Why Neil Young and Lynyrd Skynyrd were locked in a long-running feud
It’s safe to say that Neil Young and Lynyrd Skynrd were blessed with contrasting worldviews — views which would lead to the two titans of the 1970s rock scene locking horns in a fierce feud. Young was a liberal Canadian who saw the Deep South of America as being the antithesis of everything that he stood for. On top of that, he wasn’t shy about letting his feelings known and it was something which the proud Lynyrd Skynrd took huge exemption to.
Prior the remarks by Young which would begin their troubles, the late Lynyrd Skynrd frontman Stevie Van Zant was publically a huge fan of the Canadian and would often wear a Neil Young T-shirt while performing on stage. With that considered, he took Young’s words as a personal insult. Young first took aim at the Deep South in 1970 on his song ‘Southern Man’, a track which featured on his seminal album After The Gold Rush. The material would go on to upset a large portion of his fans from the region, including the members of Lynyrd Skynrd. The song tackles racism in the American South and it makes a number of references to the area’s historic relationship with slavery and its ties to the Ku Klux Klan. All in all, it didn’t paint a pretty picture.
Young attempted to explain his generalisation by attempting to claim that the song was more about the Civil Rights Movement than the South, however, his justification fell on deaf ears. In the liner notes for his greatest hits album Decade, Young stated: “This song could have been written on a civil rights march after stopping off to watch Gone With The Wind at a local theatre.”
Two years on from ‘Southern Man’, Young took another shot at the Deep South when he returned to the same contentious subject on ‘Alabama‘. He yet again attempted to justify the song by stating that ‘Alabama’ wasn’t specific to the state and it just felt like the appropriate title to get across the message of the track. “Actually, the song is more about a personal thing than it is about a state,” he explained. “And I’m just using that name and that state to hide whatever it is I have to hide, I don’t know what that means.”
The singer-songwriter was well aware of the furious reaction that the song would initiate from the people of Alabama, especially after the anger he had caused with ‘Southern Man’, but that didn’t stop him from starting round two. Unfortunately for Young, in this case, the fury would drown out the message that he was trying to spread. Lynryd Skynrd’s Ronnie Van Zant felt forced to stand up for his people, later telling Rolling Stone: “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.”
Not only did he speak in the press about the subject but he also got the hometown pride off his chest in the studio and the result would be the iconic song and all-round wedding party starter ‘Sweet Home Alabama’. The anthem even name-checked Shakey, when Van Zant proudly sang: “I hope Neil Young will remember, a southern man don’t need him around anyhow.”
The track made Young reflect on his actions, considering that perhaps he didn’t get his point across in the succinct manner that he had hoped when envisioning the pair of songs. In his 2012 biography Waging Heavy Peace, Young went as far as apologising for both tracks: “‘Alabama’ richly deserved the shot Lynyrd Skynyrd gave me with their great record,” he said. “I don’t like my words when I listen to it. They are accusatory and condescending, not fully thought out, and too easy to misconstrue.”
The singer was more than happy to accept that in this case, he was the one that was in the wrong and remains a testament to the kind of man that Young is. He reconciled with Lynyrd Skynyrd following the release of ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ and he took the track in good nature, even saying: “They play like they mean it, I’m proud to have my name in a song like theirs.”
Young later discussed the feud with Lynyrd Skynyrd in a 1995 interview with Mojo Magazine, stating: “Oh, they didn’t really put me down! But then again, maybe they did! But not in a way that matters. Shit, I think ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ is a great song. I’ve actually performed it live a couple of times myself.”
After they reconciled, Young sent the group a demo version of ‘Powderfinger’ to apologise and eventually allowed the band use it on their next record. However, tragic circumstances would ensue as Van Zant, along with other members of the group, died in a plane crash before they had the chance to record the now-iconic track. Weeks after their death in 1977, Young played a charity show in Miami and treated fans to an emotional medley of ‘Alabama’ and ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ in tribute to the band.