Talk about a Southern Rock tune with attitude! “Sweet Home Alabama” was written by Ed King (Strawberry Alarm Clock), Gary Rossington (founding member of Lynyrd Skynyrd), and Ronnie Van Zant (another founding member of Lynyrd Skynrd). It was produced by songwriter, vocalist, and multi-instrumentalist Al Kooper. The song was released on Lynyrd Skynyrd’s 1974 album Second Helping as well as a single backed with “Take Your Time.” In 1974, “Sweet Home Alabama” went to #8 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 and #6 in Canada. It was certified gold in the U.S., the U.K, and Italy.
The song in some ways is a response to Canadian Neil Young’s songs “Southern Man” and “Alabama,” which deal with racism against African-Americans in the South. (The feud was not really that intense, as Neil Young and Lynyrd Skynyrd are friendly to each other.) However, the song is a defense of the South. And, besides, Neil isn’t from there anyway. After the lyrics, “Well, I heard Mr. Young sing about her,’ Al Kooper quietly sings “Southern Man.”
The reference in the song to the Mussel Shoals Studios pays tribute to the artists who recorded there. This includes Bo Diddley, Aretha Franklin, The Tams, Tommy Roe, Wilson PIckett, Etta James, and many more. The Swampers refer to the session musicians there, who worked behind the scenes.
There has been some controversy over the mention of the state’s Governor, which is a reference to George Wallace. The lyrics do say, “Boo! Boo! Boo!” about him, but Wallace evidently loved the song. In 2009, the state of Alabama has printed “Sweet Home Alabama” as its official slogan on motor vehicle license plates.
The song also refers to Richard Nixon, who was President at the time, and the Watergate scandal, which was raging at the time. Van Zant has said, “We’re not into politics,” and the lyrics reflect that.
On the track were Ronnie Van Zant (lead vocals), Ed King (lead guitar, backing vocals), Leon Wilkeson (bass, backing vocals), Bob Burns (drums), Billy Powell (piano), Allen Collins (rhythm guitar), and Gary Rossington (rhythm guitar, acoustic guitar). In addition were Al Kooper (backing vocals), Clyde King (background vocals), and the amazing Merry Clayton (background vocals).
Lynyrd Skynyrd formed in Jacksonville, Florida. They had a number of names before choosing Lynyrd Skynyrd in 1969. “Sweet Home Alabama” has been one of their signature songs. In 1977, two members and a backup singer were killed in an airplane crash. They were Ronnie Van Zant, Steve Gaines, and Cassie Gaines. Over the years, the group has disbanded and then re-grouped with changes in personnel; they continue to tour and perform.