Sweet Home Alabama by Lynyrd Skynyrd Song Info
Creation and Recording: At a band practice shortly after bassist Ed King had switched to guitar, King heard fellow guitarist Gary Rossington playing a guitar riff that inspired him (in fact, this riff is still heard in the final version of the song and is played during the verses as a counterpoint to the main D-C+9-G chord progression). In interviews, Ed King has said that, during the night following the practice session, the chords and two main guitar solos came to him in a dream, note for note. King then introduced the song to the band the next day, and a hit was born. Also written at this session was the track that would follow "Alabama" on the Second Helping album, "I Need You." A live version of the track on the compilation album Collectybles places the writing of the song during the late summer of 1973, as the live set available on the album is dated October 30, 1973. The track was recorded at Studio One in Doraville, Georgia, using just King, bassist Wilkeson, and drummer Burns to lay down the basic backing track. Ed King used a Marshall amp belonging to Allen Collins. The guitar used on the track was a 1972 Fender Stratocaster. However, King has said that guitar was a pretty poor model and had bad pickups, forcing him to turn the amp up all the way to get decent volume out of it. This guitar is now displayed at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Museum in Cleveland, Ohio. The "Turn it up" line uttered by Ronnie Van Zant in the beginning was not intended to be in the song. Van Zant was just asking producer Al Kooper and engineer Rodney Mills to turn up the volume in his headphones so that he could hear the track better. Following the two "woo's" (Leon's the first, Ed's the second) at the start of the piano solo, Van Zant can be heard ad-libbing "My, Montgomery's got the answer." The duplicate "my" was produced by Kooper turning off one of the two vocal takes. For Lynyrd Skynyrd's 1976 film Free Bird, this final line was changed to "Mr. (Jimmy) Carter got the answer." in a reference to the 1976 Presidential Election. There is also a semi-hidden vocal line in the second verse after the "Well, I heard Mr. Young sing about her" line (at approximately 0:50). In the left channel, you can hear the phrase "Southern Man" being sung lightly. This was producer Al Kooper doing a Neil Young impression and was just another incident of the band members messing around in the studio while being recorded. According to Leon Wilkeson, it was Al Kooper's idea to continue and echo the lines from "Southern Man" after each of Van Zant's lines. "Better...keep your head"..."Don't forget what your / good book says", etc. But Ronnie insisted that Kooper remove it not wanting to plagiarize or upset Young. Kooper left the one line barely audible in the left channel. The count-in heard in the beginning of the track is spoken by Ed King. The count-in to the first song on an album was a signature touch that producer Kooper usually put on albums that he made. "Sweet Home Alabama" was a major chart hit for a band whose previous singles had "lazily sauntered out into release with no particular intent." The hit led to two TV rock-show offers, which the band turned down. None of the three writers of the song were originally from Alabama. Ronnie Van Zant and Gary Rossington were both born in Jacksonville, Florida. Ed King was from Glendale, California. Controversy: "Sweet Home Alabama" was written as an answer to two songs, "Southern Man" and "Alabama" by Neil Young, which attacked dealt with themes of racism and slavery in the American South. "We thought Neil was shooting all the ducks in order to kill one or two," said Ronnie Van Zant at the time. Van Zant's musical response, however, was also controversial, with references to Alabama Governor George Wallace (a noted supporter of segregation) and the Watergate scandal: In Birmingham, they love the governor (boo boo boo) Now we all did what we could do Now Watergate does not bother me Does your conscience bother you? Tell the truth In addition, the final chorus rhymes "where the skies are so blue" with "and the governor's true." In 1975, Van Zant said: "The lyrics about the governor of Alabama were misunderstood. The general public didn't notice the words 'Boo! Boo! Boo!' after that particular line, and the media picked up only on the reference to the people loving the governor." "The line 'We all did what we could do' is sort of ambiguous," Kooper notes "'We tried to get Wallace out of there' is how I always thought of it." Journalist John Swenson argues that the song is more complex than it is sometimes given credit for, suggesting that it only looks like an endorsement of Wallace. "Wallace and I have very little in common," Van Zant himself said, "I don't like what he says about colored people." In 1976, Van Zant and the band supported Jimmy Carter for his presidential candidacy, including fundraising and an appearance at the Gator Bowl benefit concert. Muscle Shoals: One verse of the song includes the line "Now Muscle Shoals has got the Swampers/And they've been known to pick a song or two." This refers to the town of Muscle Shoals, Alabama, a legendary location for recording popular music due to the "sound" crafted by local recording studios and back-up musicians. "The Swampers" referred to in the lyrics included (among others) Jimmy Johnson, David Hood, Barry Beckett, Roger Hawkins, Eddie Hinton, Pete Carr and Spooner Oldham who crafted the "Muscle Shoals Sound". Sometimes recording under the identity of the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, these musicians included Jimmy Johnson (guitar), Roger Hawkins (drums), David Hood (bass), and Barry Beckett (keyboards), and they were inducted into the Alabama Music Hall of Fame in 1995 for a "Lifework Award for Non-Performing Achievement." The nickname "The Swampers" was given to the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section by singer/songwriter Leon Russell. Part of the reference comes from the 1971-1972 demo reels that Lynyrd Skynyrd had recorded in Muscle Shoals with Johnson as a producer/recording engineer. Johnson helped refine many of the songs first heard publicly on the "Pronounced" album, and it was Van Zant's "tip of the hat" to Johnson for helping out the band in the early years and essentially giving the band its first break. Lynyrd Skynyrd remains connected to Muscle Shoals having since recorded a number of works in the city and making it a regular stop on their concert tours.