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Was There Really A Feud Between Neil Young And Lynyrd Skynyrd?

Music | September 11, 2019

Left: Gary Rossington, Steve Gaines and Ronnie Van Zant of Lynyrd Skynyrd,on the field before the 1977 Season Opening Atlanta Braves Game. Right: Neil Young on a poster for his 1974 album 'On The Beach.' Sources: Tom Hill/WireImage; Pinterest.

Canadian rocker Neil Young criticizes the American south in a couple of songs; southern rockers Lynyrd Skynyrd call him out by name in their anthem "Sweet Home Alabama" -- it's one of the most famous feuds in rock history. But was it a feud at all?

Even though fans of the artists want there to be a massive feud between these two titans of the ‘70s, everyone involved says that there was never a feud, just good-natured jabs. But isn’t that what everyone would say when they’re trying to play nice and mitigate a disaster? Getting to the bottom of the Neil Young and Lynyrd Skynyrd rivalry uncovers the way that fandom and regional love can make a good natured jab into an all out rivalry. 

Neil Young Fired The First Shot Against The South

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In 1970 Neil Young released After the Gold Rush, an acclaimed album that contained the track "Southern Man." a track that puts the microscope on the south’s racist past and the way in which the people in the area at that time weren’t doing anything to change from the mindset of the Civil War. In the song Young sings 

I saw cotton and I saw black
tall white mansions and little shacks
Southern Man, when will you pay them back?

As you might expect, people in the south weren’t pleased with being painted with such a broad brush. They felt that comparing a contemporary, generic "Southern Man" with a slave owner was unfair. Liberal minded people who lived in the south and who were working with the desegregationist movement weren't too keen on the song's generalizations either. 

On Young's next album, Harvest, he included another song addressed to the south, "Alabama." In this one, he brought up the Ku Klux Klan ("the old folks tied in white robes") and portrayed the state's resistance to change as either stubborn or stupid:

What are you doing, Alabama?
You got the rest of the Union
To help you along
What's going wrong?

'Sweet Home Alabama' Was Written In Response To Young, But It Wasn't A Clapback

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Two years after Young's "Southern Man" (and two after "Alabama"), Lynyrd Skynyrd released Second Helping, and the opening track "Sweet Home Alabama" was clearly a shot at Young. The lyrics to the song went

Well I heard Mr. Young sing about her
I heard ol' Neil put her down
I hope Neil Young will remember
A southern man don't need him around anyhow

It seemed as if they were preparing for World War Rock. The lyrics to the single earned the band a reputation not only as Neil Young haters but as defenders of the south, something that they may have not actually wanted.

Rather than trying to be defenders of the flag, the band just wanted to set Young straight, and let him know that everyone from the south isn’t some hate spewing hayseed. Singer Ronnie Van Zant said:

We thought Neil was shooting all the ducks in order to kill one or two. We’re southern rebels, but more than that, we know the difference between right and wrong… We wrote 'Alabama' as a joke. We didn't even think about it - the words just came out that way. We just laughed like hell, and said 'Ain't that funny'... We love Neil Young, we love his music...

Skynyrd Almost Recorded A Couple Of Songs From 'Rust Never Sleeps'

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If there’s any other proof needed that Young and Skynyrd were nothing more than friends with a healthy artistic rivalry, it’s that Young was actively writing songs for the band before their deadly plane crash in 1977. The rumor is that Young wrote the song “Powderfinger” specifically for singer Ronnie Van Zant who was supposedly working on a solo album at the time. While there’s no clear evidence of a solo album, Young has verified that he hoped the band would record the song, but he added that there he had a few songs that he wanted Van Zant to sing.

While speaking with MOJO Young said, “Lynyrd Skynyrd almost ended up recording ‘Powderfinger’ before my version came out. We sent them an early demo of it because they wanted to do one of my songs.” He also sent the band a demo for “Sedan Delivery,” another song from "Rust Never Sleeps" that would have been really cool to hear coming out of Skynyrd, and “Captain Kennedy,” a song that ended up on his 1980 album “Hawkes and Doves.”

Ronnie Van Zant Is Wearing A Neil Young Shirt On The Cover Of 'Street Survivors'

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For proof that Young and Skynyrd were fans of one another you need not look further than the t-shirts that the artists wore in concert and on their album covers. Van Zant wears a Neil Young shirt for the album Tonight’s The Night on the cover of Street Survivors, and he was known for wearing the shirt during concerts just to mess with any fans that took the rivalry too seriously.

Similarly, both Young and the bass player of Crazy Horse, Billy Talbot, were known to wear Skynyrd shirts during live concerts. Young specifically wore the classic Skynyrd shirt that makes use of the Jack Daniels logo. The rumor inside the rumor is that Van Zant was buried in his “Tonight’s the Night” shirt either as a final dig at Young or as a way to keep one of his favorite lyricists close. Ghoulish fans have tried to dig Van Zant up to find what he’s wearing, but no one has ever verified the claim. 

Young Covered 'Sweet Home Alabama' In Concert

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In the weeks following the plane crash that took the lives of Van Zant, Steve Gaines, and Cassie Gaines, Neil Young worked “Sweet Home Alabama,” the track directed at him, into a live show played in Miami to raise money for a children’s hospital. Towards the end of the set Young played the song “Alabama,” and worked in lyrics from “Sweet Home Alabama.”

That night in Miami was one of the last times, if not the very last, that he played “Alabama,” a track that he says he’s no longer connected to. In his 2012 book Waging Heavy Peace Young wrote:

I don’t like my words when I listen to it today. They are accusatory and condescending, not fully thought out, too easy to misconstrue.

Surviving Members Of Skynyrd Say There Was Never Any Feud

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Nearly 40 years after the release of “Second Helping,” Gary Rossington, one of the surviving members of Lynyrd Skynyrd spoke to Garden & Gun about about the band’s feud with Young and he elucidated on the group’s feeling on the singer, and the meaning behind the song. Not only was the band not trying to rip into Young, but they wanted to write a song that everyone - regardless of where they lived - could enjoy. Rossington said:

Everyone thought it was about Neil Young, but it was more about Alabama. We had toured there, going all around playing clubs and National Guard armories. Everyone was real nice. When we were out in the country driving all the time, we would listen to the radio. Neil Young had 'Southern Man,' and it was kind of cutting the South down. And so Ronnie just said, 'We need to show people how the real Alabama is.'
We loved Neil Young and all the music he's given the world. We still love him today. It wasn't cutting him down, it was cutting the song he wrote about the South down. Ronnie painted a picture everyone liked. Because no matter where you're from, sweet home Alabama or sweet home Florida or sweet home Arkansas, you can relate.

It seems that if there was a rivalry between Young and Skynyrd that it was more professional than personal, and that the hatchet was buried a long time ago. 

Tags: A Brief History Of... | Lynyrd Skynyrd | Neil Young | Rare Facts And Stories About History | Ronnie Van Zant | Song Meanings, Lyrics, And Facts

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Jacob Shelton

Writer

Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.