‘This Is Skynyrd Nation’ - The Missourian: Fair

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‘This Is Skynyrd Nation’

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Posted: Thursday, August 1, 2013 2:21 pm | Updated: 2:28 pm, Thu Aug 1, 2013.

Southern rock legend Lynyrd Skynyrd will take the main stage of the Washington Town and Country Fair Saturday night, Aug. 10. The show will get started at 8:30 p.m.

The Missourian’s Currents Arts and Entertainment Editor Ethan Busse spoke with Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Johnny Van Zant about the band, their music and what fans coming to the Fair’s show can expect.

John Roy “Johnny” Van Zant is the band’s current lead vocalist. He is the younger brother of Lynyrd Skynyrd co-founder and former lead vocalist Ronnie Van Zant, who died in an airplane crash in 1977 at the peak of the band’s success. He also is the brother of .38 Special founder Donnie Van Zant.

Following are highlights of the Currents conversation:

CURRENTS: We’re very excited to have Lynyrd Skynyrd playing our Town and Country Fair in a couple of weeks, so I know you’re going to have a good crowd when you come out on stage in Washington, Mo.

VAN ZANT: That’s awesome, man. Yeah, we look forward to it. We’ve been out on the road since June, doing some shows with our buddies from Bad Company . . . just been having a good time. It’s been a good summer.

CURRENTS: Well, you guys have been touring all summer.

VAN ZANT: Sure have. Right at the end of October we do a cruise every year, so we’re looking forward to that. It’s called the Simple Man Cruise. We’re in our seventh year there. We usually start out sometime in May doing shows. We try to kick it back during the holiday season. That’s when we want to be with our families at home.

But we come out every summer. We’re celebrating 40 years since “Pronounced ‘l˘h-’nérd ‘skin-’nérd,” the debut album, so we’re having a good time. Still keeping the music alive, and we look forward to coming your way.

CURRENTS: Do you guys have a good time when you play these small town and country fairs?

VAN ZANT: We play everything, but sometimes the smaller fairs or whatever — we play the state fairs, too, we do arenas, we do them all — but sometimes the little fairs are something special. You know what I mean, you’re closer to the crowd. It’s a good time.

Lynyrd Skynyrd is about real people, and real people go to fairs. It’s what we’re all about. I still go to my county fair. I live in a little town called Middleburg, and they have the Clay County Fair every year, and I’m out there every year enjoying the rides, cotton candy, corn dogs — that’s real American stuff. And Lynyrd Skynyrd’s an American rock band.

CURRENTS: That’s what I like to hear. That’s excellent.

So I’m a big Van Zant fan. Just wondering if we’re going to hear any Van Zandt songs?

VAN ZANT: Well, no, it’s Skynyrd, man. Me and my brother did a few records — we’re actually in the midst of doing, we recorded a live album.

You know, we did a couple of country records, one called “Get Right With the Man,” the other one “My Kind of Country,” and you know, we’d still be doing that, but it’s hard to have dual careers.

You know, he’s with .38 Special and me with Skynyrd here. We spent most of our time for about four years on the road, and it just seemed like, you know, we love music, but we also gotta spend time with our family at home. I have a little girl, and you know, family means a lot to us. That’s how come we’re in the music business, writing songs for good people.

But we’re working on a project right now, me and Donnie are.

CURRENTS: I like “Brother to Brother” a lot. That’s a great album.

VAN ZANT: Oh, yeah, we had a great time doing that. We enjoy writing songs together and hanging out as brothers. You know, so that’s something that we’re definitely always going to do.

CURRENTS: Is the current one you’re working on right now a country album?

VAN ZANT: You know, man, it’s kinda hard to define what the hell we do — we have country, we have rock. We love it all. We have yet to hit the rap part yet. We’re not doing that yet . . .

We just love music . . . when we were kids, our dad was a truck driver, our mom was a housewife. Hell, we had four channels on TV. There was no such thing as a computer or an iPhone or anything.

So what we did, we had a swing set. We’d go out and sing songs, hang out together, get dirty, play in the yard.

That’s how all of this came about. So it’s one of those things.

CURRENTS: How long has Lynyrd Skynyrd been around?

VAN ZANT: We’re celebrating 40 years since “Pronouced” came about. That’s 40 years, and that’s a lot of traveling.

It’s what we do. People ask me all the time, they say, “Do you still enjoy it?” I say, “I hate the traveling, and I love the playing.”

CURRENTS: What is the song that people are most excited about or that you feel that the crowd connects the most to when you perform?

VAN ZANT: There’s so many of them. There’s “Simple Man,” there’s “Sweet Home,” of course . . . you know Skynyrd’s catalog is deep, so in 40 years, you have a lot of great songs. It just depends on the night and the people who you’re playing for in different parts of the country.

CURRENTS: Any last thoughts or message to our fans, your fans?

VAN ZANT: Hey, the people that are there that we call our fans, this is Skynyrd nation. We’re three generations bold. We look forward to coming to see ya. We’ll rock your socks off, so leave all your problems at home and come on out and enjoy some Skynyrd music.

***

Lynyrd Skynyrd’s latest album is a fiery slice of Southern-style guitar rock heaven.

“Last of a Dyin’ Breed,” their newest release on Roadrunner/Loud & Proud Records, was released last summer.

This is the kind of record guaranteed to feed the needs of the multi-generational Skynyrd Nation, and continues the renewed vigor the band exhibited with their last album, 2009’s “God & Guns.”

For the passionate, longtime fans of the band, “Last of a Dyin’ Breed” is Skynyrd at the top of their game, complete with instantly memorable songs, more hooks than a tackle box, and a blistering three-guitar attack at full power. From the raging guitars of the title track and the pounding, funky homage to local talent in “Home Grown” to the mind-blowing “Honey Hole,” Lynyrd Skynyrd sounds like young bucks having one hell of a good time, which, regarding the latter, founding member Gary Rossington says is very much the case.

“For me this is one of the happiest and most fun albums I’ve ever done,” says Rossington. “We didn’t have a lot of problems goin’ on; it was just fun goin’ to work every day.”

Having survived enough tragedy and just plain hard miles for 10 bands, Skynyrd is, remarkably at this stage of their career, on a roll. “God & Guns” debuted at No. 18 on the Billboard Top 200, giving the band their highest debut since 1977. 

“Last of a Dyin’ Breed” reignites the in-studio alchemy the band found with “Guns” producer Bob Marlette, and the sound is traditional Skynyrd blended to perfection with the edge of immediacy. In short, it’s rock ’n’ roll for the times.

Led by core members Gary Rossington (guitar), Johnny Van Zant (vocals) and Rickey Medlock (guitar), Skynyrd has recorded an album that continues to build on the legacy that began over 35 years ago in Jacksonville, Fla.

In a tragic tale oft-told, the Skynyrd story could have ended in a Mississippi swamp with the 1977 plane crash that killed three band members, including Ronnie Van Zant and Steve Gaines. Since then, the band has lost vital players in Billy Powell, Ean Evans, Allen Collins, Leon Wilkeson and Hughie Thomasson, yet here they are again with a hard-rocking, stirring album that can sit proudly alongside any recording that bears the Skynyrd name. The breed may be nearing extinction but Skynyrd is very much alive and ready to throw down.

Van Zant, now in his 25th year standing where his brother once stood, agrees with Rossington about the making of “Breed.”

“We worked with Bob Marlette again who’s a great guy we just love as a producer,” he says. “During the recording of the last album we were going through Billy and Ean passing away, and with this album we were able to laugh and joke a lot.”

Medlock says that after the hard touring behind “God & Guns” he and the other primary writers, Van Zant and Rossington, took their time writing the songs. But the actual recording came together quickly, aided by the band’s in-studio chemistry.

“This time what we wanted to do was go back to doin’ stuff old school,” he says. “A lot of the album was done with all of us in the recording studio, playing all at one time, the way we used to do it when we’d go into the studio to make records.”

With a catalog of over 60 albums, sales beyond 30 million worldwide and their beloved classic American rock anthem “Sweet Home Alabama” having sold over two million ringtones, Rock & Roll Hall of Famers Lynyrd Skynyrd remains a cultural icon that appeals to multiple generations.

But far from resting on their laurels, any illusions that this may be a band at anything less than the height of its powers are quickly lost with the distorted fury of the fiery guitar licks that open the album’s title track and further put to rest with the gritty triumphs that follow.

They could easily continue cranking out old songs to rapturous audiences around the world but the fact is they’ve got plenty left to say musically, personally and as social commentary.

“Every once in a while the record label will ask us if we want to put a new album out and we always say yes, because, although we love playing all the classic stuff, it’s fun to do new stuff too,” says Rossington, “for our own heads, our own peace of mind.”

Lynyrd Skynyrd is a band of today, carrying a steely mantle forged in the sweaty confines of the Hell House in Jacksonville decades earlier. And this is a band album, to be even more specific, a guitar driven band album. The triple guitar assault has never sounded more on point, with passionate musicality, expert harmonics and of course, plenty of attitude to burn. There’s a reason this is one of the most beloved bands of all time.

“We tried to go back to the old sound, doin’ it as a band, goin’ in all together and layin’ it down,” says Rossington. “On the last album, we leaned a little more country, back to our roots, but this time we just tried to be our old selves and write some Southern rock. Just good ol’ songs, get in and get out, say what they say, do a little bit of pickin’ and tap your feet.”

Not as overtly political as its predecessor “God & Guns,” “Breed” focuses more on the struggles of the working class, though the band make their thoughts on the direction of this country crystal clear on songs like the reverb-drenched “Poor Man’s Dream” and the blue-collar powerhouse “One Day at a Time.”

“When we go in to record, we don’t go in with one certain mindset,” says Medlock. “We just go in and write about stuff we believe in, our experiences.”

The band is tuned in to the tough times many Americans are going through, and they sing songs that might well help on that journey, or at least help let off some steam.

“Skynyrd really thinks about how people are struggling and what’s goin’ on out here,” says Medlock. “We see it a lot, because we’re a working man and working woman’s band. We’ve got three generations under our belts, we know people have a tough time out there, and we share in that.”

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