning the board and calling the session to the Stones. The band added Bobby Keys on sax to the song at a later session, but Jimmy’s rough of “Brown Sugar,” without Keys, was so great the Stones spent weeks trying to cop it exactly for the finished album.

The week the Stones came to town, Muscle Shoals Sound was already booked with an unknown artist named R.B. Greaves. The Stones didn’t want to start until after dark, so Greaves’ moved to earlier in the day. Jimmy manned the board for both, essentially working around the clock. Greaves recorded what became Muscle Shoals Sound’s first gold record, “Take a Letter, Maria,” in the afternoon, and the Rolling Stones recorded “Brown Sugar” that night. Jimmy Johnson engineered both.

A few years later, Jimmy discovered an unknown band from Florida with a funny name: Lynyrd Skynyrd. Jimmy was convinced they would be huge. Everyone else in Muscle Shoals said he was crazy. Skynyrd had three guitar players and really long songs. 

They were a bunch of loud and uncompromising rednecks, but Jimmy recognized their brilliance. He tracked their very first recordings on his own dime during the rare off-days at Muscle Shoals Sound.

One day, while recording, the Skynyrd boys saw the delivery of a gold record from Leon Russell inscribed to “The Swampers.” The Muscle Shoals Sound Rhythm Section had been nicknamed that by Leon’s producer/manager, Denny Cordell, during the sessions for Leon Russell and the Shelter People, whose album featured a song called “Sweet Home Oklahoma.”

The album that Lynyrd Skynyrd recorded at my dad’s studio got pitched to all of the labels, but no one bit. Then, Jimmy Johnson and Ronnie Van Zant had a falling out over a misunderstanding. At that point in his life, Van Zant tended to fall out with many. But a year later, they were “discovered” by Al Kooper, who got them signed to MCA. Within a year, they were on their way to becoming major stars.

In the meantime, Neil Young, now ensconced as Rock and Roll Royalty in Southern California, was outraged by some of the footage he saw on the news of civil-rights abuses toward African Americans in the Deep South, and he wrote two landmark songs about it: “Southern Man” and “Alabama.” Both songs have a lot to say about my troubled and beloved home region’s dark side, but Ronnie Van Zant felt there should be an answer song, because he met and befriended a lot of “good people” during his time there. He wrote the lyrics to “Sweet Home Alabama” as a good-natured, loving bullshit-call to one of his favorite artists. The idea of the “answer song” was common in the earlier days of rock and roll. The R&B charts had tons of them, and they were also fairly common in the world of country music. 

The days of answers songs had already waned by the time Skynyrd recorded theirs. Nonetheless, the airwaves were soon flooded with these lines.

 I hope Neil Young will remember
 A Southern man don’t need him around, anyhow.

For the fourth and final verse of “Sweet Home Alabama,” Ronnie Van Zant held out an olive branch to his old mentor, Jimmy Johnson, and the band that he shared with my dad.

In Muscle Shoals, they’ve got the Swampers
They been known to pick a song or two
Lord, they get me off so much
They pick me up when I’m feeling blue, now how ’bout you?

I still have a vivid memory of riding in a 1972 Oldsmobile Delta 88 with my grandmother behind the wheel, listening to WQLT FM-107 and hearing that song. It was so exciting to hear my hometown and my dad’s band being called out in a hit song on the radio, even though it had already happened the year before on the Staple Singers’ hit, “I’ll Take You There,” when Mavis called out my dad, “Little David,” during the breakdown.

* * *

Legend has it, one day Neil Young was driving down the L.A. freeway in one of his fine vintage cars. It would have been summer, and I bet the windows were down. He had the radio cranked up when he heard an amazing guitar riff and a Southern voice call out, “Turn it up!” 

So Neil did just that.

Neil Young claimed he already was loving the song before he heard his own name called out in the second verse. Then, he loved it even more. He also wrote his own answer song, “Walk On.”

I heard some people been talking me down
Bring up my name and pass it around

I’m sure Ronnie and the boys loved that song. There are iconic photos of Ronnie Van Zant singing at England’s Knebworth Festival in front of nearly 100,000 people, wearing his Neil Young “Tonight’s the Night” T-shirt. Young and Van Zant became friends, and Young was an honorary pallbearer at Van Zant’s funeral.

Such is the duality of The Southern Thing.

* * *

Meanwhile, I was slugging it out in Muscle Shoals.

In 1988, I was playing in Adam’s House Cat with Mike Cooley. We won Musician Magazine’s Best Unsigned Band contest and still couldn’t get arrested. I felt trapped in my hometown and somehow powerless to leave it behind. I was a snotty little punk rocker, and in the grand rock and roll tradition of thumbing your nose to the people who piss you off, I wrote a song called “Buttholeville.” It became one of our band’s trademark songs during that era.

One night, Adam’s House Cat was playing one of our rare hometown shows — at a club named Swampers, no less — and Jimmy Johnson came to see us play. By this point, Jimmy and my father had been partners in music and business for over two decades and were close friends. I grew up playing in bands with Jimmy’s son, Jay (who very well might have been doing our sound that night). Jimmy was almost like a family member to me — sometimes stern and strict, but always very influential.

We played “Buttholeville,” and Jimmy was outraged. He told Jay he wanted to whip my ass right then and there. He no doubt could have. I doubt he ever said much about it to my dad, but for years he had a way of letting me know his disapproval toward me and what I had to say in that song.

At the time, I was pretty hurt and angry over his reaction to my song. I see it a lot more clearly now. Jimmy Johnson grew up in a place I renamed “Buttholeville,” and he was able to make all of his dreams come true, without ever having to leave home. He had grown into a very respected and beloved member of our town’s fabric, and rebelliousness was never really a big part of his artistic makeup. But I grew up loving punk rock and came of age just as the bubble of success in my hometown’s music scene was bursting. Many of the town’s most prominent musicians were leaving town for the higher grounds of Nashville or L.A. Dad and Jimmy were among the diehards who refused to leave. I came to the door just as it was slamming shut and I felt trapped and pissed. I wrote a song about it. I probably wrote a hundred songs about it. “Buttholeville” was the one that really stood out.

As word spread among the locals about my song, I always tried to explain the song wasn’t meant to be a literal tirade against home as much as it was an expression of my anger at a certain mindset. This might sound like a hedging of bets, but it’s honestly how I always looked at it. My town was always a duality to me. But still, I can’t think of anything in the world cooler and more beautiful than the miracle that occurred in this most unlikely of places during my childhood. My hometown seemed to me a land that time forgot — in the buckle of the Bible Belt, in a somewhat backward-looking dry county in North Alabama, a community almost completely controlled, politically and culturally, by a couple of churches, and isolated by geography and culture. 

But it had spawned a musical revolution that created worldwide shock waves. Muscle Shoals, the Hit Recording Capital of the World, birthed some of the greatest music of the 20th century. Paul Simon had come to try to capture that sound. As had Rod Stewart and Cat Stevens and Bob Seger. The Rolling Stones had landed their private plane at the tiny airport there, on their way to Altamont. It’s where Duane Allman talked Wilson Pickett into covering "Hey Jude” and where Bob Dylan came to make his Christian albums. The Where Aretha Franklin first sat down at the piano and found her sound before becoming one of the preeminent voices of the struggle for civil rights. 

I did and still do revere what happened there. I will always love my hometown with all my heart. My frustration is vented toward the people who didn’t realize its true beauty and potential diversity. The pious and the pompous. The pretentious and hypocritical. 

“Buttholeville” was, and is, a state of mind.

But in 1988, this wasn’t a conversation I could have with Jimmy Johnson. That would have to wait well over a decade.

* * *

Being on the outs with Jimmy Johnson was a long and hard thing for me. To me, he was much more than just my dad’s business and musical partner. He was family through and through, like a taskmaster uncle who would, when needed, be the first to kick your ass and then turn it into a lesson. 

Jimmy’s son, Jay, was a year younger than me. As teenagers, Jay and I had rival bands. His were always, by far, the better bands. Jay could play just about anything and play it well, but he mainly wanted to be a guitar player, and at 15 he was easily one of the best of our age group for miles around. 

My best friend growing up was Alex, and he was a pretty decent bass player. He was also a good-looking guy. At 16, he looked like Rick Springfield, which was considered a very good thing to the girls in our hometown at the time. Jay’s band was a much better band with a drummer named Tommy (whose last name I’ll also leave out of this), who was in his 20s and far better than any of the drummers in any of the other bands our age. Then Jay’s band lost their bass player, and he set his sights on Alex. Alex was a loyal friend to me and our band and told them no. Jay and I then cooked up the idea to merge our bands into one big local supergroup.

But Jay had an alternate plan. (My hometown could be ruthless and mean. Just saying.) He figured we’d be in the same band for a bit, then Tommy the drummer would not like me, and Jay’s hands would be tied when Tommy insisted on firing me, then they’d keep Alex and continue onward. What Jay didn’t count on was my great luck with drummers. I’ve led a charmed life with drummers, and Tommy was no exception. Soon, Tommy and I had become great friends and Jay was stuck with me. Furthermore, this being early 1980 and me loving new wave, suddenly the old Thin Lizzy and KISS covers were being joined by songs by the B-52’s, the Cars, and this new song I was obsessed with, by the Jim Carroll Band, called “People Who Died.” 

We would practice every Sunday (and sometimes Saturdays, too) at Jay’s grandparents’ house, which had a small practice room off the carport where Jay’s father used to practice with his band the Del-Rays. Jimmy would often drop by and enthrall us with tales of his live playing days as well as anecdotes about various musicians he had worked with. My dad never talked about his work, but Jimmy was loquacious and his stories were incredible (and mostly true). 

All of his tales had lessons for us to learn, some obvious and some that probably didn’t really sink in until a decade or so later. But as I’ve done this band thing for a living for the past 34 years, I’ve drawn on those lessons almost daily. 

Like stories about Levon Helm playing his drums in front of a large audience as his kit was falling apart, but he continued playing, holding the kit together with one hand, keeping with the other, kicking ass because “that’s what you do.” Tales of Eddie Hinton being one of the most talented people Jimmy ever saw come through the door of the studio but helplessly watching him slip into the darkness of addiction and madness. 

Or a story about a drummer he knew from his days playing the frat-party circuit of Alabama and Mississippi. The drummer would end each show with a drum solo, during which he would stand up and finish with a leap in the air, landing seated on his drum throne during a final cymbal crash. A nice stage trick in those days of “Louie Louie” and “Wooly Bully,” except that in those days, a drum seat wasn’t bolted down to the throne. And one evening when this drummer did his trick, he inadvertently knocked the seat off of the long steel rod that usually held it up. When he did his leap, he landed on the long steel rod, which went deep inside of him. He was taken to the hospital with his drum throne literally sticking out of his behind. 

That story made quite the impression on a bunch of 15- and 16-year-old bandmates.

My band with Jay Johnson grew fast and quickly became one of the better local outfits in our age group. Our first (and only) show was at the Muscle Shoals Junior High School auditorium, and the kids went crazy. Especially the girls who nearly ripped the clothes off of Alex, our good-looking bass player. 

Tommy sold weed and drove a cool 1970 Chevelle SS. He was a volunteer fireman and a pyromaniac. He had an eight-track player that constantly blasted “Live and Dangerous” by Thin Lizzy. He always had weed, and every couple of hours we’d leave practice to “go to the store” and smoke up in that loud fast SS, “Emerald” or “Cowboy Song” blasting through the co-axes. He built some flash-pots (like KISS used to use), and after practice we’d go out onto the street and Tommy would fill the pots with flash powder and run a line to his car battery. BOOM! We’d usually set off two or three before Jay’s grandmother would come out and make us stop. If the cops would happen by, they’d recognize Tommy from his firefighting and give him a stern word or two and leave.

During that period, Jay got into some trouble a couple of times. Tommy was with him both times, and Jimmy decided Tommy was a bad influence and had to go. Shortly after, Tommy packed his things and moved to Huntsville. He ended up finding work at a fledgling company that did pyro for touring bands. He ended up becoming one of the world’s foremost pyro guys, doing shows for KISS, Journey, and the Who among many others. He even has a cameo in the Who’s video for “Eminence Front.” 

When that all went down, we were all sure Jimmy had given Tommy “an offer he couldn’t refuse” to leave town. Jimmy didn’t deny it, and I’ll go to my grave believing he could, would, and did. Jay was grounded for months, and Alex and I decided to set up a meeting with Jimmy, to give him a “good talking-to” and set things straight. 

Alex and I drove across the river to Muscle Shoals Sound’s massive facility on the banks of the Tennessee River, and we were buzzed into the back. Jimmy met us and led us to his impressive office and asked us to wait for him in there for a bit while he finished up a few things. Alex and I were both 16 by then and, as they say, “full of beans,” all fired up and ready to let Jimmy know how things needed to be. Jimmy kept us waiting there for over two hours, during which time our energy and enthusiasm began to wane. By the time Jimmy was ready to address us, we had shrunk in size considerably. When Jimmy finally bounded through the door, we were probably ready to sneak out and call it a day. 

Jimmy hit that office door so hard we both thought it was going to fly off the hinges and immediately started screaming at us at the top of his lungs. Jimmy was a big guy back then, he’d still kept the heft of a former jock. When he yelled, he yelled loud, and he screamed at us for what seemed like two hours straight. (It was probably more like 45 minutes, but…) After reading us the riot act about how we would dare to question how he raised his son or anything else, he turned to us, standing over us bearing down with his face and eyes beet red, and screamed, “Now, what do you little fuckers want to talk to me about?”

Somehow, neither Alex nor I cried, but we did apologize in voices probably an octave higher than normal. After that, Jimmy talked to us for most of the afternoon about gifted people, especially Eddie Hinton, who he’d seen come and go, who never lived up to their potential due to drug and alcohol abuse and not being able to control their darker pulls. 

In the end, Jay stayed grounded for the next several months, our band was essentially over, and Tommy went on to work with his heroes. Alex and I drove back across the O’Neal Bridge in total silence.

Neither one of us will ever forget that day and the lessons we learned from Jimmy Johnson.

* * *

When the Drive-By Truckers began writing and creating what became “Southern Rock Opera,” I planned from the beginning to have a song about the friendship and fake feud of Ronnie Van Zant and Neil Young. I knew it needed to be the second song on the album, as it would lay the framework for some of the most important themes we wanted to explore. 

In my formative years, I was always the Rock Geek, and I memorized stories and myths and legends about all of my favorites. Skynyrd had an abundance of legends. Their story was grand and literary. They came out of a swampland in Florida and crashed into the swamps of southern Mississippi in the most literal way. They were poor street kids, many of them fatherless, who chased a dream and captured it in the biggest way imaginable, succumbed to the usual demons and pitfalls, but were well on their way to overcoming all of that before the plane crash ended it all. 

Even though most of them survived the actual accident, they never recovered from the physical or mental scars. A band with that name reformed a decade later and has carried on to this day, but without Ronnie, it was never the same or even in the league. Most of the survivors died well before their time thanks to the ravages of that fall from grace. 

If “Southern rock” was born the day Duane Allman, shortly before forming the Allman Brothers Band, played slide guitar on Wilson Pickett’s “Hey Jude” at FAME Studio (another session Jimmy Johnson engineered), then it died one afternoon in 1977 outside of Gillsburg, Mississippi, when their 1948 Corsair ran out of fuel and crashed into the trees and mud.

Angels and Fuselage.

* * *

I had a guitar riff. It had to be a good one, maybe the best one I ever wrote. On the day I decided it was time to write “Ronnie and Neil,” my antenna was up high and I found the perfect riff to carry the load. It was early 2000, and time was fast approaching to make “Southern Rock Opera.”  

“Ronnie and Neil” was a key piece of the puzzle that needed to be written. I can’t remember being the least bit stressed about it, such was my confidence. Especially during the writing process, which I will always consider to be one of the absolute high points of my creative life. We didn’t have the money to make it the way we envisioned it. I would have to basically re-learn how to play to even play my parts in it, and I had no idea how I was going to sing it, but by God, I knew that we could write it, and for the most part, it was as if we could do no wrong.

I already had the first and last song on the album. I knew that the record would begin with a fatal car accident and end with the plane crash. 

I knew “Ronnie and Neil” would establish the true tone, musical and lyrically, of the album. It would begin with the church bombing in Birmingham and continue through the civil-rights struggle, all juxtaposed with the musical miracle in Muscle Shoals. How those two things happened simultaneously at such close proximity. The duality of the southern thing.

Ronnie and Neil, Ronnie and Neil
Rock Stars today ain’t half as real
Speaking their mind about the way they feel
Let your guitars blast for Ronnie and Neil

An almost nursery-rhyme simplicity. Like Ronnie’s songs. Like some of Neil Young’s, too.

The second verse would set up Neil’s part of the story, juxtaposed with Lynyrd Skynyrd recording with Jimmy Johnson. As I was writing it, I knew to call him out by name. An olive branch to someone I loved, who had felt wronged by my words and actions.

Meanwhile in North Alabama, Lynyrd Skynyrd came to town
To record with Jimmy Johnson at Muscle Shoals Sound

I kept it the tradition of the answer song and the lyrical apology. I knew Jimmy would love it, and I’m pretty sure he did.

The band worked up the song almost effortlessly. It just fit like a glove. On my end, I had a bit of a hard time getting the feel right on the chorus, but the rest of the band played it so well it became easier for me.

Singing it was a much harder matter. I still can’t hear the version on “SRO” without kinda cringing at the sound of my voice straining to hit the notes on the chorus, but it was the best I could do at the time. My range has greatly improved since then, as has my pitch, and now I can actually sing it the way I meant it to be sung. I’m very grateful.

“Ronnie and Neil” ends with Neil Young supposedly writing “Powderfinger” for Lynyrd Skynyrd’s next album, the album they didn’t live to make. Instead, it became one of the most beloved songs of Neil’s career.

Let your guitars blast!

 
 

“Ronnie and Neil”

Church blows up in Birmingham, 
four little black girls killed for no goddamn good reason
All this hate and violence can’t come to no good end
A stain on the good name
Whole lot of good people dragged through the blood and glass
A blood stain on the good name
And all of us take the blame

Meanwhile in North Alabama, Wilson Pickett comes to town
To record some sweet soul music, get that Muscle Shoals Sound

Meanwhile in North Alabama, Aretha Franklin comes to town
To record some sweet soul music, get that Muscle Shoals Sound

And out in California, a rock star from Canada wrote a couple of great songs 
About the bad shit that went down
“Southern Man” and “Alabama” certainly told some truth
But there’s a lot of good folks down here, and Neil Young just wasn’t around

Meanwhile in North Alabama, Lynyrd Skynyrd came to town
to record with Jimmy Johnson at Muscle Shoals Sound
And they met some real good people, not racist pieces of shit
And they wrote a song about it and that song became a hit

Ronnie and Neil, Ronnie and Neil
Rock stars today ain’t half as real
Speaking their mind about the way they feel
Let your guitars blast for Ronnie and Neil

Now Ronnie and Neil became good friends, their feud was all in song
Skynyrd was a bunch of Neil Young fans and Neil he loved that song

So he wrote “Powderfinger” for Skynyrd to record
But Ronnie ended up singing “Sweet Home Alabama” to the lord
And Neil helped carry Ronnie in his casket to the ground
And to my way of thinking, us Southern men still need both of them around

Ronnie and Neil, Ronnie and Neil
Rock stars today ain’t half as real
Speaking their mind about the way they feel
Let your guitars blast for Ronnie and Neil


 
 
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Epilogue: 

Jimmy Johnson passed away on the 5th of September 2019, at the age of 76. 

I likened his presence in my life to the big oak tree at the homestead. Even when I couldn’t see it, I always knew it was there and could not fathom it being gone. 

He and my dad were best friends, partners, and brothers for most of their lives. Dad has always said he wouldn’t have become a successful musician if it weren’t for Jimmy Johnson. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have either. 

I’m so happy I was able to make peace with Jimmy and that we ended on such a high note. We spent the afternoon in New York City playing and hanging out together for the premiere of the acclaimed “Muscle Shoals” documentary film — and again a few years later when there was a Muscle Shoals tribute at Lincoln Center. 

He told me he was proud of me.

Few things have ever meant more to me than that.