The diversity of music styles always makes this experience a rich one. Today we leave soul and funk for the southern home cooking of Lynyrd Skynyrd and their debut album, “Pronounced’ Leh-‘Nerd ‘Skin-‘Nerd”. Rated #381 on Rolling Stone’s Top 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, this record demonstrates the raw power and musical strength of this Jacksonville, Florida based band (just an hour up the beach from me currently) who named their band after their overly strict high school P.E. teacher, Leonard Skinner. Apparently, Mr. Skinner didn’t think much of long hair or loud rock and roll. As they became more famous, they actually worked out things with Mr. Skinner, proving that closed minds can be opened.
On to the music, this is a really strong debut album, and might fall into that category where the band does their best, or some of their very best work, on their first album. All original tracks, the band was infamous for their extensive rehearsals and tight work in the studio and on the stage, so despite being a first album, they were definitely up for the challenge. The unquestioned leader and heart of the band was singer Ronnie Van Zant, and his personality and style are pervasive throughout this and every Lynyrd Skynyrd production. Accompanied by three lead guitars, a piano, bass and drums, Van Zant mixes in southern honky-tonk rockers with powerful guitar riffs, along with emotionally deep and impactful ballads. The record opens with the relatively funky beat and riff of “I Ain’t The One”, and in just 45 seconds or so, you have a pretty good idea what Lynyrd Skynyrd is all about. Next comes one of their most famous ballads, “Tuesday’s Gone”, which they actually had to fight for to include this great song on the album. With its soulful vocal performance and lead guitar line, it’s pretty amazing to think anyone could hear this and not hear a big hit. Next comes another personality-defining track, the big hit “Gimme Three Steps”, detailing a man’s desperate plea for reason when he finds himself caught dancing with the wrong girl at the local bar.
The power of this album keeps on showing through, as we next have another beautiful slow track, “Simple Man”. Like “Tuesday’s Gone”, this song helps to define the power ballad we come to hear so much of in the 1970s, and despite its melancholy feel, the multiple guitar tracks reflect the musical muscle Lynyrd Skynyrd always brought to the stage.
Side two isn’t quite as hit-laden, at least until the end, but the first three tracks, “Things Goin’ On”, “Mississippi Kid”, and “Poison Whiskey” all serve in their own way to properly intersect blues, guitar rock, honky-tonk and southern country flavor. I wasn’t really familiar with any of these songs, but I love them all. The more I listen to this album, the more I really respect and appreciate how damn good this band was.
To close out their first album, we have one of their two defining tracks as a band, the anthemic ballad turned guitar jam and audience favorite, “Free Bird”. Starting with the iconic organ notes, slowly joined by drums and acoustic guitar, and then Gary Rossington’s signature slide guitar that frames the first half of the song, Ronnie Van Zant sings us the woeful tale of a man who just can’t stay in one place, or with one person for too long. At different points in all of our lives, this song has probably served as an aspirational anthem for many of us, and will always represent a musical climax, whether in this album or for most of their live performances. As it builds and transitions into a multiple lead guitar assault jam that lasts for over five minutes, the momentum and power of this song can’t be stopped or denied. At this point, while a bit cliché and overplayed to some rock fans, there is no denying the greatness of “Free Bird”, and personally, I never get tired of it, no matter how many hundreds of times I have heard this song.
With all due respect to the Allman Brothers and other acts, Lynyrd Skynyrd are the undisputed all-time kings of southern rock music. While there are many gifted acts in the genre, and remarkable talents like the great Duane and Gregg Allman, none had the songwriting and storytelling presence of Ronnie Van Zant, whose firm grip on this band delivered several albums of greatness that will live on for many years to come.