Certain Songs #1065: Lynyrd Skynyrd – “Free Bird (Atlanta, July 1976)”

Album: One More For From The Road
Year: 1976

Free Bird, Part 1

At the beginning of Southern Rock Opera, the Drive-by Truckers’ magnificent concept album about Lynyrd Skynyrd and their fans, there is a deadly car crash involving the narrators best friend and his “best girl”, who had abandoned him at night-before-graduation party to go for a joy ride and listen to some Lynyrd Skynyrd.

The car crash kills the best friend, and the and the girl is left alive, pinned to her seat, screaming into the night, waiting for for the ambulance. And as the story was passed from kid to kid at their graduation, “Free Bird” is competing with her screams and the sound of the ambulance’s “si-reeens.”

Because, as Patterson Hood wryly noted: “it’s a very very long song.”

Free Bird, Part 2

Indeed it is: this live version — which on the fucking CD doesn’t even have the “What song is it you wanna hear?” intro, the single most egregious instance of that shitty digital trend where live album intros are at the end of the previous song instead at the beginning of the song that’s being introduced — runs nearly 14:00. I have to be somewhere in 14:00!

And yet, Skynyrd put it out as a single, not once but twice. According to Discogs, which helpfully adds pictures for veracity, they put out a 4:41 single from (Pronounced ‘L?h-‘nérd ‘Skin-‘nérd) 1974 and a 4:55 single from the live album.

Does anybody remember this? I mean, the guitar solo on the live version doesn’t even start until six minutes into the song, and while the words and music of the ballad half of “Free Bird” are pretty enough — especially Billy Powell’s piano solo — it would seem to me that the guitar solo was kind of the point of the song, no?

Free Bird, Part 3

Ah, the guitar solo. That’s Allen Collins playing the instantly recognizable opening part. You can hear it right now, can’t you? On the studio version, it’s pretty much all Collins, but on the live version, after nearly two minutes on his own, he’s joined by Steve Gaines and eventually Gary Rossington, all spinning pinwheels around each other and then coming back into lockstep at exactly the right moments.

And that’s the thing about the “Free Bird” guitar solo: it’s not really improvisation. Instead, it’s an incredibly well-thought out piece of music, tighter than ever-living fuck, and planned so well that one moment, all three guitarists are doing their things over that fabulous stop-time part, and a few bars later all hell would be breaking loose over Artemis Pyle’s drum rolls until the moment they slammed back together.

What this wasn’t, was the Allman Brothers.

Free Bird, Part 4

The Allman Brothers were like getting into a car and driving off into the night, not quite sure of where they were going. You know, like the Grateful Dead. Skynyrd was more like the Rolling Stones: they got into the car and immediately checked Waze.

And that was the great misdirection of “Free Bird.” People assumed — still do, of course — that they were nothing but a boogieing jam band, when in reality, they were a song band. It’s just in this one case where they let the song get very very long, casting a very very long shadow.

Free Bird, Part 5

And at some point, probably after this live album, it became a thing to yell “Free Bird” at random concerts. Is it still a thing? And how many bands — especially in bars and such — played a little bit of it? Maybe got as far as the beginning of the guitar solo?

Or as indier-than-you’ll-ever-be-band X-Tal sang in the middle of “Stepford Rockers”

Beware my friend
You’ll be playing “Free Bird” one day
It’ll a be a joke the first time
But it’ll be a tribute before you’re through!!

But that was 1990, over a dozen years after Skynyrd’s plane crashed — and a decade before Southern Rock Opera — during that period where “Free Bird” had become both a classic rock radio staple and that jokey thing you yelled at concerts.

And on Halloween 1991 when Sedan Delivery was playing an acoustic gig at a house party, out of our own songs and at the behest of a joker among the mostly-not-paying-attention people at the party Joe sang it, and when he got to the second “I’m as free as a bird now,” he, Don and I all shouted “how about you now?” just like Van Zant does on this live version, and sure enough, it might have started as a joke, but it ended up as a tribute.

Oh, and Don nailed the first part of the guitar solo, but of course, it all fell apart, because “Free Bird” just isn’t something you tackle unprepared, no matter how many times you might have heard it. Because, as you know, it’s a very very long song.

“Free Bird (Atlanta, July 1976)”

“Free Bird” performed live at Knebworth, 1976

“Free Bird” performed live in Oakland, 1976

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