#403: Lynyrd Skynyrd, "Pronounced Leh-nerd Skin-nerd" (1973)

This essay wasn’t supposed to be an essay. When I started writing, I had grand ambitions: a short story about a trucker and a girl he meets on the road, a girl whose not-uncommon beauty (it is the beauty of a young and slender girl) he can’t help but notice, even though she’s not much older than his own daughter. The attraction and the resistance of the attraction wouldn’t be the point of the story, but it was the tension I was going to begin with. And I was going to listen to Lynyrd Skynyrd and start with her hitching a ride and see where it took me.

But these posts have deadlines, and I am not, primarily, a fiction writer, and I didn’t realize how long this sort of thing can take, how difficult it can be to conjure lines of dialogue and learn your characters through them. I mean, I knew, I guess, but every time I start a project I think for some reason it will be easier this time, and it almost never is. All of this is to say: there is a tension in the songs in Pronounced Leh-Nerd Skin-Nerd that reminds me of driving a long way in the night and wanting things you feel uneasy wanting, of the way that, no matter how you try to repress it, you can’t ever escape who you are.

This evening I made, for the first time, a fruit crumble. I tossed chunks of nectarine and raspberries in sugar and then I added some shredded coconut and chocolate chips. As I added them I thought, there’s a chance this will overcomplicate things. I tried it anyway. It overcomplicated things. I didn’t ruin it or anything; the dessert still tasted good. But the surplus of flavors made it less immediately identifiable as what it was, and if I make a crumble again (which I probably willwhat could be easier than tossing fruit in sugar, massaging cold butter into flour and sugar and salt), I will make it the normal way, the fruit and the dough and nothing else to distract from it, except maybe a little whipped cream.

You get where I’m going with this: Lynyrd Skynyrd is the good crumble, the conventional crumble, the one I did not make. Having fewer elements (I’m talking, here, mostly about how the album was released in 1973, before digital, computerized components manipulated music as they so often do today) somehow opens a space for a purer sort of complexity.

But I’m not here to assess the value of Lynyrd Skynyrd; time has already done that. I listened to the album in its entirety for the first time when I started this project, and I knew half of the songs. Not in a “oh I think I’ve heard this before” kind of wayI knew the songs. I wouldn’t call myself a Lynyrd Skynyrd fan, and I’ve never sought out their music. This album was released 13 years before I was born. And yet, I know those songs, just from being a person living in America. I bet you do, too.

What kind of wild and ridiculous success is that? I mean, wild. But also, ridiculous. Lynyrd Skynyrd is a band that still exists even though almost none of its original members are alive. I am a little confused but also delighted by this fact. They are, essentially, a cover band for themselves. There is an audacity to this but also a naivete, a simultaneous inhabiting that parallels the way their music is so sincere it descends into camp. They are so much the southern rock band that they’re bordering on a parody of southern rock.

I worried that writing about a trucker would be too obvious and unsurprisingthat maybe it would be silly, to choose a character so clearly associated with this kind of music. Truckers and factory workers, blue-collar men who wear boots and drink whiskey and work long days, men whose lives are hard on their bodies. Men who own rifles, men who are more affectionate with their dogs than their wives, men who speak few words and never admit to crying. Rough men and terse men, men who know how to bellow. Men who never doubt their own ability to build a bonfire.

But these characters are the characters of the songsthey match the image the band has cultivated, the ones they market to, and so it seemed right, in a way. To worry about being too much when it’s Lynyrd Skynyrd we’re talking about is counterintuitive. And anyway, there’s something I love in those menhow they remind me of my grandfather, maybe, even though their music is something I know my grandfather would have dismissed. But maybe that’s not it, not really. I think it might be because there’s always some sort of crevasse between the image of the man and the man himself, and no matter how narrow it is, it is always deep.

I find this crevasse appealing; I want to peer over the edge. I want to build a bridge across it, or jump in, fall down through a tunnel of ice. I can never know it in others the way I know it in myself, but I want to, and this, maybe, is one of the things that makes me a writer. There’s a tension, I guess, wrought by that familiar adage: He’s not what he seems. And so, we come to expect that this is what literature or wisdom will show us as we get to know a character. I think it’s pretty rare that people aren’t what they seem. People, generally, are what they seem to be. It’s just that, often, that’s not all they are.

So, my trucker would be a trucker and the hitchhiking girl would be just that. The crumble that I didn’t make would’ve been only a crumble, fully inhabiting its crumble identity, and it would’ve been better. So I guess this is all my way of saying, I can’t think of a way to describe Pronounced Leh-Nerd Skin-Nerd beyond identifying it as southern rock, because it so fully inhabits that category. And I love the songs, I do, even as I don’t know how to feel about that love, even as I want to laugh at myself for loving them. The songs can’t help being only what they are. They also can’t help being more.

—Katelyn Kiley