Rock fans like to ponder the great what-ifs: what if [lastfm link_type="artist_info"]Jimi Hendrix[/lastfm] or [lastfm link_type="artist_info"]Janis Joplin[/lastfm] or [lastfm link_type="artist_info"]Jim Croce[/lastfm] or [lastfm link_type="artist_info"]Buddy Holly[/lastfm] or [lastfm link_type="artist_info"]John Lennon[/lastfm] had avoided their untimely deaths? What music might they have made? How might they have fit into the role of respected gray eminence as the years passed? How would the history of rock have changed?
We ask those questions every year in October when we observe the anniversary of the 1977 plane crash that killed two members of [lastfm link_type="artist_info"]Lynyrd Skynyrd[/lastfm] and four members of their entourage.
When the members of the band got on that airplane in 1977, they were the biggest thing in southern rock, and southern rock was the hottest sub-genre going. Street Survivors, released three days before the crash (and picturing the band enveloped in flames on the original cover, which was swiftly withdrawn), was poised to be a smash — and it was.
But the musical landscape was changing. Disco and new wave were ascendant, and MTV was coming. Southern rock would never be more popular than it was at the moment of Skynyrd’s crash. The seismic shifts had already begun, and they would have not have stopped if Skynryd’s plane had reached its destination safely on October 20, 1977.
Despite the deaths of Ronnie Van Zant and Steve Gaines in 1977 (and other members since), and the early-’80s decline of southern rock from its high perch, Skynryd itself has enjoyed a long afterlife keeping the southern rock flame alight. The band remains influential, although not so much among today’s rock generation. To find people inspired by Skynryd and the southern rock brotherhood, turn to young country stars. Many of them are more likely to name-check Skynryd than their hard-country forefathers when it’s time to credit their influences.
Here’s a great piece of video of the band performing “Free Bird” live in July 1977. While the studio version is justly famed, the song is almost always better live — mostly because Billy Powell got to take a piano solo, as he does here.