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Country News

August 13 marks 50 years since Lynyrd Skynyrd released their debut album, the classic (Pronounced ‘Leh-Nerd Skin-Nerd), an album that changed American music.

Forming before either the Marshall Tucker Band and the Allman Brothers Band, the band were pioneers in “Southern rock.” They merged the vibe of blues-based rock that hippies were playing with a strong sense of Southern pride. Musically, they combined blues, bluegrass, country, and of course, rock and roll to make something distinctly American.

Pronounced… gave rock radio some of its most enduring hits, including “Gimme Three Steps,” “Simple Man,” and one of the format’s biggest classics, “Freebird.” The lineup on the album featured drummer Bob Berns, keyboardist Billy Powell, bassist Ed King (who soon moved to guitar when founding bassist Leon Wilkeson returned to the band), guitarist Allen Collins, singer Ronnie Van Zant and guitarist Gary Rossington.

RELATED: 9 Lynyrd Skynyrd Memorabilia Items Even Leonard Skinner Would Love

With Rossington’s recent passing, no more members of this lineup still walk the earth. But all great art lives longer than the creators, and it’s safe to say that Pronounced… will be considered a classic album for generations to come.

Skynyrd’s career came to a tragic end on October 20, 1977, when the band’s plane crashed in Gillsburg, Mississippi. Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines, and backup singer Cassie Gaines died in the crash. Assistance road manager Dean Kilpatrick also perished in the tragedy, along with pilot Walter McCreary and co-pilot William John Gray.

Rossington led a reunited version of the band a decade later. Ronnie’s younger brother, Johnny Van Zant (who was already a solo artist), became the band’s new singer. As anyone who has seen the band over the past three decades knows, he’s done an amazing job leading the band – and it looks like he will continue to do so. He’s also sung on eight studio albums, all of which have their gems.

But here, we’re counting down the 20 best songs from Skynyrd’s original era, with Ronnie on vocals.

  • 20. “Don’t Ask Me No Questions” from ‘Second Helping’ (1974)

    Co-written by Ronnie Van Zant and Gary Rossington, the song showed an early ambivalence about stardom. “Well, it’s true, I love the money/And I love my brand-new car/I like drinking the best of whiskey/Playin’ in a honkeytonk bar,” Ronnie sings. But, he adds, “When I come off the road/Well, I just gotta have my time/’Cause I got to find a break in this action/Or else I’m gonna lose my mind.”

  • 19. “I’m A Country Boy” from ‘Nuthin’ Fancy’ (1975)

    Co-written by Ronnie Van Zant and Allen Collins, as the title insinuates, this is an anthem of rural pride. But it also sounds like a pseudo-hippie environmental anthem as well. “I don’t like smoke chokin’ up my air/And some of those city folks well they don’t care/I don’t like cars buzzing around/I don’t even want a piece of concrete in my town/I like sunshine, fresh clean air/Makes me feel like you wouldn’t care but/That’s all right, each to his own/But one smell from the city/And this country boy is gone.”

  • 18. “I Know A Little” from ‘Street Survivors’ (1977)

    One of the few Skynyrd originals not co-written by Ronnie Van Zant. Guitarist Steve Gaines, who joined the band for the Street Survivors album, contributed two songs to the record and this one ranks among Skynyrd’s finest.

  • 17. “Call Me The Breeze (live)” from ‘One More For The Road’ (1976)

    One of Skynyrd’s best covers, but many don’t realize that it’s not an original. It’s a cover of a song by J.J. Cale, the same guy who wrote “After Midnight” and “Cocaine,” both of which were later covered by Eric Clapton.

  • 16. “Workin’ For MCA” from ‘Second Helping’ (1974)

    Written by Ed King and Ronnie Van Zant, the song is something of a tribute to their record label, MCA. They’re understandably suspicious of the record label guy: “I worked in every joint you can name, mister, every honky tonk/Along come Mr. Yankee slicker, sayin’ ‘Maybe you’re what I want.’” But ultimately, of course, the band took the deal: “Oh, nine thousand dollars, that’s all we could win/But we smiled at the Yankee slicker with a big ol’ Southern grin/They’re gonna take me out to California, gonna make me a superstar/Just pay me all of my money, mister, maybe you won’t get a scar.” “Mr. Yankee slicker” was allegedly Al Kooper, the guy who signed them to the label and who produced their early albums.

  • 15. “You Got That Right” from ‘Street Survivors’ (1977)

    Written by Ronnie Van Zant and Steve Gaines; they traded lead vocals on the song as well.  It starts out as a party jam about guys who won’t settle down and live for a good time: “I like to drink and dance all night/Comes to a fix not afraid to fight.” In retrospect, it’s a bit haunting when you hear this line: “When my times up I’m on my own, you won’t find me in an old folk’s home.”

  • 14. “Gimme Three Steps” from ‘(Pronounced ‘Leh-Nerd Skin-Nerd)’ (1973)

    Written by Ronnie Van Zant and Allen Collins. In “You Got That Right,” Ronnie sang about not being afraid to fight. But four years earlier on this song, he was quick to avoid a fight that he was sure he wouldn’t win. The narrator gets caught dancing with another man’s girlfriend and asks him to just give him three steps. The guy doesn’t quite grant that favor, but while he’s yelling at the woman, our “hero” takes advantage of the opportunity to bolt.

  • 13. “All I Can Do Is Write About It” from ‘Gimme Back My Bullets’ (1976)

    Written by Ronnie Van Zant and Allen Collins. Like so many Skynyrd songs, it expresses a sense of pride in being from a rural area. And like “I’m A Country Boy,” it also reads as an environmental anthem, when Ronnie sings, “Did you ever see a she-gator protect her youngin’/Or fish in a river swimmin’ free/Did you ever see the beauty of the hills of Carolina/Or the sweetness of the grass in Tennessee/And Lord I can’t make any changes/All I can do is write ’em in a song/’Cause if I can seen the concrete a slowly creepin’/Lord take me and mine before that comes.”

  • 12. “I Ain’t The One” from ‘(Pronounced ‘Leh-Nerd Skin-Nerd)’ (1973)

    Written by Ronnie Van Zant and Gary Rossington, this is the first song on the first Skynyrd album. It hits on a theme that would be repeated on the album’s last song, “Free Bird”: the fact that the narrator isn’t the type to settle down. “Got bells in your mind mama, and it’s easy to see/I think it’s time for me to move along, I do believe/Time for me to put my boots out in the street missy.”

  • 11. “That Smell” from ‘Street Survivors’ (1977)

    Written by Ronnie Van Zant and Allen Collins. It’s a stark warning about the dangers of overindulging in drugs and alcohol. The line, “Now they call you ‘Prince Charming’/Can’t speak a word when you’re full of ‘ludes,” was supposedly a reference to Gary Rossington.

  • 10. “Searching” from ‘Gimme Back My Bullets’ (1976)

    Written by Ronnie Van Zant and Allen Collins. Van Zant’s “rambling man” habit of not sticking with any one woman seemed to be losing its lustre. In this song, he seeks the advice of an older, wise man. And that wise man told him, “You got stacks of money to the sky up above/Now all you need is to find you a love.” While Van Zant figures out how to do that, Rossington and Collins interweaving guitars prove that they are one of the greatest guitar teams of all time. Skynyrd, of course, were often a three-guitar band, with either Ed King or Steve Gaines as the third guitarist. But the albums with just Rossington and Collins – ‘Pronounced ‘Leh-Nerd Skin-Nerd’ and ‘Gimme Back My Bullets’ – never felt like they were missing anything, guitar-wise.

  • 9. “Gimme Back My Bullets” from ‘Gimme Back My Bullets’ (1976)

    Written by Ronnie Van Zant and Gary Rossington. It’s not about firearms; apparently, the “bullets” referred to the Billboard charts, where a hot new single would be referred to “number nine with a bullet.”

  • 8. “The Needle and The Spoon” from ‘Second Helping’ (1974)

    Written by Ronnie Van Zant and Allen Collins. It’s another song warning of the dangers of drugs. The song starts with a heartbreaking line: “I’m comin’ home on an airplane flight/Mama waitin’ at the ticket line/’Tell me, son, why do you stand there cryin’?’….It was the needle and the spoon.” Allen Collins’ guitar solo is awesome and shows a huge Cream-era Clapton influence.

  • 7. “What’s Your Name?” from ‘Street Survivors’ (1977)

    Written by Ronnie Van Zant and Gary Rossington. It tells the tale of a wild night where “one of the crew had a go with one of the guests,” but the narrator is just trying to hook up with a girl… and he doesn’t even know her name. But he likes her enough that he wants to see her again “when I come back here next year.”

  • 6. “Tuesday’s Gone” from ‘(Pronounced ‘Leh-Nerd Skin-Nerd)’ (1973)

    Written by Ronnie Van Zant and Allen Collins. It’s one of Skynyrd’s best ballads. The lyrics aren’t too specific, but it is another song with the theme about being a traveling musician and being unable to stay in a relationship: “Now I feel the wind blow/Outside my door, means I’m leaving my woman at home.” Over twenty years later, Metallica recorded an epic cover of the song with a bunch of their friends, including Jerry Cantrell of Alice In Chains and Pepper Keenan of Corrosion of Conformity.

  • 5. “The Ballad of Curtis Loew” from ‘Second Helping’ (1974)

    Written by Ronnie Van Zant and Allen Collins. One Skynyrd fan site says that the song is “loosely based around the characters that lived near Ronnie’s home on Jacksonville’s Westside. The corner store in the song is based on Claude’s Midway Grocery on the corner of Plymouth and Lakeshore in Jacksonville.” The site notes that there wasn’t a “real” Curtis Loew.

  • 4. “Simple Man” from ‘(Pronounced ‘Leh-Nerd Skin-Nerd)’ (1973)

    Written by Ronnie Van Zant and Gary Rossington. Per a feature in American Songwriter, Van Zant and Rossington wrote the song following the passing of Van Zant’s grandmother and Rossington’s mother. Their memories of each woman inspired the lyrics to the song. And they share some pretty good advice: “Forget your lust for the rich man’s gold/All that you need is in your soul.”

  • 3. “Saturday Night Special” from ‘Nuthin’ Fancy’ (1975)

    Written by Ronnie Van Zant and Ed King. Van Zant was a gun owner, but on this song he was criticizing cheap guns that were easily found on the black market in those days: the “Saturday Night Special.” Rossington told Classic Rock, “Those cheap handguns were no good for hunting or anything else – they were just made to kill people. And those guns were easy to find. We came from a rough part of town, the westside of Jacksonville. There were a lot of bad people there, and every week you’d hear that somebody got shot or killed.”

  • 2. “Sweet Home Alabama” from ‘Second Helping’ (1974)

    Written by Ronnie Van Zant, Gary Rossington and Ed King. It’s got one of the best and most recognizable guitar riffs in music history. The song was written in response to Neil Young’s “Southern Man” and “Alabama,” which took the south to task for slavery. Young later wrote about it in his book, ‘Waging Heavy Peace’: “My own song ‘Alabama’ richly deserved the shot Lynyrd Skynyrd gave me with their great record. I don’t like my words when I listen to it. They are accusatory and condescending, not fully thought out, and too easy to misconstrue.”

  • 1 “Free Bird (live)” from ‘One More For The Road” (1976)

    Written by Ronnie Van Zant and Allen Collins. “What song is it you wanna hear?” “FREE BIRD!!!!” It’s one of the most iconic classic rock songs of all time, if not the most iconic. In fact, for decades, audiences at other artists’ concerts will yell it out. Most bands usually ignore the request, as it’s become something of a cliche. But in 2016, Bob Dylan of all people obliged an audience member (you can find clips of the performance online). “Free Bird” is from the band’s debut album, but we decided to go with the live version. There’s something about hearing the excitement of the crowd – even though they know the band is going to play it. The original clocks in at a little over nine minutes and has just two guitarists (Rossington and Collins). But here, we appreciate getting more of a great thing: the live version, featuring three guitarists (Rossington, Collins and Steve Gaines) and stretches to a more satisfying fourteen minutes and twenty-five seconds.

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