It's not just politicians who seem to be flip-flopping this season. Add Lynyrd Skynyrd to that category, as people curious about the flap over their Confederate flag stance: Were they against it before they were for it (again)?
Lynyrd Skynyrd with their once- (and future?) favorite flag (Getty Images)After making statements that indicated the band was no longer using the Confederate flag on stage, and suffering a huge backlash from much of their Southern fanbase as a result, Skynyrd has moved to staunch the bleeding. "We still utilize the Confederate (Rebel) flag on stage every night in our shows," guitarist Gary Rossington proudly—or fearfully?—declared in a public statement on the band's website and Facebook page.
But that's not what they seemed to be saying when CNN aired an interview with the band on September 9 that set off a firestorm among their Southern loyalists.
CNN news anchor Fredricka Whitfield—who, it may not be irrelevant to mention, is African-American—mentioned the history of the band using the Confederate flag in concert and album art, saying, "We don't see that anymore. At what point did you make a decision to lose that, or what was the evolution of that?"
Rather than tell her she was mistaken, Rossington—the sole remaining member of the group's classic 1970s lineup—launched into an explanation of how the flag has been misappropriated. "It became such an issue about race and stuff," Rossington explained on camera, "where we just had it at the beginning because we were Southern, and that was our image back in the '70s and late '60s, because they kind of branded us from being from the South, so we showed that. But I think through the years, you know, people like the KKK and skinheads and people have kind of kidnapped that Dixie or rebel flag from the Southern tradition and the heritage of the soldiers. That was what it was about, and they kind of made it look bad in certain ways. We didn't want that to go to our fans or show the image like we agree with the race stuff or any of the bad things."
Singer Johnny Van Zant, who replaced his late brother Ronnie in the group, chimed in: "If nothing else, we grew up loving the old blues artists and Ray Charles. We just didn't want to be associated with that type of thing."
Clear enough. Or was it?
Skynyrd was suddenly faced with widespread revolt from fans who've spent years or decades defending the flag as a non-racist evocation of Southern heritage or pride in what they see as a battle over states' rights, not slavery. You can imagine the vitriol on more partisan sites, but even the comments on CNN's website were largely furious:
"I guess this means they will be opening for the Dixie Chicks?"
"This isn't the real Lynyrd Skynyrd anyway. They should have taken a name like 'Obama's Politically Correct Sell Your Soul Make Believe Imposters' or something... We hope you never come back to 'Sweet Home Alabama,' cowards."
"Well, I hope Lynyrd Skynyrd will remember, a Southern man don't need THEM around anyhow..."
Ouch. That had to smart, especially when Skynyrd already has such a reputation as a conservative, right-leaning band that they long ago lost a lot of their liberally minded fans. If they alienated fans on the other end of the spectrum, who'd be left in the middle to sing along with "Gimme Three Steps"?
So, over the weekend, Rossington was taking three sidesteps to assure the base that they weren't giving any quarter to the Yanks.
"I wanted to clarify the discussion of the Confederate Flag in our recent CNN interview," he wrote. "Myself, the past and present members (that are from the South), are all extremely proud of our heritage and being from the South. We know what the Dixie flag represents and its heritage; the Civil War was fought over States rights. We still utilize the Confederate (Rebel) flag on stage every night in our shows, we are and always will be a Southern American Rock band, first and foremost. We also utilize the state flag of Alabama and the American flag, 'cause at the end of the day, we are all Americans. I only stated my opinion that the confederate flag, at times, was unfairly being used as a symbol by various hate groups, which is something that we don't support the flag being used for. The Confederate flag means something more to us, Heritage not Hate…"
So did they stop using the flag out of an attack of conscience, which suddenly flagged (sorry) when the hardcore South rose up against them? Or were they just going along with an anchor's misinterpretation to seem like reasonable, minority-loving folks, forgetting that these tempered remarks would get back to their flag-waving fan club?
Either way, it seems like Rossington would make as good a politician as he is a lead guitarist.
In any case, where the band really stands on the political as well as regional spectrum—at least when they're not on CNN—shouldn't be in any doubt. They're the only rock 'n' roll act that regularly makes appearances on Fox News with Sean Hannity (who calls them "one of the greatest rock groups of all time"). When they were on Fox to promote their 2009 album God And Guns, Rickey Medlocke jokingly told Hannity of the title, "That was just for you." They subsequently went on Hannity's 2010 "Freedom Tour."
The band was scheduled to play at the Republican National Convention last month, before hurricane fears in Tampa scuttled the opening night.
Some longtime fans of the band have expressed disappointment in their outright conservatism and pro-Republican stance. Although the current lineup made it clear at the time of God And Guns that they were anti-gun control and "pro-Second Amendment," the late singer Ronnie Van Zant seemed to have a different attitude when he wrote the seemingly pro-gun control "Saturday Night Special" in 1974. Some have postulated that that Van Zant was even a liberal, though what his political beliefs would be like 35 years after his death is hard for anybody on either side to argue.
Even without the RNC near-miss, it wouldn't be hard to figure out who most of the current Skynyrd members would be voting for this year. The "anti-entitlements" candidate would surely be the choice of the band that released an anti-welfare song a few years back called "Red, White and Blue," with lyrics like: "My Daddy worked hard, and so have I/Paid our taxes and gave our lives to serve this great country/So what are they complaining about?/If they don't like it they can just get the hell out!"
How shocking it must have been for the now-duly-chastened Rossington when some of their conservative fans were all too ready to tell Skynyrd to get the hell out.