Saunders: Lord knows, I can't change – I do love some Skynyrd

bsaunders@newsobserver.comOctober 17, 2012 

When he was a disc jockey on WKZQ radio station in Myrtle Beach, S.C., my buddy Dwayne Ballen knew that every Oct. 20, he would receive calls requesting “it.”

“They’d say, ‘C’mon, man. You know what we want. Play it,’ ” Ballen told me a few days ago. “I’d get a few of those calls each year. I was new and didn’t know what they were talking about at first. I’d say ‘Naw, man. I don’t know what you mean.’

“‘Man, this is the day the biiiiiird went down,’ they’d say. ‘Play it for me. Play ‘Free Bird.’ ”

He learned quickly what any true lover of Southern rock and just plain good music should know: Oct. 20 is the anniversary of the 1977 day that the bird – the plane carrying the band Lynyrd Skynyrd – crashed in Mississippi. The band that made some epochal Southern rock songs was decimated.

If you grew up listening to radio in the South in the 1970s, you know that you could hear just about any type of music without changing the dial. In little bitty Rockingham, we had WAYN and WLWL, on both of which you might hear The Carpenters, Al Green, Marshall Tucker Band, Elvis and The Spinners all in a row – with an occasional Conway Twitty sprinkled in. Sweet.

‘Had to play the hits’

You could also hear Skynyrd, whose “Sweet Home Alabama” remains my guiltiest music pleasure.

“You had to play the hits,” Ballen recalled. “You had a playlist, but you had freedom within it.”

Right on – freedom to play “Free Bird.”

Anybody who knows his ear from a foot will attest that “Free Bird” and “Sweet Home Alabama” feature two of the best opening guitar licks in music history. Rolling Stone magazine ranked the songs numbers 193 and 398, respectively, on its list of the 500 greatest songs of all time.

Whoever came up with that list obviously has never worn a mullet, been on a first-name basis with Jack Daniels or driven a Firebird. If they had, those songs would’ve been ranked Number 1 and Number 1A.

So why feel guilty about loving “Sweet Home Alabama”?

The song, you see, pays homage to George Wallace – “In Birmingham they love the gubna” – the one-time stridently segregationist Alabama gubna who I most definitely did not love. Politically correct or not, though, that guitar is too good to ignore.

The band was named after its longhaired members’ officious, crew cut-wearing high school gym teacher, Leonard Skinner. It was formed at Robert E. Lee High School in Jacksonville, Fla., and its backup singers were called – honest to Elvis – The Honkettes.

Is it any wonder they might share a different political philosophy from mine?

Ready with a lighter

Tommy Tomlinson, a former colleague at the Charlotte Observer, wrote a column several years ago in which he said he knew the South was being overrun with Yankees when a poll showed that “92 percent had never carried a lighter in their pockets in case ‘Free Bird’ came on the radio.”

He’s right. As soon as you hear “If I leave here tomorrow ...” out comes the Bic.

Here’s another thing about Skynyrd. Even if they couldn’t play a lick, you’d have to appreciate any band for sticking it to a high school gym teacher, the bane of many teenage existences. I still get the shakes when thinking of a certain Coach Krall for once asking, in front of the class, if my arms were made of spaghetti when I couldn’t complete a pushup.

No, I had been listening to Skynyrd and flicking my Bic.

bsaunders@newsobserver.com or 919-836-2811

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