- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 17, 2004

Ronnie Van Zant wouldn’t begrudge ZZ Top’s addition this week to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The “little ol’ band from Texas” and Mr. Van Zant’s Lynyrd Skynyrd were comrades in the army of Southern rock bands that conquered America in the 1970s.

After the phenomenal success of the Allman Brothers, record companies suddenly discovered Dixie, a land overflowing with blues and boogie. Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Marshall Tucker Band, Wet Willie, the Charlie Daniels Band, Elvin Bishop, Atlanta Rhythm Section, Black Oak Arkansas, Mother’s Finest, .38 Special, the Outlaws, Molly Hatchet for a few years in the 1970s, Southern rockers were a major force in the music industry, crowding the album charts and playing sold-out tours.

If one date could be singled out as marking the end of the Southern boogie boom, it was Oct. 20, 1977, the night a charter plane carrying Lynyrd Skynyrd crashed in Mississippi. The crash killed three members of the band: guitarist Steve Gaines; backup singer Cassie Gaines; and Mr. Van Zant, the inimitable lead singer whose determination, work ethic and songwriting made Skynyrd the South’s hottest rockers.

The crash changed everything. Skynyrd had just released its best album in years and was beginning a national tour when the band’s Convair 240 plunged into the woods of Amite County, Miss. Some survivors of the crash later managed to regroup, but it was never the same for Skynyrd or its peers. The musical spotlight shifted away from the South; most of the other Dixie rock acts broke up or faded into obscurity.

ZZ Top carried on, updated its sound and used visual imagery Penthouse models and a custom ‘33 Ford to become an icon of the dawning MTV age, reaching a generation too young to remember the Texas trio’s gritty blues (“Jesus Just Left Chicago”) or lightning boogie (“Tush”).

Ronnie Van Zant would have been proud of ZZ Top’s success, but Lynyrd Skynyrd, eligible for the hall of fame since 1998, should have been inducted years ago.

This is more than the partisan opinion of a Georgia-born Skynyrd fan. Akron (Ohio) Beacon Journal critic Malcolm X. Abrams recently wrote that ZZ Top’s induction “might be a signal that Rock Hall voters may be ready to welcome other Southern rockers, paving the way for Lynyrd Skynyrd to be honored, but it should have been the other way around.” Amen.

Some Skynyrd fans have blamed regional bias for the band’s exclusion from the Cleveland shrine. The quintessential Dixie rockers alumni of Robert E. Lee High School in Jacksonville, Fla. used a huge Confederate battle flag as stage backdrop. It also has been widely speculated that hall voters can’t forgive Mr. Van Zant for defiantly defending George C. Wallace (“in Birmingham, they love the governor”) in “Sweet Home Alabama,” Skynyrd’s celebratory reply to Neil Young’s “Southern Man.”

That suspicion may be misplaced, however. Gene Odom, who was Mr. Van Zant’s personal bodyguard and survived the 1977 crash, says that when he traveled to Cleveland, he heard a different explanation for hall of fame voters’ Skynyrd snub. According to Mr. Odom, a hall official said music industry leaders disdain Skynyrd as “the world’s luckiest bar band.”

That might explain why record sales are slumping the music industry is run by ignorant snobs who don’t know anything about rock ‘n’ roll.

Skynyrd is more than the three-chord fun of “Sweet Home Alabama,” more than the encore anthem, “Freebird.” Its oeuvre ranged from the foot-stomping frolic of “Gimme Three Steps” to the haunting “That Smell.” Skynyrd’s twin-guitar attack of Allen Collins and Gary Rossington rocked the blues like few bands before or since. Listen to the band’s cover of J.J. Cale’s “Call Me the Breeze” and try to name a tighter record by any of the famed British blues acts. You can’t.

In “The Ballad of Curtis Loew,” one of several songs reflecting the group’s social conscience, Skynyrd paid tribute to forgotten black blues pioneers. The band backed gun control in “Saturday Night Special,” warned against drug addiction in “The Needle and the Spoon” and decried political corruption in “Things Going On.”

“The world’s luckiest bar band,” indeed. Skynyrd rocked stadiums and arenas around the world, including England’s Knebworth festival. With Ronnie Van Zant as taskmaster, Skynyrd rehearsed relentlessly. The guitar solos on the band’s live album, “One More From the Road,” might sound improvised but were, in fact, rehearsed note for note, reflecting Mr. Van Zant’s belief that concertgoers deserved a superior performance every night.

Imagine that the situation were reversed. Imagine that Ronnie Van Zant were still alive while some of his fellow Southern rockers had been tragically cut down in midcareer. Mr. Van Zant, notorious as a two-fisted brawler, would have whupped every music critic from Cleveland to California before he’d have let the hall of fame exclude worthy artists.

If ZZ Top belongs in the hall of fame, Skynyrd does, too. Rock fans must hope Los Tres Hombres de la Texas (and fellow Southern members of the hall, including Gregg Allman and Tom Petty) will speak out and demand that this injustice be corrected next year.

Robert Stacy McCain is an assistant national editor for The Washington Times. His e-mail address is smccain@ washingtontimes.com

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