One of the most well-known songs in American culture is Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama.” I personally remember nights at summer camp having country-themed meals and dancing to this song. The chorus is iconic, and if you have not listened to it before, you are in for a treat.
The story behind this song if really quite interesting. There are many parts and being a country-style song, it’s still a story most people have not heard. The artists made a song that will stick for everyone around them and has hidden meanings that break down some of society’s biggest problems at the time.
Who Was From Alabama?
As it turns out, none of the song’s writers were from Alabama. The three artists were actually from Jacksonville, Florida and Southern California. They had never lived in Alabama; they had only driven through it. How can someone write an anthem for a state that was never theirs?
Ronnie Van Zant and his friend Gary Rossington were from Jacksonville, Florida. Ed King was from Glendale, California and yet despite not knowing the state as a native, they still wrote a song about it. The song mentions three different cities in the state, but still —
Comfortable With the Culture
Band members were familiar with the state of Alabama because they actually recorded a bunch of their music at the famous Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in Sheffield. They recorded there for two years from 1970 until 1972. Even though that’s where they spent time recording, they actually didn’t record the song there.
The song itself was recorded at a studio in Georgia. Sweet Home Alabama was recorded at Studio One in Doraville, Georgia. You’d think – why not just record it there for an extra level of authenticity. Right? Well, I guess it was their choice! They probably had their reasons.
Something About a Swamp, It Seems
In the song, Lynyrd Skynyrd mentions a place called the swamplands. Well, it is not even called “swamplands” but rather, “swampers.” They say this line: “Now Muscle Shoals has got the swamplands,” but it isn’t necessarily in a swampy area. The city sits on a riverbank.
Muscle Shoals lies on the riverbanks of the Tennessee River, but is named “shoals” because of the sandy and natural silt-filled texture. People usually sing the line incorrectly – but which is the right version? “Swampers” was a nickname given to the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section. They were the first rhythm section to open their own studio. The “Swampers” line referred to the nickname given to the Muscle Shoals recording studio. They also have a documentary named after the town.
Who Played Sweet Home Alabama?
Lynyrd Skynyrd was the band that first sang this timless song. They deserve all of the credit they can get! The first three notes of the song are a mix that everyone on planet Earth has probably heard. The “1,2,3” beginning hook is used across soundtracks throughout time. Businesses use it in their commercials (KFC, we’re looking at you), and countless other artists have sampled this tune.
The 1,2,3 count is performed by guitarist Ed King. It’s crazy because he was just playing around and stumbled on the three-note riff. He knew it would sound good and would go with the song’s theme, but he really could not have known what success it would later have!
The Famous Feud
Neil Young is name-checked in Sweet Home Alabama. The group was known for having some ridiculous feud with him. Lynyrd Skynyrd felt a sense of social responsibility to use their platform to affect change. They wanted him to do the same.
There are some notable lines, specifically– “Well, I hope Neil Young will remember, a Southern man don’t need him around anyhow.” This is reportedly when Lynyrd Skynyrd holds Neil Young responsible for bashing the whole South as racist; they wanted to show that they were not part of that.
Friendship in the End
They did have a good relationship with him, though. The band members were fans of his music. Ronnie Van Zant is wearing a Neil Young T-shirt on the cover of the band’s album, Street Survivors. This was before his death in 1977.
Neil Young has only performed Sweet Home Alabama once. He played their original tune at a memorial event for the three Lynyrd Skynyrd band members who were killed in a plane crash in 1977: Ronnie Van Zant, Steven Gaines, and Cassie Gaines. They were singers, guitarists, and vocalists respectively.
What Was Unplanned?
A part of Sweet Home Alabama that ended up on the track was unplanned. Ronnie Van Zant briefly makes a comment, “turn it up.” It was not supposed to happen. He just asked someone in the booth to make it louder in his headset. They felt it worked, so it stayed!
At another point in the song, you can hear the faint sound of the song Southern Man playing in the background. While many think it might have been Neil Young himself, it’s actually just one of the band’s producers impersonating Neil Young.
Challenging Social Order
There are plenty of times when someone is name-checked. Someone specifically name-checked in Sweet Home Alabama is George Wallace. He was a known segregationist and was the governor of the state at the time the song was recorded. He had some backwards ideas.
There was another political statement made against a scandal of the time. A reference to Watergate was made. It certainly gave some people a spook, you could say. “Now Watergate does not bother me, Does your conscience bother you?” Are we just looking too far into this?
Everything is simply speculation, but it is believed that the line about Watergate being irrelevant to them and their problems of the time might have been a nod to northerners to “worry about themselves.” Their lyrics suggest that everyone has their issues and others shouldn’t be quick to judge.
It was believed that Van Zant did not want to judge the problems of other regions. “Van Zant … wasn’t judging all individual northerners to be bad people because their president had committed bad acts; they shouldn’t judge him for the things George Wallace did either.”
What Does Sweet Home Alabama Mean?
Sweet Home Alabama was about challenging authority in the region at the time. One authority figure the band opposed was Governor George Wallace. He was known as someone who wanted to stand in the way of social change and progress. He was the governor of the state at the time of Brown vs. Board of Education and was fiercely loyal to his beliefs that Blacks and whites should live separately. His rhetoric was wacky.
Wallace was known for “standing in the door of the schoolhouse” to try and keep the schools from de-segregating. He was a man stuck in the past. They released the song with a verse saying that “in Birmingham they love the governor… Boo! Boo! Boo!” which gives us the feeling that maybe they didn’t really love Wallace in the role.
In that same line, they talk about how the state just did whatever they could to remove him from office. Wallace may have been a favorite with people living in Alabama at the time and the morals of the state, but they had come a long way since slavery and some folks wanted to make sure they moved past it.
Their line “we did all we could do,” was reportedly about trying to vote Wallace out of office. He was governor for four years. Even though they took hits at the governor, he still loved the song (maybe he didn’t even notice?) and made the band members honorary lieutenant colonels in the state militia, though there’s no need for that.
Love for Alabama
Though Sweet Home Alabama is Lynyrd Skynyrd’s most famous song, the state of Alabama is no stranger to love songs. This song became the state’s anthem and, in many cases, became everyone’s first thought when they heard the words sweet, home, or Alabama. There are many sweet homes, but what makes Alabama special?
Some of the other famous songs Alabama was featured in prior to this legendary tune include : “Alabama Bound,” “Alabama Song” by Kurt Weill (which was later recorded by the Doors), and the timeless American classic, “Oh, Susanna!” from way back in 1847!
There are tons of other nods to Alabama landmarks and culture in the song, like talking about how “Montgomery’s got the answer,” a nod of appreciation to the state’s capital. Not only was this song adapted as the state’s theme song, an anthem if you will, but it also became part of the state’s soul in another way.
In 2009, Bob Riley was governor of the great state of Alabama. That very year, Riley gave the OK to have the entire state start printing “Sweet Home Alabama” on their license plates. If the three songwriters were alive today, do you think they would believe this?
This song is easily one of the most recognizable for a reason. Seriously, could you imagine looking down from heaven to find out that a song you wrote is an internationally recognized anthem? This movie has furthered its stake in society and has forever made an imprint in the world of entertainment.
This song has managed to appear in so many different films. There’s even a movie titled with the name of this song! Some of the many movies that this song appears in include Forrest Gump, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Joe Dirt, and Despicable Me, to name a few.
Ronnie Loved Baseball
In the days before his booming music career, Ronnie Van Zant wanted to be a baseball player. We’re sure he could have done an amazing job, but what did he end up doing with that passion? Just years before he put pen to paper and created Sweet Home Alabama, he was working his way up in baseball.
“I went as far as playing American Legion ball. The next stop would have been AA (minor league baseball). I played centerfield. I had the highest batting average in the league one year and a good arm – you’ve got to have a good arm to play outfield.” Imagine your favorite rockstar behind the scenes as a professional baseball player?
Baseball Brought Them Together
No surprise that boys in the ‘60s and ‘70s were often brought together by their passion for the game – any game, in some cases. If it weren’t for a slight debacle on the baseball field, some of the band members might have never met. It only took a bonk in the head.
Ronnie apparently hit Bob Burns in the head with a baseball. Granted, it wasn’t malicious, it was just a foul ball that went a little too off the rocks. This ended up knocking the future Lynyrd Skynyrd drummer out. Gary Rossington, one of the guitarists, shared that fine detail on VH1’s Behind the Music.
Though it seemed they constantly feuded, Neil Young and the band were fans of one another. Not only would they wear Neil Young shirts to performances, but he would return the favor. Their apparent rift seemed to not exist when they sported apparel for the other’s musical group!
They were known for taking hits at each other through their careers, specifically through Southern Man, Alabama and other songs. It is believed that those two songs of his truly inspired the creation of this song, so without this feud we might be without a natural-born classic song!
The Band Switched Their Drummers Off
Lynyrd Skynyrd did not have everyone in their initial role by the end. They played their biggest hits as a collective entity, but that’s not to say that everyone finished off in the same role they started in. The band actually had two different drummers at one point, though they moved into becoming the band we know them as now!
Rickey Medlocke was one of the two drummers in the band, before ultimately transitioning into his role as a guitarist. He shared responsibilities for playing drums with Bob Burns, who unfortunately passed away in the untimely accident that took these musicians far too soon.
They Went by Different Names
Before ultimately turning their band into the name we now know, Lynyrd Skynyrd, they went by other names. We know that they named the band after a high school gym teacher that gave them hell, but what were the other names and why did they settle on this one?
Some of the other names selected before landing on Lynyrd Skynyrd included The Noble Five, One Percent, and My Backyard. How would we know the meanings of these names without the founders around to tell their tale? That’s a secret we may never know the full answer to!
Band of Bikers
Part of why they called themselves the “one percent” at one time was not for the reason you’d think of today. The group was made up of men who loved to hit the open road on their bikes, and boy were they part of a minority in the country at one point in time, as shown by the name.
They were called the “one percent” because they were part of a minority. Only around a single percent of people in the country rode motorcycles like these bandmates did, and they nearly made that a centerpiece when deciding what to call their soon to be legendary group!
The Plane Crash
On October 20th, 1977, the world lost some of the greatest musicians of all time to a horrific accident. The crash happened only three days after they released their album Street Survivors; I wonder if the crash helped sell the albums, despite the horrible outcome.
The band had chartered a plane from South Carolina to Baton Rouge, Louisiana. They boarded a Convair CV-240 after playing a great show in Greenville the night before. They were heading to play a show at Louisiana State University but would never end up making it. Tragedy struck and changed their lives forever.
The plane crashed because the pilots and crew realized that the plane was low on fuel. They knew they would not make it to their next point safely, so they needed to try and make an emergency landing at McComb Airport. This airport was only ten miles from where they ended up crashing.
The crew knew that the plane was unlikely to make their target. Just ten miles away from McComb Airport, Lynyrd Skynyrd’s plane attempted to make an emergency landing. They tried to land in an open field roughly 300 yards from where the plane met its demise.
Beginning the Descent
At approximately 6:52 p.m., the band’s plane began to skim the treetop for about 100 yards. Their plane ended up smashing into a large tree and splitting into multiple pieces. Their crash site was in Amite County, near Gillsburg, Mississippi.
Witnesses shared that Ronnie Van Zant was trying to rest after a long night of performing. He needed to recharge and was lying on the floor with a pillow and blanket at the time of the crash. Others were playing cards, and it soon became apparent to everyone on board that something was wrong.
Telling the Tale of Survival
There were some survivors who lived to tell the tale. One of the drummers for the band, Artimus Pyle, reflected on going into the cabin and being told by the pilot to head back to his seat and strap in. Passengers knew that something bad was about to happen, so some started praying while others sat in utter silence.
One of the bandmates who survived was Gary Rossington. Rossington was a guitarist and recalled the moment the plane went down. He remembered hearing what sounded like baseball bats hitting the side of the plane. Next thing he knew, he was knocked unconscious.
Gary Rossington was a lucky one; he not only experienced a traumatic plane crash but lived to tell the tale – even if some of his closest friends did not make it out of the rubble. The sound he described, baseball bats hitting the plane, got louder and louder before he was knocked unconscious.
He woke up to the plane’s door on top of him. Other survivors like Billy Powell did not walk away without some major scratches; Billy Powell nearly lost his nose and suffered severe lacerations to his face and his right leg. His account of the flight’s final moments was disputed later.
The End for Van Zant
Ronnie Van Zant was met with an unfortunate fate when he was thrown from the plane. He was not wearing a seatbelt, as he was lying on the floor of the plane. In Billy Powell’s later account to VH1’s Behind The Music, he stated that Ronnie was not wearing a seatbelt and was thrown from his seat violently.
Powell claimed that Ronnie Van Zant went flying and hit his head, leading to his ultimate unfortunate demise. Apparently, though, some of Billy Powell’s account of the events would be disputed later. Drummer Pyle and Van Zant’s widow, Judy Van Zant Jenness, found holes in his story. Judy ended up posting the autopsy reports on the band’s website in 1998.
Who Passed Away?
Ronnie Van Zant was not the only fatality on that fateful day. The group suffered together and while some, like Pyle, walked away with some serious injuries, others did not walk away from it at all. This horrific event left survivors with an uncomfortable question; how did I manage to survive this?
Some other deaths from this painful crash include guitarist and vocalist Steve Gaines and backup vocalist Cassie Gaines. Cassie Gaines was already terrified of flying but was convinced to take the plane. Whoever convinced her must have regretted their choice. Other deaths included assistant road manager Dean Kilpatrick, pilot Walter McCreary, and co-pilot William Gray.
Bandmates Didn’t Know
Everyone who survived the crash was in critical condition and rushed off to medical centers across the region. They all had to be transported to different hospitals to be treated. Unfortunately, they did not know for a while whom they lost in particular. Those in the back of the plane had less impact.
Gary Rossington had been unconscious, slipping in and out of consciousness. He did not know that his close friend, Ronnie Van Zant, had been killed in this horrific accident. He only learned because his mother told him days later as he sat in the hospital. He lost his friend and was heartbroken.
Reluctant to Fly Convair
The band was already hesitant to be flying in that manner. They felt that they were looking at a toy plane, not something real that would make them feel safer. Aerosmith had actually inspected this type of plane for themselves, but they found everything to fall short of their standards.
Aerosmith’s flight inspector found that nothing was up to par that same year. They found the pilots sharing a bottle of whiskey while the inspection was happening, and they deemed everything unfit for their safety. We wish Lynyrd Skynyrd took Aerosmith’s hint. This could have been avoided if they would have just gone with another airline.
In Their Memory
In November 2020, Mississippi’s department of transportation started putting up signs to direct people to the Lynyrd Skynyrd memorial along 1-55 near Gillsburg, Mississippi. The monument was constructed in 2019 and is located just off the path, where their plane had the fatal accident.
The memorial has managed to attract more than 10,000 visitors since it was erected. Hopefully, the highway signs will end up bringing even more visitors to pay their respects to those fallen from such a horrific accident. The music world would have to learn to recover, but luckily, they have a memorial where they can go to reflect and pay their respects.
An Anthem For The Ages
The secret meanings of the song died along with many of their members. If there were hidden meanings and signs in the songs, they were not obvious. With Ronnie Van Zant’s untimely death came many other questions. Lynyrd Skynyrd managed to have a comeback, but it’s truly hard to move on after trauma like that.
Thankfully, those who did survive continue the band’s legacy. They challenged social norms and held people responsible for their choices and mistakes, especially ones that impacted society as a whole. Sweet Home Alabama is more than just an American anthem – it’s a guide to a sweet Southern life, with secrets taken to the grave… literally!
Sweet Home Alabama: The Movie
Years after the plane crash that took the lives of three members of Lynyrd Skynyrd, including the guys who wrote the song, a romantic comedy by the same name popped up. They song’s original producers and artists probably never imagined their title being attached to a rom-com.
The movie, starring Reese Witherspoon, is centered around two 10-year-olds in rural Alabama who get curious and go to see where lightning struck sand on the beach. At some point, the young boy turns to the young girl and tells her that they will be married someday. This ends up catching up with her later in life.
Who Starred in Sweet Home Alabama?
Reese Witherspoon plays the grown-up Melanie Smooter. Throughout the storyline, Witherspoon’s character asserts that she has dug herself up, out of something she didn’t want to be associated with. She went to New York and became a big fashion designer, ready to leave her Alabama roots behind, but she couldn’t.
She was engaged to a man in New York, Andrew Hennings (portrayed by Patrick Dempsey). But she could not get married without having her original divorce papers signed by her first husband – to whom she was technically still married.
Melanie visits her hometown for the first time in ages, because her first husband Jake, played by Josh Lucas, would not see her to sign the papers. He made her jump through hoops to try and get the papers signed!
She storms over to him at home, and he kicks her out, then she drains his bank account to push him into signing the papers. There was clearly something keeping them from really having everything signed, and the problem might have been her. Would Melanie ever take responsibility for it?
Could you imagine getting married when you’re young, only to try and get it annulled years later? Listen, I don’t know anything about you or your personal life – but love is a journey. That is definitely the case here, when Melanie and Jake are reminded of their connection, and that she’s really not as much of a big shot as she thinks she is.
Melanie shows up at the town bar and puts on a rare performance, talking smack about people she no longer knows and has not seen in years and years. She wakes up the next morning in her own bed, with little recollection of what happened. She ended up having the divorce papers signed and placed on the bed next to her.
Melanie does what she can to make good with the people she hurt in her drunken stupor. She had childhood friends she spoke poorly of and poorly to, all in the fog of intoxication. She was not herself and needs to apologize for what she did under the influence.
Melanie’s family did have ties to the plantation, so she had an in when her friend didn’t want to hear her apology. Her fiancé Andrew arrived in Alabama to surprise her, but quickly learned that she was not who she said she was – at least not entirely who she said she was.
He Was Furious
Naturally, any person who finds out that their fiancé is really someone else, with a different life than they imagined, will probably have some frustrations to air. Andrew, Patrick Dempsey’s character, storms off, only to later return and say he will still marry Melanie. Little did he know, he was about to be blindsided.
Melanie’s friends visiting from New York noticed that there was a restaurant nearby with amazing glasswork. The glassblowing studio ended up being owned and run by Jake! After a heart to heart on the Carmichael Plantation, Melanie finally learns why her husband never signed their divorce papers.
Go to Him, Girl!
Melanie soon realized that she was not the only one who made something of herself. Jake owned the resort and was the artist of the glasswork she loved back in New York. At her wedding to Andrew, just as final vows were about to be taken, a lawyer interrupts to say that Melanie missed something important.
Melanie never signed her own divorce papers! She realizes that she still loves Jake and calls off her wedding to Andrew. She had to track Jake down, while he was planting lightning rods in the sand for his sculptures. They realize they are meant to be together and go off to have their first dance as husband and wife, years and years later!
Not What They Expected
When Lynyrd Skynyrd wrote this song, they probably had no plans for their song to be turned into a movie, let alone a romantic comedy at that! Though the band members are not quite around to see it, they might have been fans to see a movie like this sporting their well-known title.
Sweet Home Alabama had a series of reprises, including a covered version of the original, as performed by Jewel and others. It was not quite the connection to the title that we thought it might be, but hey – it’s worth a shot to see what other overlaps there might be. They do have the same title, after all!