It might not be too much of a stretch to say that "Sweet Home Alabama" is southern rock. The sound has that classic sound: a little bit blues, a little bit country, and a whole mess of guitar-driven hard rock.
The lyrics offer up a robust (if controversial) defense of "the Southland" from outside criticism. And the band—its career tragically cut short by a deadly 1977 plane crash—fully represents two ideas that have long held currency in the South: good ole' boys and famous lost causes.
So, to quote Ronnie Van Zant's legendary intro to the song: "Turn it up!" And let this big tune carry you home to see your kin in Sweet Home Alabamy. Even if you don't actually have any; after all, neither did the Florida-born boys of Lynyrd Skynyrd, but they obviously didn't let that stop them.
|Writer(s)||Ed King, Gary Rossington, Ronnie Van Zant|
|Musician(s)||Ronnie Van Zant (vocals), Ed King (guitar), Gary Rossington (guitar), Allen Collins (guitar), Leon Wilkeson (bass), Bob Burns (drums), Billy Powell (keyboards)|
|Learn to play||Tablature|
The most obvious influences for "Sweet Home Alabama" are invoked in the song itself—Neil Young's social criticism tunes "Alabama" and "Southern Man," and the music of the Muscle Shoals session musicians known as the Swampers.
Young's strident criticism of southern racism prompted Skynyrd's response in "Sweet Home Alabama," but Young's influence on the band wasn't limited only to disputatious lyrical content. Lynyrd Skynyrd also loved his music, and the band's grungy, straightforward, hard-rocking sound owes something to the countless hours they spent listening to Young's work with Buffalo Springfield, CSNY, and as a solo artist. (Ronnie Van Zant said he owned every record Neil Young ever released.)
The last verse of "Sweet Home Alabama" gets a lot less attention than the controversial earlier bits that deal with Neil Young, George Wallace, and Watergate, but Ronnie Van Zant's shoutout to "the Swampers" in Muscle Shoals refers to another profound influence on the band's sound. The Muscle Shoals Sound Studio was a tiny recording studio in a small town in northern Alabama that had an outsized impact on modern music. The session men there—a group of musicians known as the Swampers because they sounded like they were playing swamp music—perfected a bluesy, authentic sound that backed a staggering number of rock, soul, blues, and country hits in the 1960s and '70s. (Besides Skynyrd, other major artists who made the trek to Muscle Shoals to record music ranged from the Rolling Stones to Aretha Franklin to Bob Dylan to the Staples Singers. Lynyrd Skynyrd, with its famous triple-lead-guitar attack, built a harder sound than the Swampers… but always kept a hint of that swamp music flavor.
Speaking more generally, Skynyrd emerged from the same earthy blues-rock tradition that had produced bands ranging from the Rolling Stones to Creedence Clearwater Revival to the Allman Brothers.
"Sweet Home Alabama" quickly shot up to #8 on the charts shortly after its release as a single in 1974, making it the most successful southern rock song of all time and ensuring that it would influence generations of subsequent music. In the short term, the song helped to make the entire genre of southern rock a major fad in the mid-1970s; in a 1974 interview, Ronnie Van Zant actually complained that temporary enthusiasm for the "southern scene" meant that "a great band from New York has less of a chance now than an average band from the South."
"Sweet Home Alabama" has also inspired, over the years, a staggering array of covers and samples. A country version from the band Alabama, a folk-lite version from Jewel, a downtempo rock version from Big Head Todd and the Monsters, a Nazi-punk version (yikes!) from the British skinhead band Skrewdriver. An Argentine singer reworked the song into "Sweet Home Buenos Aires"; an Israeli songwriter into "Sweet Home Jerusalem"; a band from Spanish Galicia into "Miña Terra Galega." And the song's signature guitar riff has been sampled by multiple hip-hop acts, ranging from the painfully obvious (Kid Rock on "All Summer Long") to the more surprising (the Geto Boys on "Gangster of Love").
Lee Ballinger, Lynyrd Skynyrd: An Oral History (2002)
A brilliant collection of interviews, dating from the 1970s through the 2000s, with all the key players in the Lynyrd Skynyrd story. A treasure trove for true fans and music historians.
Gene Odom with Frank Dorman, Lynyrd Skynyrd: Remembering the Free Birds of Southern Rock (2002)
Gene Odom grew up with the boys who would later form Lynyrd Skynyrd in Jacksonville, Florida, and later became the band's bodyguard. Odom was aboard the chartered plane that crashed down in a Mississippi swamp in 1977, killing Ronnie Van Zant and two other band members and effectively ending the band's run. This memoir begins with a gripping account of that fateful flight; the sections of the book focused on the band members' youthful hijinks are also fascinating.
Marley Brant, Freebirds: The Lynyrd Skynyrd Story (2002)
This is the definitive group biography of Lynyrd Skynyrd. If you're only going to read one book on the band, this should be it.
The cover art for Skynyrd's 1977 album "Street Survivors" depicted the band standing amidst flames. Ironically, and horribly, just three days after the album was released, the band's plane crashed down in Mississippi, killing three members.
Ronnie and Neil
Lynyrd Skynyrd frontman Ronnie Van Zant performs in concert while wearing his favorite Neil Young t-shirt.
The cover art for the 1974 single release of "Sweet Home Alabama."
Lynyrd Skynyrd perform before a Confederate Flag backdrop.
Sweet Home Alabama (2002)
We are 100% sure that the actual members of Lynyrd Skynyrd would have hated this sappy Reese Witherspoon romantic comedy. We're pretty sure they would have hated the Jewel cover of their song that rolls during the credits, too. But if nothing else, the movie proves how much the song has come to stand in as the embodiment of all things southern in American pop culture.
Freebird The Movie / Tribute Tour (1996)
This two-DVD set provides an interesting—if somewhat sad—contrast. The first (and much better) disc is Freebird The Movie, a mashup of concert footage and behind-the-scenes interviews filmed back in the 1970s, during the band's heyday. The raw energy of Skynyrd's concert performance comes through loud and strong, despite grainy video and flat sound mastering. The second disc captures a concert put on by the reconstituted Skynyrd lineup in the early nineties; mostly it serves to show just how much was lost in that plane crash—the setlist may be the same but the music just isn't.
Lynyrd Skynyrd History
Judy Van Zant Jenness, the widow of original Skynyrd frontman Ronnie Van Zant, built this rich trove of information on the band's history and legacy. The website design is hideously ugly, but don't let that fool you; there's tons of great stuff here. Make sure to check out the biographies of all the original band members and the collection of old promo photos.
Official Lynyrd Skynyrd Fan Site
The online home for the current version of the band, which sadly still includes only one original member, guitarist Gary Rossington. This is the place to go for current news, tour dates, and merch.
Lynyrd Skynyrd & Neil Young
A Neil Young fansite offers up a thoughtful meditation on the complex relationship between the two rock icons, and what the lyrics of "Sweet Home Alabama" really were all about. A worthwhile read for any fan.
Skynyrd in England
In this clip from 1975, the band performs "Sweet Home Alabama" on the British variety show "Old Grey Whistle Test." Watch out for the unfurling of a giant Confederate flag backdrop halfway through the song.
Hall of Fame
In 2006, Lynyrd Skynyrd were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Kid Rock, who has modeled much of his act after Skynyrd, formally inducted the band and joined them for a performance of "Sweet Home Alabama."
Sweet Home Jerusalem
Israeli musician Menachem Herman reworks the lyrics to show the global reach of the spirit of "Sweet Home Alabama"
A Finnish band called The Leningrad Cowboys, backed by the Soviet Red Army Choir (really—these guys used to be the official singers of the Soviet military) sing songs about the Southland. No, this does not make any sense.
"Sweet Home Alabama" In Concert
In this archival footage from the 1970s, Skynyrd perform their classic hit before an audience of thousands of fans.