As I gave some thought to the question of identifying the best American rock ‘n’ roll band, I decided to consult an unimpeachable source of information — my Ipod. Upon doing so, I realized that it includes a lot of Lynyrd Skynyrd songs. Cognito, ergo sum: I have many Lynyrd Skynyrd songs on my Ipod, therefore they must be a great rock ‘n’ roll band.
In fairness, some of those songs are on my Ipod because that are particularly evocative of a time and place. In this instance, the time and place are a crappy two-bedroom apartment on the bottom floor of a two-story stuccoed building at 101 West Eighth Avenue, about four blocks from the Ohio State campus, in the late 1970s. Although I had heard Sweet Home Alabama and Free Bird in high school, I wasn’t really introduced to Skynyrd until college, where my roommate was a Skynyrd freak. We constantly played the first album (called, simply, “Pronounced” at 101 W. 8th) and Second Helping and, when it came out later, Street Survivors. Basically, then, any Skynyrd song gives me a strong sense of the college years. Later, when I was in law school, I adopted Call Me The Breeze as a kind of theme song and played to get me fired up before every first-year law school exam. I question whether any better air guitar (or, for that matter, air piano) song has ever been recorded.
So, I’m biased. Nevertheless, I think Skynyrd can objectively be considered one of the best American rock ‘n’ roll bands even though their career was tragically cut short in 1977 by a plane crash that killed several band members. They had a strong Southern flavor, a striking multiple-guitar sound, wonderful keyboards, and excellent lead vocals — but their songs also reflected an interesting perspective and, in some cases, strong political views. Things Goin’ On, for example, is an excellent protest song, and Sweet Home Alabama, of course, featured a notable reference to the Watergate scandal. And, their music easily passes the car radio test — the volume inevitably got cranked when Gimme Three Steps and I Know A Little were played on the local rock station. When Ronnie Van Zant said “turn it up” at the beginning of Sweet Home Alabama, people listened and obeyed.
The Ipod doesn’t lie, and it includes 19 Skynyrd songs. Some are there because they remind me of specific college moments (like The Ballad of Curtis Loew, a name that was strikingly similar to the name of an older man who was a classmate in the Journalism 202 class my roommate and I took), but most are there because they are just great tunes: songs like Sweet Home Alabama, I Ain’t The One, Tuesday’s Gone, Gimme Three Steps, Simple Man, I Know A Little, Swamp Music, Things Goin’ On, and Free Bird. Skynyrd did not invent Southern rock, but it sure did a lot to advance the genre. I think Skynyrd clearly deserves careful consideration on any “best American band” list.
Edited to add: Time to Vote for your choice for Best American Band!