Few songs have defined a band or a genre quite as much as Free Bird. Lynyrd Skynyrd’s ode to the freedom of the road and the people it leaves behind wasn’t their biggest hit chart-wise – Sweet Home Alabama and That Smell both outdid it in the Billboard chart – but it became their passport to immortality and the unofficial anthem of the southern rock nation.
“It’s about what it means to be free, in that a bird can fly wherever he wants to go,” Ronnie Van Zant said in the 70s. “Everyone wants to be free. That’s what this country’s all about.”
The roots of Skynyrd had been sown in 1964, when singer Ronnie Van Zant, guitarists Allen Collins and Gary Rossington and original drummer Bob Burns had met at a baseball game in Jacksonville and decided to form a band. By the end of the decade, they’d christened themselves Lynyrd Skynyrd, after Leonard Skinner, a hated high-school sports teacher. Ronnie Van Zant was the unelected leader of the band, although Rossington and Collins soon formed their own partnership.
“Me and Allen played all the time,” says Rossington, the sole surviving original Skynyrd member today. “Even when we weren’t practising with the band, we would play together at his house.”
One day, Collins arrived at the stiflingly hot tin-roofed shack nicknamed the Hell House that the band used as their rehearsal room with the skeleton of a song he’d come up with.
“That was one of the first things he’d ever wrote,” says Rossington. “He’d only done maybe two or three things before that.”
Collins played it to his fellow guitarist, who told him it was great. Ronnie Van Zant , however, was less convinced.
“Ronnie thought there were too many chord changes,” says Rossington. “He said: ‘I can’t write lyrics to this, there’s too much happening.’ He just couldn’t get it. He didn’t hear nothing.”
The famously intractable singer refused to budge, but that didn’t stop Collins and Rossington from continually practising the song. Eventually their accidental war of attrition paid off.
“One day, Ronnie went: ‘Okay, play it again.’ He made Allen play it a bunch of different times. And finally he got a verse or a melody in his head. And he started practising that, playing Allen’s chords. He wrote the lyrics just laying on the couch.”
Ironically, Rossington says that the band initially saw Free Bird as just another song.
“We didn’t even think much of it at first,” he says. But they swiftly realised they’d hit on something special the very first time the band played it live.
“It was at a place called the South Side Women’s Club in Jacksonville,” he recalls. “We played that song, but just the slow part. We didn’t have the jam at the end then. We ended it before the guitars came in, but everybody still got off on it. They clapped us so much.”
A demo of the song recorded in 1970 and included in the band’s 1991 box set lasts just four minutes. That’s how Free Bird sounded for a while. The band would play the first half of the song, fuelled by Ronnie’s sorrowful vocals, wrapping it up after four or five minutes. But Collins and Rossington gradually started to add a short guitar outro.
“Just a minute or so,” says Rossington. “But one night we were playing a club and Ronnie said: ‘Play that a little longer, my voice is hurting, I need a break. So we played two minutes or three minutes. Then two days later his throat was all sore and he could hardly talk, and we ended up playing it ten minutes at the end, just jamming.”
Collins and Rossington tightened up the outro and pianist Billy Powell added a mournful intro before the band went into the fabled Muscle Shoals studio in Alabama in 1973 to record what was supposed to be their first album. Future Blackfoot frontman (and latter-day A song that Ronnie Van Zant said had too many chord changes to write lyrics for, and that both band and their label thought was too long to be a single, it became a rock classic. Lynyrd Skynyrd Free Bird Words: Dave Everley Skynyrd guitarist) Rickey Medlocke was their drummer at the time.
“I remember sitting in the Hell House, watching those guys playing it, and even then I knew it was something special,” says Medlocke. “People always ask me: ‘What’s the hardest song to learn when you rejoined the band? Is it Free Bird?’ And I go: ‘No, I knew all the licks in that song cos I was playing drums in Muscle Shoals when we cut the original version.”
The Muscle Shoals album would remain unreleased until 1978. But the band revisited the song for their debut album proper, Pronounced ‘Leh-’nérd ‘Skin-’nérd, with producer Al Kooper. By then they were a well-drilled unit, with Ronnie Van Zant cracking the whip hard. Free Bird had stretched out to nine glorious minutes.
The thing Ronnie did that was different from other bands was that he wanted that band to sound the same every night,” Kooper said later. “He was not interested in improvisation at all. Every bit of Free Bird was planned out before I came into the picture. Every guitar solo was played exactly the same. I have never met a band that did that. It was pretty amazing.”
Skynyrd’s label, MCA, were reluctant to put it out as a single. “They thought it was too long to be a hit,” says Rossington. “Mind you, so did we.” But the song took on a life of its own on stage, and the record company changed their mind.
Free Bird was eventually a hit in 1974, more than a year after it was originally released. Today, more than 40 years after Ronnie Van Zant died in a plane crash, and over 30 years since the song’s original author Allen Collins died, Free Bird remains Lynyrd Skynyrd’s signature track and one of the cornerstones of the classicrock canon. Even now, rolling down the road has never sounded so romantic.
“Jeez, most of our songs are about rolling down the road,” Rossington says with a laugh. “Sweet Home Alabama, What’s Your Name?, Whiskey Rock-A-Roller, Travelling Man. But I guess Free Bird is the ultimate one, and that’s why it stuck.”