Often considered to be the greatest southern rock band of all time, Lynyrd Skynyrd led the subgenre’s overwhelming charge in the 1970s alongside others like The Allman Brothers and ZZ Top. The band produced massive hits like ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ and ‘Simple Man’ that transcended their regional stronghold in southern states. During their tenure, they put out chart-topper after chart-topper, becoming one of America’s biggest and most notorious groups.
Just days after the release of their fifth album, Street Survivors, tragedy struck the band when their plane crashed after running out of fuel, killing several founding members, including lead singer Ronnie Van Zant. Despite this loss, the group eventually forged on, bringing in Van Zant’s brother Johnny to hold down lead vocals.
In this article, we delve into the best of their back catalog. So, crank up the stereo a few notches, kick back, and enjoy our pick of the best Lynyrd Skynyrd songs.
10. The Needle and The Spoon
A fan favorite among diehard Lynyrd Skynyrd connoisseurs, a touching story underlies this otherwise standard rock track. Skynyrd’s lyrics, simple but brilliant, are regularly poised to back up signature guitar solos (for instance, the first three notes of ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ always gets the crowd going. They don’t have to wait for the first lyric to know what song it is). However, for ‘The Needle and The Spoon,’ the narrative takes precedence. The song opens with an emotionally exhausted protagonist trying to get home. During his journey, he must come face to face with his demons. Also covered in songs like ‘That Smell,’ this track takes a particularly tender approach to someone trying to overcome substance abuse issues. It’s not one of their most-played tracks, but it’s got a haunting way about it, the story sticking with you long after the song is over. This marginal track is worth a listen, and comes in at number 10.
9. That Smell
Gritty vocals and driving electric guitar work give ‘That Smell’ a grungy rock vibe that hits harder than other popular singles like ‘Free Bird.’ With its first sung lyrics by the legendary Ronnie Van Zant, “Whiskey bottles, and brand new cars. Oak tree in my way,” fans are immediately drawn in. Another prime example of southern rock at its finest, the group managed to deliver hits full of dark imagery that end up feeling empowering due to not only the band’s passionate performance as a whole but expert instrumental work as well. Right away, the tune takes on an unapologetic approach while conveying what a hard-partying lifestyle can lead to. ‘The Needle and The Spoon’ (see above) seems to take place towards the beginning of the protagonist’s awakening to what he’s done, while ‘That Smell’ puts listeners smack dab in the middle of one of his highs. The tune described as “morbid” by Van Zant himself was released on their album Street Survivors in 1977. Three days after the album release, several core members of the group, including Ronnie, were killed in the infamous plane crash that is an everlasting part of their legacy.
8. Gimme Back My Bullets
Though this number was never released as a single, it continues to be a fan favorite and is usually on the track listing of any Skynyrd compilation album. One of their more interesting efforts, the song’s message was quickly misconstrued after its release in ’76. ‘Give Me Back My Bullets’ references the process Billboard uses to chart hits. If a song has a black dot by its title, that means it’s most likely going to move up the chart in the coming days. At the time of the track’s release, the band hadn’t had a hit in a while. This was their way of saying we want our top ten spot back. Fans took it a different way. Though they played the song during their live sets when it first came out, they soon had to take it off the list because concert-goers would begin throwing literal bullets on stage when they would start performing the rocking number.
7. The Ballad Of Curtis Loew
A song that plays out like an epic, the southern gothic genre, blues, rock, and Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Floridian beginnings are all wrapped up in ‘The Ballad of Curtis Loew.’ Though the name is fictional, the story is actually based on true events centering around a bluesman who used to play a dobro outside of a convenience store the boys used to visit. The lyrics tell the life of the man from a young boy’s perspective, who idolizes the musician and visits him in front of the store every day. Despite Curtis’ musical talents, when he passes, no one attends his funeral (remember, I mentioned before this song has serious southern gothic vibes). Many speculate the song’s main character is a fusion of people, including their friend from the store, and other key influences like early delta bluesman Robert Johnson. Though they only played the song one time together live while the original members were still alive, ‘The Ballad of Curtis Loew’ is an essential track with beautiful slide guitar and comes in at number 7.
6. Call Me The Breeze
‘Call Me The Breeze’ is a freewheeling, bluesy number about a traveling man who doesn’t take life too seriously. A rare cover for the southern rock band, it was originally written by guitarist and songwriter J.J. Cale, an enigma in the industry who famously turned down several high-profile record deals so he could continue creating music at his own leisurely pace. The royalties he received from Skynyrd’s cover of this song allowed him to stay out of the limelight, recording music in his unassuming Oklahoma studio just as he wanted. The urge to cover the philosophical track happened after guitarist Gary Rossington was messing around with it and came up with their version of the tune’s signature riff. Cale was popular among rock/blues musicians of the day. Eric Clapton worked closely with him as well, covering other Cale songs like ‘After Midnight.’
Recommended: Hear the original version of this track (and others) on our list of the finest J.J. Cale songs.
5. Tuesday’s Gone
Mourning is driven by the band’s use of a resounding F-sharp-minor chord in their guitar rhythm progression. Beginning as a melancholy track in the same vein as ‘Free Bird,’ this tune finds lead singer Ronnie Van Zant, who did much of the band’s songwriting, realizing everything he has to leave behind, including his girl, due to their record deal. Some of Skynyrd’s most signature guitar licks are found in ‘Tuesday’s Gone.’ Like other tracks, listeners don’t have to wait for lyrics to know what song it is. The guitars do plenty of memorable singing themselves. A highly relatable release, it’s been used many times in films like Boys Don’t Cry and, naturally, Dazed and Confused. Many popular bands, including Metallica and Blackberry Smoke, have covered it over the years. One of their most commercialized songs that oozes authenticity and emotion, ‘Tuesday’s Gone’ comes in halfway through our list at number 5.
4. Gimme Three Steps
A fun, twangy blues number with a driving rock-induced downbeat, ‘Gimme Three Steps’ is based on a true story that once again finds the young bandmates in the middle of a little controversy. Before they hit it big, Ronnie managed to make his way into a Jacksonville, Florida bar despite being underage while his buddies (fellow bandmates) waited outside of the club. As he danced with a woman who was really named Linda as the song implies, her boyfriend came charging up to them, reaching for what Ronnie thought was a concealed firearm. As he quickly fled he recalled saying to the guy, “Just give me a few steps and I’ll be gone.” This memorable one-liner sparked the inspiration for the single which appeared on their debut album.
3. Simple Man
Coming in at number 3 is one of the band’s most evergreen tracks, and one of rock music’s most stirring ballads ever recorded. ‘Simple Man’ was written by bandmates Ronnie Van Zant and Gary Rossington after Van Zant lost his grandmother and Rossington’s mother passed away. The song’s lyrics contain all of the lessons they learned from the women over the years. The song begins with another one of Skynyrd’s instantly recognizable, flowing guitar riffs. A highly emotional track, Ronnie’s brother Johnny, who took over vocals after Ronnie’s death, has mentioned in interviews that their fans go particularly “crazy” over this song when they perform it live. Like much of their music, though ‘Simple Man’ was (and still is) widely popular, it never appeared on the Billboard charts. This worked in the band’s favor, though. The lack of charting was actually representative of their adoring fans, who preferred to buy their albums so much that Lynyrd Skynyrd never had to release many singles after a new record announcement. The announcement was enough to send people running to local record stores (remember those?).
2. Free Bird
Still the top choice for bar patrons to jokingly call out as a request for live cover bands, ‘Free Bird’ is an epic drama clocking in at over nine minutes long. The tale of a renegade man who can’t be tied down, the lyrics feature a protagonist telling a woman why he’ll never be able to settle down and live a normal life. Rivaling songs like ‘Smoke On The Water’ for Best Rock Song designation, guitar lovers still play this legendary Skynyrd track on repeat. Beginning as an emotive ballad, the song picks up steam as our roving protagonist hits the open road, flying high like a bird. Soon, listeners find themselves bobbing their heads to the rockish double-time rhythm. A rare single from the band, they had to fight their record company to put it on their debut album. Executives thought the length was way too long, even though the radio edit version would ultimately be cut down to about four minutes. The band’s stubbornness paid off, with the track becoming an American top 20 hit. Only the band’s most iconic song could edge out ‘Free Bird’ and put it in the runner-up spot on our countdown.
Recommended: This track appears on our list of greatest guitar solos of all time.
1. Sweet Home Alabama
Nothing gets a crowd going like Lynyrd Skynyrd’s good-time opening guitar lick to their most famous song ever, ‘Sweet Home Alabama.’ Though the band isn’t from The Cotton State, the heart of southern rock recording resides there, in the small town of Sheffield, Alabama. With a shout out in the lyrics, Muscle Shoals was the spot for rock music in the ’70s, with not only Skynyrd recording there but bands with rock-god status like The Rolling Stones and The Allman Brothers as well. The song is a joyous celebration of not only southern rock music, but southern culture itself. It was a cheeky response to Neil Young’s frequent criticism of southern people, especially his song ‘Southern Man.’ They directly call him out early on in the song with the lyrics, “I hope Neil Young will remember, a southern man don’t need him around anyhow.” The anthemic song went on to become the band’s biggest single, placing higher than any of their other releases, at number 8 on the charts. The song has worked its way into the very fabric of southern culture over the years, with University of Alabama football fans even creating their own version of the song with the chorus call-and-response lyrics “Roll, tide, roll,” each time after “Sweet Home Alabama” is recited. ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ defines the southern rock genre, and some would argue even defines a generation of southern rock listeners. The hall of fame track rightfully comes in at number 1 on our countdown.
Recommended: If you enjoyed this article, you’ll love our Southern rock playlist.