I have a theory. Most rock anthems, regardless of how mediocre they are, become hits because the first time people hear them, they’re stoned. It’s the only explanation I have for Stairway to Heaven, which is musically very good, but lyrically lacking. Seriously, “if there’s a bustle in your hedgerow, don’t be alarmed”? If I found a bustle in my hedgerow, I’d damn sure be alarmed. Yet, every time the public is asked to vote on their favorites, there it is, always near the top. Main reason, the “mystical” lyrics.
In the annals of fan favorite music, nothing quite compares to the sounds and fans of southern rock as practiced by such luminaries as The Allman Brothers Band, Charlie Daniels, The Outlaws, Molly Hatchet, and the late, lamented early-70s incarnation of Lynyrd Skynyrd. The genre calls up images of stoic guys, wearing sleeveless Ts, driving muscle cars adorned with Confederate flags, with barefoot girls in tight cut-off jeans and halter tops, dancing by the lake, puffing on a J, and knocking back a few PBRs while listening to .38 Special’s Hold on Loosely. The themes of freedom, travel, and uninhibited sex, predominate. Many are set “on the road” and celebrate the vagabond lifestyle, in all its glory.
Frank Zappa once stated that most relationships are screwed up because people get their notions of romance from 50s pop ballads. A lot of negative images of southerners are tied to southern rock from the 70s and 80s. Many southern rock lyrics amount to little more than some guy telling his girlfriend he has commitment issues, while in the process of running out on her. Examples include Call Me the Breeze, by J.J. Cale (made famous by Lynyrd Skynyd), and Take the Highway, by Marshall Tucker. The stereotypical image of a fan is a guy who got married right out of high school, and now sells auto parts somewhere, all the while wishing he’d started a band, back when the ladies still found him attractive. Back home, he retreats to the man cave, downs a few Bud Lites, puts on the LP of One More From the Road, and rocks out on air guitar to Gimme Three Steps.
The main problem with southern rock anthems is that they lend themselves to having their titles shouted out by drunk people at music venues, whether the artist responsible for them is playing or not. It is said that fans of the Allman Brothers once did this with Whipping Post, but the most ubiquitous example is Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Free Bird. The first documented instance of this was during the encore at Skynyrd’s concert at the Fabulous Fox Theatre in Atlanta in 1977, prompted by a question from lead singer Ronnie Van Zant, and captured for posterity on the album One More From the Road. Exactly when the first person yelled it at a concert in which Skynyrd wasn’t appearing will never be known, but at one point in history, it was impossible to attend any musical event without someone shouting it out at least once. I heard someone yell it at an Indigo Girls concert at the Beacon Theater in New York around 1990. In the immediate aftermath of the tragic plane crash, which claimed the lives of Van Zant, Steve and Cassie Gaines, and other members of the crew, some may have done it in tribute to the band, but over time, it just became the thing to yell during a concert. While I can’t specifically recall when or where, I’m sure I did it myself. Everyone has, though over time, fewer and fewer people realize exactly why anyone does it. People born since the mid-70s, who’ve never even heard the song, yell it out, probably because they observed their parents and older siblings doing it.
Let’s be clear on this, the only time it’s ever appropriate to yell “Free Bird!” at a concert is when some representative of the Van Zant family asks what song you want to hear. Any other time, it just annoys the hell out of everyone in the room, and alerts your date that she’ll most likely need to take a cab home. There was a time, mid-way through the phenomenon, when one could get away with it, if it was being done ironically, like at a symphony or Dixieland Jazz show, but even these instances wore out their welcome decades ago. Just don’t do it. Trust me, the musicians onstage have heard it from live audiences many, many times, and don’t want to hear it again. They don’t find it clever, or amusing. No one does. For those who feel the need to yell something stupid at a show, try something innovative, like Grooveline, or Ride of the Valkyries. No one would see that coming. I truly believe, if we can raise just one generation without the need to yell “Free Bird” inappropriately at shows, we’ll leave the world a better place, and isn’t that a worthy goal?