NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Summer Reading: The Guy Who First Yelled “Freebird”

Also a Famous Songwriter's Ripping Good Yarn About Growing Up Southern

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/ Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

So, just who was the first guy to yell “Freebird” at a concert by a group or artist other than Lynyrd Skynyrd? Haven’t you always wondered? I certainly did. But writer Mitch Myers beat me to the punch.

Myers, who also maintains the Shel Silverstein Archive in Chicago (he is the famed author, artist and songwriter’s nephew), is a marvelous magazine writer and radio commentator. I still remember his great cowbell skit on NPR not that long ago. Now Myers has written his first book, The Boy Who Cried Freebird: Rock & Roll Fables and Sonic Storytelling. It’s partly truth, partly fiction and makes for some good reading.

The “Freebird” chapter is fiction, but it’s engrossing reading: a sort of what-if tale of what finally happened to the first guy to yell “Freebird.” It’s probably not an ending you will be prepared for. But after all, how long can a career of yelling “Freebird” go on?

One group that learned the song, in self-defense at its concerts, is the Charleston Symphony Orchestra in South Carolina. Dash Rip Rock used to play “Stairway to Freebird,” a mash-up of Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” and “Freebird.” Some groups just reply, “I’ve got your ’free bird’ right here!”

Some of Myers’ other chapters here continue the saga of Adam Coil, the rock and rolling hero of the title chapter. Others ponder the wonders of the music of such genuine musical heroes as Duke Ellington, Albert Ayler, Doug Sahm and Aretha Franklin. Others wonder about the earthly influence of such true musical question marks as Johnny Thunders, Captain Beefheart and Frank Zappa. Sometimes he writes all around the music, and sometimes he dives straight at it. Not many writers can do either well. He can. It’s magic when a writer can do that.

The other book is written by Bobby Braddock, one of Nashville’s preeminent songwriters. He has authored or co-authored such songs as “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” which many regard as the greatest country song ever written. And such compositions as “Golden Ring” and “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” are no slouches either. He also wrote Toby Keith’s No. 1 hit “I Wanna Talk About Me” and was instrumental in launching Blake Shelton’s career, and he produced Shelton’s album Austin and its No. 1-charting title song.

But before he got to Nashville, he was a kid growing up in the small Florida orange-growing town of Auburndale. It was a Tom Sawyer-gone rock ’n’ roll sort of childhood, for he grew up along with early R&R and was playing it in clubs as soon as he could. Along the way, he discovered Benzedrine inhalers, alcohol, girls, cars, sex, love, the police, shady characters and leaving town one step ahead of trouble. He calls his memoir Down in Orbundale: A Songwriter’s Youth in Old Florida. “Orbundale” is the way “Auburndale” was pronounced locally.

His pre-Disney Florida was an entirely different world from the antiseptic vacationland that Disney’s influence has turned virtually the entire state into. He yearns for the old Florida, along with all the off-kilter but usually harmless characters that small towns used to spawn. The second volume of Braddock’s memoir will begin with his arrival in Nashville. I can’t wait for those adventures, but still I will miss these childhood and teenage tales of wonder at growing up in a sort of realistic magic kingdom, one with dirt and grit but also one with joy and love.

Braddock is a true realist but at the same time a hopeless romantic. Reading this, I can see where some of his songs come from. In the book, he notes, “I feared that reliving those years by writing about them might be the emotional equivalent of eating a barrel of live slugs and washing it down with a bucket of bile. Actually, it was more like several thousands dollars worth of therapy.”

A man who can write lines like that in a book is a man who can write: “He stopped loving her today/They placed a wreath upon his door/And soon they’ll carry him away/He stopped loving her today.”