Guitar World pays tribute to Southern rock legends Lynyrd Skynyrd by ranking their greatest tracks.
25. “Honky Tonk Night Time Man”
Street Survivors (1977)
Like their take on JJ Cale’s “Call Me the Breeze” and Robert Johnson/Cream’s “Crossroads,” Lynyrd Skynyrd reimagined Merle Haggard’s “Honky Tonk Night Time Man” in an original fashion that stamped it as their own even while tipping their hat to a hero.
“We did this song to show our love for Merle and for all country music,” says Gary Rossington. And, like all of Street Survivors, the song was animated by Steve Gaines’ dynamic playing.
“Steve played an incredible solo here and it was a live first take,” says Rossington. “He only knew that it was a G progression and went out and played a mind-boggling solo. He didn’t even hardly know the song, but he played the s--- out of it. We were standing in the control room with our jaws dropped, and he strolled in and said, ‘How’d I do?’ We told him to go home and call it a day, because we knew it couldn’t get any better.”
24. “Poison Whiskey”
(pronounced 'lĕh-'nérd 'skin-'nérd) (1973)
Despite, or perhaps because of, many of the Lynyrd Skynyrd members’ struggles with addictions, Ronnie Van Zant was never shy about addressing the evils of overindulging. From “Poison Whiskey” on their first album to “That Smell” on Street Survivors, Van Zant directly addressed the dangers of over-indulging. Van Zant and Ed King wrote the song in one fell swoop.
“We sat down on his couch and wrote it after dinner one night,” King recalls.
This spontaneous songwriting was typical of Van Zant. “Ronnie believed that if you had to write something down to remember it, it couldn’t have been any good,” says Gary Rossington. “Who knows how many songs got away because of that? He would write constantly in the shower, walking around, wherever.”
23. “Whiskey Rock-a-Roller”
Nuthin’ Fancy (1975)
Skynyrd’s purest romantization of the musicians’ vagabond lifestyle—boozin’, cruisin’ and lady choosin’—was a vehicle for Ed King’s snapping Strat and Billy Powell’s straight-up Johnnie Johnson piano riffs. It’s a shot of basic rock and roll that resonated with the group’s hard-partying fans.
So no surprise that the song became a staple of concerts and ended up on side two of the pre-crash lineup’s only live album, albeit with Steve Gaines playing King’s parts. All three guitarists were Peavey endorsers at the time, as a glance at One More from the Road’s back cover amply displays. Gaines and Rossington both used the Peavey Mace, a versatile twin-speaker combo now long out of production, onstage.
22. “Swamp Music”
Second Helping (1974)
Besides their Southern heritage, Skynyrd also shared a taste for harmonized guitar parts with the Allman Brothers.
That’s on display in the chorus of this Ed King and Ronnie Van Zant number from the band’s hit-laden sophomore album, when King and Gary Rossington team up on a descending melody line that packs an extra hook into the chorus. King sets up the tune with his biting Strat tone, and Rossington delivers the guitar break with a little extra punch from his Les Paul.
Along the way Van Zant conjures an idyllic fantasy version of the rural South as an escape from big city life, name-dropping Delta blues icon Son House and pining for long days hunting with his coon hounds. Van Zant was an avid outdoorsman, so the sound of a yelping pack was likely music to his ears.
21. “Comin’ Home”
Skynyrd’s First and…Last (1978)
This is another track recorded during the band’s initial Muscle Shoals studio sessions of 1971-72, released posthumously on Skynyrd’s First and…Last (and Skynyrd’s First: The Complete Muscle Shoals Album) as well as 1998’s The Essential Lynyrd Skynyrd.
“Comin’ Home,” an original track written by Allen Collins and Ronnie Van Zant, displays more of a country/rock feeling than many of the harder, bluesier tunes recorded during these sessions, and displays the influence of west coast late Sixties rock bands like the Youngbloods and Quicksilver Messenger Service.
Collins’ flat-picked arpeggiated guitar part has a fingerpicked, banjo-esque feel, embellished by country style piano fills. The classic harder-edged Skynyrd feel comes in right at the song’s powerful chorus section, accentuated by Rossington’s bluesy and melodic slide guitar licks. The guitar solo section ramps things up a notch higher with a classic, high-energy Allen Collins solo, after which the song settles back into the quieter verse arrangement.
“Was I Right or Wrong” is a song recorded during the band’s very first recording sessions in 1971-72 at Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in Alabama. The songs recorded during these sessions were first issued in September 1978, about a year after the October 1977 tragic plane crash, as Skynyrd’s First and…Last, and later reissued in 1998 as Skynyrd’s First: The Complete Muscle Shoals Album.
With guitars and bass tuned down one half, the primary rhythm guitar during the verse sections arpeggiates through the D5/D7-G5-C5 chord progression in steady 16th notes, over which Ronnie Van Zant sings a bluesy/Appalachian folk melody while guitarist Gary Rossington adds subtle slide guitar fills in standard tuning.
The simple and plaintive feel of the music is reminiscent of one of the band’s biggest influences, the British band Free, which featured legendary guitar great Paul Kossoff.
The song then kicks into another gear at 2:32, locking into a “Gimme Three Steps” type feel, featuring rhythm parts similar to the Rolling Stones’ “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking.”
A demo of this tune is also included as a bonus track on the 1997 reissue of Second Helping, and the track was also subsequently included on the 1998 compilation, The Essential Lynyrd Skynyrd.
19. “Don’t Ask Me No Questions”
Gary Rossington and Ronnie Van Zant wrote this song on a fishing trip—a getaway from the pressures of the band’s increasingly complicated business affairs. Rossington’s big grinding chords and Ed King’s slide guitar deliver its message about music industry dishonesty with blunt force, but the song also works as an anthem for anybody who puts up with bulls--- to hold down a job.
The tune is part of a canon of Skynyrd tunes mocking “the Man” that also includes “Mr. Banker” and, of course, “Workin’ for MCA.” It was released as a single in April 1974 and stiffed, but after “Sweet Home Alabama” followed in June and hit the top 10, Skynyrd would carry a big stick in subsequent dealings with label brass.
18. “Gimme Back My Bullets”
Gimme Back My Bullets (1976)
As the title and opening track of the band’s fourth studio album, issued in early 1976, “Gimme Back My Bullets” makes reference to some of the trials and tribulations that the band had suffered at that point, mostly as the result of excessive partying and substance abuse.
Ronnie Van Zant, who at the time was making a concerted effort to get clean, sings on the chorus, “I ain’t foolin’ around ’cause I done had my fun…ain’t gonna see no more damage done,” and adds in the last verse, “I’ve been on top and it seems I lost my dream…But I’ve got it back and I’m feelin’ better everyday.”
With the departure of guitarist Ed King, Skynyrd were now a two-guitar band, and the rhythm/lead roles of Rossington-Collins are more well-defined on this release. On this particular track, Collins lays down the rhythm guitar while Rossington adds succinct, bluesy fills earmarked by pinch harmonics with a hard-driving Billy Gibbons–type delivery.
17. “Tuesday’s Gone”
(pronounced 'lĕh-'nérd 'skin-'nérd)
Though well known for their rockers and hard-charging attitude, some of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s greatest, deepest, most profound moments occurred on slower tunes; no one could do a power ballad better, as illustrated on “Tuesday’s Gone,” a melancholy song just begging to be played before an arena full of waving lighters.
“We’ve always liked doing the pretty songs,” says Gary Rossington. “I mean, we grew up on the Beatles.”
Perhaps more relevant than the Fab Four to Van Zant’s approach to ballads is Ed King’s comment: “Ronnie was really a country singer in a rock and roll band.” Songs like “Tuesday’s Gone” illustrate just how much of an impact Skynyrd had on Nashville, with its acoustic guitar driving the tune atop a steady backbeat, with a surging string section and sweeping piano flourishes making the bed for a muscular guitar solo.
16. “On the Hunt”
“On the Hunt” was recorded during the tumultuous sessions that resulted in the band’s third album, 1975’s Nuthin’ Fancy; just prior to entering the studio, original drummer Bob Burns left the band to be replaced by Artimus Pyle, and soon after the recording, both producer Al Kooper and guitarist Ed King stopped working with the band. Nevertheless, the album was their first to reach the Top 10, peaking at Number 9 and quickly achieving Gold status, though it includes none of the band’s most well-known songs.
“On the Hunt” prominently illustrates the band’s three-guitar attack, as dual harmonized lines played by Allen Collins and Ed King join Rossington’s single-note driven primary intro/chorus riff. The heavy rock feel of the tune recalls Mountain and Free with a groove very close to the Rolling Stones’ “Slave,” which was also recorded in 1975.
The Gibson players take the spotlight on this one: Gary Rossington wielding his Les Paul and Allen Collins delivering the meaty, wah-wah–colored solo and transitional riffs with his right-arm guitar, a 1964 Firebird I.
The guitar sported a mini-humbucker in the neck slot and a P-90 in the bridge, for a more snarling, throaty sound. And you can also hear Collins tug on the custom vibrato tailpiece he had mounted on the instrument.
The song is another of Ronnie Van Zant’s cautionary drug tales. And hypocritical, too, considering that his own intake—freshly chronicled in Mark Ribowsky’s new band history Whiskey Bottles and Brand-New Cars: The Fast Life and Sudden Death of Lynyrd Skynyrd —was notoriously prodigious.
14. “Ballad of Curtis Loew”
With Ed King and Gary Rossington alternating slide guitar melodies and producer Al Kooper on piano, this is the classic Skynyrd lineup’s acoustic centerpiece—the tale of an old black blues guitarist inspiring a young white man to a life in music. But they performed the song just once onstage—at a basement gig in a hotel, according to King.
However, “Curtis Loew” became a staple of the resurrected Johnny Van Zant–fronted version of the band and remains in their repertoire today. Perhaps that’s because the song’s subject is really a composite of several musicians the Skynyrd crew knew growing up, including current guitarist Ricky Medlocke’s father, Shorty Medlocke. The elder Medlocke wrote “Train, Train,” which became a Top 40 hit for Medlocke’s previous group, Southern rock stompers Blackfoot, in 1979.
13. “Down South Jukin’”
Skynyrd’s First and…Last
This early Rossington/Van Zant original is another song recorded during the band’s nascent Muscle Shoals sessions in 1971/72, released posthumously in 1978 on Skynyrd’s First and…Last and reissued in 1998 as Skynyrd’s First: The Complete Muscle Shoals Album.
The song combines the groove of “Gimme Three Steps” with guitar riffs and a chord progression very similar to “What’s Your Name.” This song offers a perfect example of the band’s signature lock-step dual guitar parts executed to perfection by Rossington and Collins.
The countrified solo licks, based on a series of oblique bends (two- and three-note figures wherein one of the two or three notes is bent while the others are fretted conventionally) played over the majority of the chords serve to bring elements of country and blues/rock music together, a definitive signature of the Skynyrd sound.
12. “Workin’ for MCA”
After Skynyrd lifted this musical middle finger as the first song at a showcase they played for MCA label reps in Atlanta, it became the regular opener of their concerts.
The band’s classic Les Paul, Firebird and Stratocaster lineup of Gary Rossington, Allen Collins and Ed King define the nexus of Pete Townshend bash and chooglin’ boogie as Ronnie Van Zant unfurls lyrics that are half band bio and half protest against what felt like record company indenture as their debut album sold at a trickle and the band members struggled with poverty.
Rock legend Al Kooper, who produced the first three albums and discovered Skynyrd in an Atlanta bar called Funocchio’s, is the “Yankee slicker” in the lyrics, and they really did sign their contract with MCA for $9,000.
11. “I Know a Little”
“This song sums up what Steve Gaines, who wrote it, meant to the band,” says Gary Rossington. “He was a great songwriter and singer—and an incredible guitarist. I’ve never heard anybody, including any of us, play his picking part quite right.
Steve had a lot to do with the writing and arrangements throughout this album and his playing was so good it really inspired us. When he joined, we were kind of in a lull. We were still selling a lot of tickets and records, but the music was getting a little boring to us. We needed a spark of inspiration, and Steve provided it. He put us back in the frame of mind we had had at the beginning; we started getting together and jamming at night.
“Steve was so good, he was a freak of nature. He used to p--- us off because he could do so many things that me and Allen couldn’t. Every time I ever went to his house or his hotel room, he had his black Les Paul on. He’d order room service and eat with his guitar on. He’d sit around and talk and not play it for an hour, but it would be strapped on. He’d watch TV with it on and play during commercials. It was like his third arm.”
Lynyrd Skynyrd was in a bit of a rut by the time of their fourth album, 1976’s Gimme Back My Bullets. Ed King had left and the band lacked its three-guitar attack.
The solution was close at hand in the form of Steve Gaines, the kid brother of backup singer Cassie.
Recalls Gary Rossington, “She asked if he could jam and I said, ‘F---, no!’ But she convinced us to give him a shot. So he joined us onstage one night, with no rehearsal or anything, and as soon as he started playing Allen and I looked at each other and our jaws dropped. We offered him the job, and he quit his band that night and joined the next day. He could play anything—chicken pickin’, country, blues, hard rock.”
Gaines animated all of Street Survivors, but “You Got That Right” may bear his stamp most of all; in addition to his usual great guitar picking, he wrote the song and sang it as a duet with Van Zant.
The late Oklahoma guitarist and singer J.J. Cale wrote “After Midnight” and “Cocaine,” both of which became hits for his friend Eric Clapton. On a whim, Lynyrd Skynyrd decided to play Cale’s “Call Me the Breeze.”
“We always liked J.J. Cale and we heard ‘Breeze’ one night sitting around the house and Ronnie said, ‘Let’s do that!’ ” says Gary Rossington, who wrote a completely new arrangement for the laidback shuffle.
“It didn’t work for us the way he did it—a real straight shuffle,” says Rossington. “If we had changed the lyrics, it would have been a completely different song. We did the same thing to Merle Haggard’s ‘Honky Tonk Night Time Man.’ ”
Ed King mostly played bass on Skynyrd’s debut album, temporarily replacing Leon Wilkeson, so the three-guitar lineup that helped the band to history wasn’t yet in place when this song was initially cut.
But many of the group’s signatures, like the twin guitar introduction to this tune, which opened that first album, were.
Gary Rossington and Allen Collins share the bluesy main riff and toss fills between their Les Paul and Firebird, but Collins takes the solo, picking bright cold-chiseled sprays of notes punctuated by tugs on his guitar’s custom whammy bar. It’s a big, rockin’ slab of prototypical southern-fried boogie, made even bigger by the addition of King’s replacement Steve Gaines on One More from the Road.
Deep in its guts, this is a blues song built on a shuffle beat and flamed up by Ed King’s E minor pentatonic solo played on his Sixties Strat, likely plugged into a Fender Twin.
But Skynyrd spun it into a Top 40 hit by bolstering the structure with their on-top-of-the-beat attack. The band kicks in on the second beat of the second bar, making the tune edgy from the start.
Add in the storyline about jealous murder with a cheap handgun and it’s a dark and stormy look into the black heart of America’s obsession with firearms—maybe even more timely today than when it was written by King and Ronnie Van Zant in 1974.
Like many of Skynyrd’s best songs, “Gimme Three Steps” was based on something that actually happened to Ronnie Van Zant.
Says Gary Rossington, “Ronnie went into a bar to look for someone and me and Allen were too young to get in so were waiting for him outside, and he came running out with a big ol’ guy chasing him, yelling. He had started dancing with this chick and this guy came in and was going to beat him up and Ronnie said, ‘Just give me three steps and I’m gone.’ The guy had a gun and he was a redneck and he was drunk—a nasty combination of things—and Ronnie said, ‘If you’re going to shoot me, it’s going to be in the a-- or in the elbow.’
And he took off like a bat out of hell. We got in the car and split and he told us what happened and we were laughing and we kind of wrote the song right there, drove over to Allen’s house, got his guitar and finished it.”
Although Skynyrd had hits, those hits were always on their own sonic terms.
“What’s Your Name,” inspired by the sexual and alcoholic exploits of rock-star life on the road, is the most overtly pop tune in their catalog. Hanging on one of Gary Rossington’s fat, hooky riffs, complimented by the snap of Steve Gaines’ Stratocaster and buoyed by Allen Collins’ mid-song Firebird solo, the tune was calculated; Rossington and Ronnie Van Zant purposely set out to write an upbeat smash with a lighter sound and scored the Number 13 slot on the pop charts.
Unfortunately, Van Zant never got to see their experiment succeed, as the song was released the month after the October 20, 1977, plane crash.
Gary Rossington’s booze and drug fueled exploits inspired Ronnie Van Zant’s lyrics and this song’s dark, rumbling, highway-to-hell attitude—and made the Street Survivors sessions drag on. Van Zant calls Rossington out by his nickname “Prince Charming” and sings about the night the guitarist crashed his new Ford Torino into a tree and a house.
But Rossington’s musical redemption comes in the soaring feedback and beefy bawl of his Les Paul sparring with Steve Gaines’ fusillades of singing Stratocaster. Rossington’s burly toned introduction grips from its first note to its perfect feedback trail. And lines cautioning that “the smell of death surrounds you” and “tomorrow might not be here for you” proved horrifically, if more broadly, prophetic when the band’s plane crashed three days after the album’s release, killing Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines and backup singer Cassie Gaines.
“Simple Man,” co-written by Ronnie Van Zant and Gary Rossington, has become one of the group’s trademark songs. The epic power ballad about a heartfelt message from a blue collar mother to her striving son starts slow and builds to a powerful Rossington solo; the music hammers home the message, which continues to resonate.
“Ronnie was a great storyteller,” says Rossington. “He wrote about things that were going on, things we saw every day and people related to it—and they still do.
According to Ed King, the group had to fight to even record the song.
“When we were just about done cutting the first album, we played ‘Simple Man’ for [producer] Al Kooper, and he said, ‘You guys are not gonna record that song,” says King. “So Ronnie took Kooper out to the parking lot, opened the door to Kooper’s Bentley, and said, ‘Get in.’ Kooper’s sitting there behind the wheel, and Ronnie shut the door and said, ‘When we’re done cutting it, we’ll call you. We cut the whole tune without him. When a band knows what it wants to do, it has to go with its heart and not listen to people on the outside.”
“I knew ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ was a classic the minute we wrote it,” says guitarist Ed King, who was primarily responsible for the song’s music, most notably its defining riff. He wrote it on his first day as the band’s guitarist.
King had met Lynyrd Skynyrd when his band the Strawberry Alarm Clock opened for them. When bassist Leon Wilkeson abruptly left the band, they asked King to fill in. When Wilkeson returned, King slid over to Strat, and their dual guitar lineup became a triple threat. Gary Rossington came up with a simple, evocative fingerpicked D, C, G progression—which he terms “the banjo/steel guitar part”—and feeling like he was onto something, kept playing it over and over.
“Gary had been playing his riff for 15 minutes when I walked in and threw mine in to bounce off of what Gary was doing,” recalls King. “That was what you know as the ‘Sweet Home’ riff, and when Ronnie heard it, he locked in and wrote the words.”
“He had all the lyrics within an hour,” says Rossington. “We used to travel through Alabama a lot and get onto back roads and just marvel at how pretty it was and how nice the people were. And Neil Young was, and still is, one of our favorite artists, so when he came out with ‘Southern Man’ and ‘Alabama,’ criticizing the South, we said, ‘Well, what does he know? He’s from Canada!’ So we threw that line about him in there. We were told by some people to take out the parts about Neil Young and [former Alabama governor] George Wallace, but we said, ‘Hey it’s just a song. And we’re going to record it the way we wrote it.’ ”
Adds King, “I wrote the choruses and everything up to Billy’s piano solo. It was a three-way collaboration as my part inspired Ronnie and I never would've been inspired to write my part without Gary's contribution.
“Right after we wrote it, Ronnie said to me ‘Well? There’s our Ramblin Man.’”
Guitarist Allen Collins came up with the music to “Free Bird” very early in the band’s songwriting process. But while everyone recognized the grace of the chord progression, Ronnie Van Zant could not come up with a suitable vocal melody.
Recalls Gary Rossington, “Allen had the chords for the beginning, pretty part for two full years and we kept asking Ronnie to write something and he kept telling us to forget it; he said there were too many chords so he couldn’t find a melody. He thought that he had to change with every chord.
Then one day we were at rehearsal and Allen started playing those chords again, and Ronnie said, ‘Those are pretty. Play them again.’ He said, ‘I got it,’ and wrote the lyrics in three or four minutes—the whole damned thing!”
Like “Stairway to Heaven,” one of its chief competitors for the unofficial title of rock’s most epic song, “Free Bird” starts out as a ballad before becoming a solo-fueled rocker. That was not by design, recalls Rossington: “When we started playing it in clubs, it was just the slow part. Ronnie said, ‘Why don’t you do something at the end of that so I can take a break for a few minutes.’ I came up with those three chords at the end and Allen and I traded solos and Ronnie kept telling us to make it longer; we were playing three or four sets a night, and he was looking to fill it up and get a break.”
The structure of “Free Bird” was set, but it was still lacking one final element; the elegant piano intro, which was written by then-roadie Billy Powell. “One of our roadies told us we should check out this piano part that another roadie had written as an intro for the song,” says Rossington. “We did—and Billy went from being a roadie to a member right then.”
The original album version of the song clocked in at almost 10 minutes and according to Rossington and Ed King, MCA objected to putting such a long song on the band’s debut album. A 3:30 radio edit was cut and the single, at 4:10, became a Top 20 hit. “MCA said we couldn’t put a 10-minute song on an album, because nobody would play it,” recalls King. “Of course, that was the song everyone gravitated toward!”
On Skynyrd's first live album, 1976's One More from the Road, Van Zant can be heard asking the crowd, “What song is it you wanna hear?” The overwhelming response leads into the 14-minute version of the song that became iconic. Though Van Zant often dedicated “Free Bird” to Duane Allman, contrary to urban legend, it was not written for him.
Photo: Ian Dickson/Redferns/Getty Images