In many ways, Lynyrd Skynyrd were a typical Southern rock band. They loved guitars like their musical brethren (and idols) the Allman Brothers Band, boasting three powerhouse players. But in many ways, they weren't a typical Southern rock band. Singer Ronnie Van Zant (who was killed, along with other members of the band and crew, in a plane crash on Oct. 20, 1977) wasn't a Confederate flag-waving redneck. At times he apologized for the South's often abhorrent reputation; other times he probed the sex, drugs and gun culture his band got caught up in, emerging as a smart, pensive voice in a genre that often steamrolled over such qualities. This list of the Top 10 Lynyrd Skynyrd songs stops at 1977, the year the original band released their fifth and final album.
"Simple Man"From: 'Pronounced 'Lĕh-'nérd 'Skin-'nérd' (1973)
The band's 1973 debut, Pronounced 'lĕh-'nérd 'skin-'nérd, features a handful of songs designed for lighters-in-the-air moments. Three of them make our list of the Top 10 Lynyrd Skynyrd Songs. This one, like so many Skynyrd tunes, comes as a bit of advice from someone who's lived long enough to pass some down. It's a life lesson that Van Zant wielded like a code of conduct.
"Call Me the Breeze"From: 'Second Helping' (1974)
The closing song on the band's second album was written by Oklahoma bluesman JJ Cale. Skynyrd's version is looser, funkier and, frankly, much better. By the end of the song, they totally own it. The band has a great time slathering its Southern boogie (dig those greasy guitars!) in a sauce of sassy, brassy horns.
"Tuesday's Gone"From: 'Pronounced 'Lĕh-'nérd 'Skin-'nérd' (1973)
Another down-tempo track from the debut (see No. 10 on our list of the Top 10 Lynyrd Skynyrd Songs) and another wistful cut about life lessons learned along the way. Like "Free Bird," "Tuesday's Gone" takes its good ol' time working to a big finish. Its ending isn't as climatic as the one from "Free Bird," but with Van Zant, an organ and multiple guitars angling for space, it's nearly as gorgeous.
"Gimme Back My Bullets"From: 'Gimme Back My Bullets' (1976)
The opening and title song of the band's fourth album is a bit of good-ol'-boy machismo wrapped in a snaky riff supplied by guitarist Gary Rossington. The LP is mostly a mess of tossed-off sketches and Southern-rock bluster, but this song is the real deal -- three and a half minutes of Van Zant's snarly twang fronting a bluesy roadhouse shuffle.
"Saturday Night Special"From: 'Nuthin' Fancy' (1975)
For the most part, Lynyrd Skynyrd's third and fourth albums start off strong (see No. 7 on our list of the Top 10 Lynyrd Skynyrd Songs) but derail after three or so tracks. "Saturday Night Special" kicks off their third LP with a bang, and it's one of Van Zant's most potent pieces of songwriting, a gun-control treatise proposed from the back of a bar.
"Gimme Three Steps"From: 'Pronounced 'Lĕh-'nérd 'Skin-'nérd' (1973)
The band's debut album is filled with classics (four of its tracks made our list of the Top 10 Lynyrd Skynyrd Songs). This is one of their most playful cuts – Van Zant's swipe at masculine pride. After he's caught "cuttin' the rug" with some other dude's girl, he dashes for the door instead of fighting for his, and the girl's, honor. It's a brave move in a genre stuffed with songs about not backing down under any circumstance.
"That Smell"From: 'Street Survivors' (1977)
Released three days before the fateful plane crash, Street Survivors was the album where Lynyrd Skynyrd rebounded after a pair of mediocre records. It's their best album, and this is one of their greatest songs, Van Zant's warning to fellow band members about their drug use. Its key line – "the smell of death surrounds you" – would take on a completely different meaning after the accident.
"What's Your Name"From: 'Street Survivors' (1977)
The band's fifth album, and the last recorded by the classic original group, starts with this horned-up tale of rock-star debauchery on the road. It's loads of fun, but it's also a blazing showcase for the group's evolution over the past four years, as Van Zant tosses off his lines with a sly, casual wink. And how about those soulful horns?
"Sweet Home Alabama"From 'Second Helping' (1974)
Lynyrd Skynyrd's first, and only, Top 10 hit often gets blurred among the vision of Confederate flag waving. Written as an answer to Neil Young's ultra-critical "Southern Man" and "Alabama," "Sweet Home Alabama" is mostly on the same side as Young (whom Van Zant name-drops in the second verse). There's some love for the Heart of Dixie, no doubt (even though the band was from Florida, not Alabama), but the line about pro-segregation governor George Wallace is mocking, not supporting. This is Southern pride with a dash of apology and a sprinkle of satire.
"Free Bird"From: 'Pronounced 'Lĕh-'nérd 'Skin-'nérd' (1973)
Yes, it is overplayed and has become a jokey request among drunken concertgoers. But this tribute to Duane Allman is one of the most durable classic-rock songs ever recorded. Like "Simple Man" and "Tuesday's Gone" from the same album, "Free Bird" is slow and meditative song ... until that triple-guitar assault launches about halfway through. It's excessive, pompous and totally awesome. (If you have the time, the studio version can be substituted for the excellent 14-minute live take found on One More From the Road.)