2005: Richard Roeper in Chicago Sun-Times

The Single, Sweet Home Alabama


Maybe it was during the Grammy Awards, when an all-star band jammed to this song onstage, reminding us of a time when you had to play an instrument to be considered a musician. Maybe it was when I was at P.J. Clarke's on State Street on the Saturday before St. Patrick's Day, and green-clad revelers of all ages started dancing when the song came on the jukebox. I didn't see a man who danced with his wife, but I did see a girl who wasn't born when the song was released -- and she was singing along with every word, as if it had been her homecoming theme.

Maybe it was when I heard the song as the theme for a NASCAR video game.

Maybe it was when Hilary and Hailey Duff appeared at an event at the W Hotel City Center on Adams a couple of weeks ago, and the crowd went wild when DJ AM incorporated the song's famous opening riff into his mix.

Maybe it was when the song popped up during a screening of the upcoming Matthew McConaughey-Penelope Cruz movie "Sahara" -- just the latest of many, many, many films to use this tune on the soundtrack.

Maybe it was all those factors, building to a crescendo.

All I know is that somewhere along the way, it hit me.

"Sweet Home Alabama" is the greatest rock and roll song of all time.

Some Lynyrd Skynyrd purists will tell you that "Sweet Home Alabama" isn't even the greatest Skynyrd song of all time, that the honors should go to "Tuesday's Gone" or some lesser-known album cut. (But probably not the overrated "Freebird.") Still, no Lynyrd Skynyrd song, and few rock songs from any band, have cut such a wide and lasting swath through the popular culture, while somehow retaining power and freshness.

'Big wheels keep on turnin' '

When I hear the first notes of "Stairway to Heaven" or "Smoke on the Water," I lunge for the radio dial. Enough is enough. When I hear the first notes of "Sweet Home Alabama," well, I turn it up.

The opening guitar lick is one of the most recognizable and electrifying intros in the history of popular music, right up there with the first notes of "Ohio," "Layla," "Baba O'Reilly" and "Revolution."

The lead vocals are muscular and clear and unapologetic.

Everybody knows the first line: "Big wheels keep on turnin.' " Not everybody knows the second line ("Carry me home to see my kin"), but it doesn't matter, you can keep singing anyway and catch up with "And I think it's a sin, yeah."

The chorus is just about perfect. You cannot and should not resist singing along with it.

The guitar work is killer.

The chick-singer background work is heavenly.

The lyrics matter. Yes, they're a bit incendiary. The founding members of Lynyrd Skynyrd were from Florida, and they embraced the Confederate flag as a stage prop. "Sweet Home Alabama" was written in part as a response to Neil Young's "Southern Man," and it includes a line seemingly sympathetic to Gov. George Wallace. But Ronnie Van Zant and his bandmates in Skynyrd also recorded "The Ballad of Curtis Lowe," an important song that embraced black music and spoke of the young Van Zant's rebellion against institutional racism.

It's everywhere

Taken as a whole and in the context of the times, "Sweet Home Alabama" is not in any way a racist song. Neil Young understood that, and so did Jimmy Carter, a liberal who welcomed the band's support.

Enough with the defense. If I'm casting my vote for the song with the best message about tolerance and peace and love, I could come up with countless better selections, from "Turn! Turn! Turn!" by the Byrds to "What's Going On?" by Marvin Gaye.

But we're talking pure rock. And as piece of pure rock, "Sweet Home Alabama" kicks ass.

It's also a pop culture touchstone, more so now than 30 years ago. "Sweet Home Alabama" has been featured in "Forrest Gump," "The Girl Next Door" and "To Die For," among other films. Of course there's also the movie "Sweet Home Alabama," with a cover version from Jewel.

In "Con Air," when the inmates take over the plane and party to the sounds of "Alabama," Steve Buscemi's Garland Greene character makes the immortal observation: "Define irony: a bunch of idiots dancing around on a plane to a song made famous by a band that died in a plane crash."

Then there's the scene in "8 Mile" when Eminem's B-Rabbit customizes the lyrics to reflect the sad state of his own life: "Cuz I live at home in a trailer/Mom I'm comin' home to you!"

Over the last five decades, there have been enough great rock and roll songs to make an iPod cry. Rolling Stone magazine recently listed its top 500, with Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone" at the top. I could list 100 stronger contenders, from "Won't Get Fooled Again" to "Smells Like Teen Spirit" to "Hey Jude" to "November Rain" -- but none surpasses "Sweet Home Alabama."

Turn it up.


Al adds:

It’s kinda wonderful to read such accolades thirty two years after you originally produced a record, signed a band, had a record company. These are the things that feel better to me than the politically-suspect Grammies and Halls of Fames. When your peers applaud your work in print, you can hide in the house and break out in a big genuine grin for fifteen seconds. No red carpets, rented tuxes, botox or phony smiles. Just pure private momentary delight. That is the way I prefer to appreciate my accomplishments. Your emails are pretty wonderful too. Someone in their twenties who had discovered my music and related heavily to it, sent me a birthday greeting this year. Within its context, he picked his favorite moments and spelled them out to me - here is one of say, ten, from his note:

“Thank you for the song "Turn My Head Towards Home". Probably one of your lesser-acknowledged works, it's really a piece of song-writing and producing perfection. The verses are calm, but pregnant with energy; and it's sheer ecstasy when the choruses give birth to a tumult of strings and feathery background vocalists. Melodically, it's a real treat too -- and the strings sound nearly tortured, playing off it in the brief bridge. And who wouldn't be won over by the sped-up voice adding harmony to the line Made a Happy Boy?”

When I was recording that song, I electronically sped up my voice so that it was an octave higher than usual and just plunked it in on the latter line. So my regular voice sang : “You took the misery....” and then the little chipmunk voice joined it on “...made a happy boy..”

In the entire four plus minute song, that was the only words that were sped up. When I mixed it, I made it subtle, and I truly doubted, thirty years ago, that anyone would ever hear it. So you can imagine how wonderful it was for me to have someone who wasn’t even born when I recorded that, to discover every nook and cranny of the song.

For me, that's better than any gold record or mantel-grabbing statuette. You guys are the best !!!!!