Sunday, January 17, 2016

Interview Flashback- Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Johnny Van Zant- The Interview

I have been blessed to write contributions/reviews/interviews/opinion pieces for several country music and roots-oriented websites and publications over the years including Saving Country Music, Nashville Scene, Country California, Country Weekly, American Noise, The 9513 and Engine 145. As a regular contributor to the last two in that list, I did close to a 100 interviews with different artists- and since both of those great sites have come down, I will reprint some of those interviews here to give them a home in perpetuity. This interview was originally published in October 2009 on The 9513.

Early in the 1970’s, a hybrid of rock and roll, blues and country music became immensely popular with a collection of artists from the heartland of America and was appropriately deemed southern rock. Thought too electric guitar dominated at the time for country radio, groups like the Allman Brothers, The Charlie Daniels Band, .38 Special and The Marshall Tucker Band all made the genre their own. Few, however, left a mark as indelible on the southern rock landscape as deep and as wide as Lynyrd Skynyrd.  Their two flagship anthems, “Free Bird” and “Sweet Home Alabama,” are considered two of Rock and Roll’s most important recordings- both holding places in Rolling Stone’s Top 500 Greatest Songs Of All Time. 

But on Thursday, October 20, 1977, just five shows into a headlining tour, a Lynyrd Skynyrd chartered Convair airplane ran out of fuel near the end of their flight to Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Ronnie Van Zant, Steve Gaines, Cassie Gaines, assistant road manager Dean Kilpatrick, pilot Walter McCreary and co-pilot William Gray were all killed on impact. All other band members suffered serious injuries. For ten years, the Skynyrd mic would be silent.

Then in 1987, Lynyrd Skynyrd held a reunion celebration tour with the crash survivors. Ronnie Van Zant's younger brother, Johnny Van Zant, took over as the new lead singer and primary songwriter.  Six albums and millions of concert ticket sales later, Johnny Van Zant and the rest of the Lynyrd Skynyrd boys are keeping the music alive.  They release God + Guns on September 29 on Loud & Proud/Roadrunner Records. Recorded in Nashville in 2008-2009, the project was interrupted—but, tellingly, not ended—by the deaths of founding member/keyboardist Billy Powell and longtime bassist Ean Evans earlier this year. With the passing of Powell and Evans, “a lot of people probably expected us to say enough is enough,” admits guitarist Rickey Medlocke.  “We wanted to show the people that not only are we doing the old material, keeping the music going, but we still have some new tricks up our sleeves, too,” says founding guitarist Gary Rossington. The Skynyrd Nation awaits.

There’s lots of people saying that the country of today is the southern rock of yesterday. 9513 asks you the reader, “Do you agree?”  We posed that and many additional questions to lead singer Johnny Van Zant who gave this exclusive 9513 interview.

Ken Morton, Jr.- Lynyrd Skynyrd has been doing this now for 35 years- you for more than 20- what is the inspiration to keep going?

Johnny Van Zant- Actually, this is my 22nd year and I think the inspiration is the music. Music is a great healer and Skynyrd has been through a bunch of stuff over the years. And, of course, at the beginning of this year, we had a couple of members pass away with Billy Powell and Ean Evans. We’ve always just gone back to the music to heal. This band’s resorted to the music and to the fans. I think more than any year, this was a year we needed to get out on the road and see our fans and be a part of them. 

KMJ- You mentioned you lost two of your longstanding band members. What has it been like out on the road without two of your most recent comrades. 

JVZ- It’s been a little different, you know. But we’ve got a couple of great guys that we got this year. I think they were sent to us from up above. They’ve fit in great with us and both of them are great musicians. It’s worked out really well for us. But we really miss our guys as well as the other ones that are all looking over us. 

KMJ- I keep reading that the country music of today is the southern rock of yesterday. I’d like to know your opinion of that.

JVZ- I think a lot of the country artists that are coming out today listened a lot to the Allman Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Ted Nugent and Aerosmith. (Laughter) For example,  Jason Aldean opened up for us a couple years ago and he did a cover song of an Aerosmith or a Zepplin song- I can’t remember which. But I was really surprised that he was doing that as part of his set. Of course, people like Montgomery Gentry are influenced- we’ve done a CMT Crossroads with them. We’ve been recording records in Nashville for as long as we’ve been recording records. They’ve been recorded in Nashville or Memphis or down in Muscle Shoals. 

KMJ- Is country music moving more towards southern rock or vice-versa do you think?

JVZ- I think it is in-between. I really do. I know I talked with Kenny Chesney one time. We became friends awhile back and I was talking to him on the phone. I asked him what he was doing and he said he was on his bus watching our DVD, “Live From Steeltown.” (Laughter) Again, I think it goes back and forth these days. And there’s nothing wrong with that. You know, they gave Lynyrd Skynyrd the tag of southern rock because it had country in it. They really didn’t know in the old days what to even call that kind of music. So they named it southern rock- basically rock and roll with a little bit of country in it. 

KMJ- Tell me about the new album, describe it for your fans.

JVZ- I think the new record has a little bit of something for everybody. It has a country flavor, a blues flavor and a rock flavor to it. Lyrically, we stuck to stuff we’ve always written about and that’s stuff that’s happening around us, somebody we know or the world in general. That’s what Skynyrd has always been known for. 

KMJ- How did you go about selecting songs?

JVZ- We had been writing for awhile. To be honest, we were on a different label and we left that label. That was six years ago. We talked to a couple of other labels and we just didn’t feel like we fit. So we took a meeting with Roadrunner and Loud and Proud last year and those people are real music people. It worked out good for us. It’s one of those things that this is going to be a real good record for Lynyrd Skynyrd and I hope the fans feel the same way. We’ve been playing a couple songs live during our live shows lately- “Skynyrd Nation” and “Still Unbroken”- they’ve been going over great. 

KMJ- That leads me well into my next question. You have a new anthem called “Skynyrd Nation.” Who is part of that nation & culture?

JVZ- Three generations, I can tell you that. I think everybody. When I look at our audience and meet our fans in general, it’s everyone.  You have kids who are in school.  Looking out in the audience last night in Tucson, we had kids who were six, seven and eight years old. And we have a bunch with gray hair that have been with the band since the beginning. We have doctors, lawyers, masonries, carpenters, lawn guys and everybody. I think a little bit of everybody comes to see Lynyrd Skynyrd. 

KMJ- My favorite track is “Floyd.” It’s sort of a CDB “Legend of Wooley Swamp” story song. Tell me about that song and how it came about. And I hear you have a special guest singer on that track as well.

JVZ- We know this guy John 5 (John William Lowery) who plays with Rob Zombie. He actually played with Marilyn Manson for awhile. We were in Nashville looking for some different people to write with and a friend of ours turned us on to John. When he comes into the room for the first time, he looks a little freaky. But we look around and think, okay we’re all up for that. He walked in with a furry kind of hood thing on and make-up on. It was totally different than us. I looked at him and said, “Man, you’re a freak.” And he said, “Man, I was thinking the same thing about you.” (Laughter) So we hit it off and became great friends. And the very first song we wrote was “Floyd.” This guy is an unbelievable guitar player. He can play anything. He can play any of the country stuff and any of the rock stuff. He’s an unbelievable talent. I can’t say enough about him. You never can judge a book by its cover. He actually came up with the lick. (Johnny sings the guitar background lick). And we just started messing around with him. It just came out as “Floyd” and it had a great old swampy feel to it. Of course with his relationship to Rob, we asked if he’d want to sing any of this thing with us. He does all the movies and the Halloween movie stuff. And he said “Sure, let’s do it.” My hat’s off to Rob. He was right in the middle of directing this new Halloween movie that’s coming out. And he took the time to come into the studio and sing on this thing. It’s really great. 

KMJ- What prompted your foyer into country music with your brother earlier this decade under the group, Van Zant?

JVZ- We’ve always loved country music. When we were growing up, we didn’t have 500 or 600 channels. We had three channels and one of them had Hee Haw on it. The other one had the Ed Sullivan Show. And there was the Wonderful World Of Disney on the other one. So we watched a lot of Hee Haw and fell in love with country music. Our dad was a truck driver and of course, having a dad as a truck driver, you’re going to listen to a lot of country music. We just always wanted to do a country record. And we had great success with the first one, Get Right With The Man. We had a falling out with the label Sony after that. Everyone that worked on our first record didn’t work on our second one. So it just wasn’t the right time so we left them. I go home and have a gold record on the wall for that one, though. It’s a great accomplishment. 

KMJ- Do you think we’ll hear new country music from the Van Zant brothers again?

JVZ- You know, we’ll see. We’ll see. Me and Donnie write all the time. But he’s busy with .38 and me with Skynyrd. We want to do it on our off times. But we would definitely like to do another country record. 

KMJ- When you’re not touring, where are we going to find you hanging out and what will we find you doing?

JVZ- Probably on my land cutting grass. Taking the kids to school. For me it’s just normal stuff. I relish the day to day stuff not being on the road. Getting home sometimes is a good thing, you know?

KMJ- I read a year or so ago that you have hopes of making a blues or gospel album, is that still on your life-list?

JVZ- Yeah, sure it is. Before I check out of here, I’d like to do a gospel album. That would probably be my first choice. I’d like to do that with my brother too. Get Right With The Man had a lot of gospel tinge to it. So did our second album for that matter. We believe in Jesus and God above and when you have that in your heart, you write about those kind of things when you’re a writer. 

KMJ- 35 years from now, what do you hope the legacy of Lynyrd Skynyrd is?

JVZ- I hope that it is for a band that wrote songs for the real people. A band that survived a lot- a lot of stuff that we all had to endure to keep the music alive. I always say that the music is a lot bigger than us. So 35 years from now when we’re all checked out of here, or at least most of us will be, the music will still live on. I think it’s a cool thing that my brother, a simple guy from the west side of Jacksonville, hit Bob Burns in the head with a baseball and that started Lynyrd Skynyrd. It’s pretty amazing all the accomplishments that the band has had. 

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