There’s no denying that Americans love guns. The American identity if one of rugged independence, rather than have other people solve our problems we’ve always wanted to solve them for ourselves. Guns let us do that. The American West was tamed with men and guns. Living on the frontier provided many Americans their only opportunity to own land, which has always been another important component of the national identity. The problem of the frontier life is that it’s remote and generally lawless, thus the necessity for a gun. Having a gun was a matter of life and death: guns are powerful tools. With a gun a man could feed his family, protect his livestock, and fight off the most dangerous thing on the frontier—other people.
Rural America still possesses many of the same qualities that made the frontier so dangerous, which is why the gun culture is strongest there. That said, at this point, the national identity of the rugged, independent cowboy is so ingrained in our culture we don’t even think about it. It’s for this reason that people living in cities still worship at the altar of the might gun. All of this would be mildly fascinating if the tool in question were a hammer or a screwdriver…but a gun is a tool designed to kill, so the prevalence of gun culture is a bit more important.
And while I certainly wouldn’t call Jacksonville a rural community, Lynyrd Skynyrd did originate in the South where the gun culture is strongest. Not surprisingly, the band has a complicated relationship with guns. The band’s 1975 album NUTHIN’ FANCY opens with the track “Saturday Night Special.” The song’s title refers to cheap, easily accessible handguns that are typically of a low caliber and even lower quality. The song features three verses, each highlighting the mayhem created by a gun: a thief breaking into a house and shooting an occupant dead, a man who shoots his friend after drunkenly accusing his friend of cheating at poker, and finally the possibility of shooting oneself when drunk on whiskey. The song’s chorus features the lines: “Mr. Saturday night special/got a barrel that’s blue and cold/Ain’t no good for nothin’/but put a man six feet in a hole.” The song’s final verse suggests that for everyone’s protection we take all these guns and toss them into the ocean.
The sentiment behind “Saturday Night Special” is strong and it’s surprising that this track would not only be the leadoff song on NUTHIN’ FANCY, but this song was a modest hit for Lynyrd Skynyrd. The band had to know that their fan base held a strong contingent of gun-owners. Unlike the twisty meaning of “Sweet Home Alabama,” there is no mistaking the motivation behind Van Zant’s lyrics in “Saturday Night Special.” But as plainly didactic as “Saturday Night Special” is, things are never cut and dry with Lynyrd Skynyrd. The very next track on NUTHIN’ FANCY, “Cheatin’ Woman,” is about killing an unfaithful lover with…a handgun. Murdering a lover is a common motif in blues music, and for a band as deeply entrenched in the blues as Lynyrd Skynyrd to write a song using this motif isn’t particularly surprising. I do find the choice of track order interesting, did Lynyrd Skynyrd intentionally sequence “Cheatin’ Woman” and “Saturday Night Special” back-to-back in order to make a larger statement? While on the surface it may seem surprising that the band would follow such a progressive-minded song like “Saturday Night Special” with a song like “Cheatin’ Woman,” this duality is found throughout the band’s catalogue.
The simplest explanation for much of this duality in Lynyrd Skynyrd’s music is that the songs are not necessarily always autobiographical. Ronnie Van Zant never shot and killed a woman, and just because he wrote a song about doing so doesn’t necessarily mean that he was giving murder an endorsement. The same could be said for Van Zant’s position on gun control in “Saturday Night Special.” Perhaps that song was written from the perspective of a wormy city dweller? I highly doubt that, however, because “Saturday Night Special” is so impassioned and so against what band like Lynyrd Skynyrd would be expected to write about.
Another reading of “Saturday Night Special” might be that the band is railing not against guns per say, but the rather the dangers of impulsivity. The song’s name is derived from a cheap, easy to acquire firearm. The tragic deaths littered through the song are the result of rash, spur of the moment decisions: a thief stumbles upon a man inside the home he’s robbing and a drunk man gets in a heated exchange with his friend over a game of cards. There are a lot of Lynyrd Skynyrd songs about slowing down and practicing various forms of moderation. The issue of impulsivity in regards to violence first raised its head on the band’s debut album 1973’s (PRONOUNCED LEH-NERD SKIN-NERD) in the song “Gimme Three Steps.” While not a hit when first released, “Gimme Three Steps” has become a staple on classic rock radio. In “Gimme Three Steps” we again see someone rashly brandish a firearm. The song’s narrator is at a bar, talking to a woman, when a man storms in with a gun and threatens him. Rather than act tough or mouth off, the narrator asserts his innocence (“Wait a minute mister/I didn’t even kiss her”) and then asks for the titular three steps in which he can make a hasty exit. The criticism in “Saturday Night Special” appears to fall on firearms themselves, until the very end when Van Zant sings about tossing all the guns into the ocean before “some fool” comes around with a gun.
What’s fascinating about this song is how it’s essentially a song about not fighting. Beating a hasty retreat in the face of danger is universally an uncool thing to do, but somehow Lynyrd Skynyrd were able to write a (awesome) song about doing just that. Both songs feature guns and do not fit the typical tough-guy mindset seen in a lot of popular music. And in both songs, the violence (or threat of violence) is senseless and not in anyway glorified.
It’s worth noting that the band’s fourth album GIMME BACK MY BULLETS and its title song has nothing to do with guns or ammunition. Apparently, the song is a reference to the Billboard music charts, which used typographical bullets. On the official Lynyrd Skynyrd website, the band states that over the years fans who misunderstood the lyrics literally threw bullets at the band when they performed the song live. Rock songs, like all good poetry, sometimes requires more than a simple surface reading in order to be fully understood. A band like Lynyrd Skynyrd, with its hard-charging guitars and Southern connotation is both embraced and written-off by many music fans without giving them the proper amount of contemplation.
Lastly, the current incarnation of Lynyrd Skynyrd recently put out an album titled GOD & GUNS. Obviously at this point Skynyrd is not the same band that wrote “Mr. Saturday Night Special,” thanks to both the passage of time and the deaths of key members of the band. Still, I think the track “God & Guns” off the album is a fascinating departure from the classic era’s stance on guns. I’ll confess that I haven’t spent much time listening to this album (because the one time I did, I found it to be rather disappointing), but perhaps in a future post I’ll examine it more closely.