If you’ve lived below the Mason-Dixon Line for any amount of time, you’ve probably experienced the Southern concert tradition of someone requesting that the band play “Free Bird.” Usually, they’re drunk. And loud.
There are very specific times when blurting this out is appropriate, namely when the band is A) Lynyrd Skynyrd, B) a Skynyrd tribute or C) a Southern rock cover artist. In these cases, there’s a reasonable expectation they know the song.
According to researchers at HowStuff Works.com, the first “Free Bird” battle cry was made at a Lynyrd Skynyrd concert in Atlanta in 1976, when the band’s popularity was at fever pitch. Given the venue, it made sense, but what started as a logical request has become a tradition that is irritating for a number of reasons.
1. Most bands don’t know “Free Bird” or aren’t skillful enough to do it justice. Gary Rossington and Allen Collins’ incendiary solo is so technically complicated that it hit the No. 3 spot on Guitar World’s list of 100 Greatest Guitar Solos. Good luck replicating that without embarrassing yourself. You might as well try to out croon Freddie Mercury.
2. It’s too long. The original recording on “(Pronounced Leh-nerd Skin-nerd)” stretches more than nine minutes. Live, Skynyrd has padded that to 14 minutes. Unless you’re in a room of diehard fans, that’s more than enough Bird to choke on.
3. The person making the request is just out for laughs. People yell “Free Bird” at weddings, baseball games and even at President Barack Obama’s youth inauguration ball. In cases where the song isn’t even a fifth stringer in the band’s repertoire, the request is just an attempt to steal the spotlight for a moment. Uncool.
For a long time, “Free Bird” has been a kind of unofficial Anthem of the South. I would argue that there are better options. To whit, here are some suggestions:
“Wagon Wheel” — Old Crow Medicine Show’s rollicking ballad about a man’s desperate quest to get to Raleigh, N.C., come hell or high water.
“Chicken Fried” — Zac Brown Band’s anthem celebrating the simple pleasures of pecan pie, fried poultry, sweet tea and comfortable jeans. Extra points for references to God and the American flag.
“Sweet Home Alabama” — Lynyrd Skynyrd’s other fan favorite is about Alabama, not the South as a whole. But let’s be honest, at less than five minutes, it doesn’t overstay its welcome.
Think you have a better contender for the new Southern anthem? Send me your list, and we’ll debate.
Contact Casey Phillips at cphillips@timesfree press.com or 423-757-6205. Follow him on Twitter at @PhillipsCTFP.
Casey Phillips has worked as a features reporter in the Life department since May 2007. He writes about entertainment, consumer technology, animals and news of the weird. Casey hails from Knoxville and earned a bachelor of science degree in journalism and a bachelor of arts in German from Middle Tennessee State University, where he worked as the features editor for the student newspaper, Sidelines. Casey's writing has earned numerous accolades, including first and second place ...