Long before iPods, downloading, file-sharing, corporate radio station monopolies and even the compact disc, there was Lynyrd Skynyrd. Branded Southern Rock but really a loud blues band at heart, Lynyrd Skynyrd were a touring favorite and responsible for that one guy in every bar who just has to yell “FREE BIRD” when the urge hits him.
Lynyrd Skynyrd 2010 still play some down ’n’ dirty blues, with a three-guitar assault that’s virtually unheard of in this day. The years haven’t slowed them down or diminished their popularity. They have a record deal with Roadrunner Records, released a new CD last year, God & Guns, and they’re out doing what they do best: touring. A lot.
At the heart of the group, and carrying on the legacy, are guitarists Gary Rossington and Rickey Medlocke, vocalist Johnny Van Zant and drummer Michael Cartellone. They’re joined by guitarist Mark Matejka, bassist Robert Kearns, keyboardist Peter Keys and backing vocalists Dale Krantz Rossington and Carol Chase. The Skynyrd story is one of triumph and tragedy in a cycle that keeps repeating. Still, they forge onward, but it’s not out of any great love or support for the industry.
God & Guns marked the group’s first release in six years. “We left our last label with a bad taste in our mouths,” says Johnny Van Zant. “We wanted to wait until we found the right people before we signed again. When we met with Roadrunner [in 2008], we felt that they were real music people and not like a typical label.”
From there, they began working on more material and found themselves collaborating with guitarist John 5, whose resume includes Marilyn Manson and Rob Zombie. A unique pairing resulted in the song “Floyd,” which is on the new CD. Through John 5 they were introduced to producer Bob Marlette, with whom they decided to track three songs and test the outcome. “We fell in love with Bob,” says Van Zant. “As a vocalist, I had never sung in a control room. I was always in the main room with the band. Bob suggested trying this and it worked out great. I’ll probably never do it the other way again. Bob is not only a great producer; he’s also a very talented musician, and we can’t thank John 5 enough for getting us together. After Billy [Powell – keyboardist] and Ean [Evans – bassist] passed away, we were really bummed. Bob helped up bring our spirits back together. He’s just a great guy.”
Today, with years and miles behind him and still ahead, Van Zant’s a father of four — ages 27, 25, 18 and 7 — whose biggest vice is three shots of espresso and who still refers to CDs as records. Strangers stop him to let him know that their teenagers are listening to his music. Longtime fans still buy tickets to the shows. And the shows do go on.
“Lynyrd Skynyrd has always been a live band,” he says. “From the beginning, they were about playing for the fans and taking people away from their problems for one night. It’s the same for us: the time we spend onstage is time when we only think about the music. I look at young bands today and think it must be very tough for them. They sign these deals where the label takes half the publishing, half the T-shirt sales and half the performances. Things have changed. Sure, I would like to see the prices of music and tickets come down, but I don’t want to see it taken for free. It costs money to write, to record. We work for everything we get. I can’t walk into Walmart and walk out with something without the police right behind me, so why should anybody think they can get music that way?”
Success and longevity can bring a range of public response. For some, seeing a band like Lynyrd Skynyrd — 35 years and still going, waving their Southern pride, cranking the volume — it’s reason to cheer them on. For others … “Most other artists love us,” says Van Zant. “They know what we’ve been through. Our attitude is like the line in the Rick Nelson song ‘Garden Party’: ‘You can’t please everyone, so you’ve got to please yourself.’ That’s the way it is in life. It’s too short. Enjoy what you do and appreciate what you have. The people who think we’re too old or have been doing this too long — hey, we’ll open for you, and we’ll see who comes out laughing!”