Where do you begin with a band like Lynyrd Skynyrd? Everyone has been out at a bar or a concert and heard some crazy and/or drunk lunatic shouting to the band on stage, “FREE BIRD!!!” They are the epitome of and gold standard for Southern Rock music. Even now, through the tragedy of the plane crash in 1977 to the re-formed band, Skynyrd still provides electric performances every night. They still happily rock the hits of the early days. like “Simple Man” and “Sweet Home Alabama,” while mixing in the music they are still releasing, most recently Last of a Dying Breed, which came out late last year.
CityBeat had time to catch up with lead vocalist Johnny Van Zant, the younger brother of the band’s original front man Ronnie Van Zant. The two discussed how Skynyrd fits into Rock music today, as well as the wonderful feelings the band still gets performing every night on stage.
Skynyrd performs at Riverbend Music Center tonight with Bad Company, providing the same energy as the cast from the ’70s and showing audiences what real Southern Rock sounds like.
CityBeat: Do you have any crazy Cincinnati memories from the past?
JVZ: We have had so many good shows there. Years back, when a flood hit, there was water in the first four or five rows. People were kind of standing in the water. I was like, “Wow these are really diehards.” I don’t even know how many times we have played at that particular amphitheater (Riverbend), but it has always been a good, hot, sweaty, summer Rock & Roll show, which is how it is supposed to be.
CB: The band has had multiple lineup changes over the years since you joined the band. How do you integrate someone new into the band?
JVZ: For us, they have to be a friend, someone we have known, someone we admire as a musician, someone we think would fit into our family. When we are out on the road, running up and down the road playing shows, you have to be not only a member of a band but, especially with Lynyrd Skynyrd, you have to be a part of the Skynyrd nation. You have to be a part of the family. Our newest member is Johnny Colt, who was bass player with The Black Crowes. Colt fits right in with us. He’s loony as heck and so are we. We have a great time and love doing what we do. I hope Johnny is with us for a long, long time. He is quite the guy. It has been awesome.
CB: I know you guys have worked many times with one of my favorite guitarists, John 5.
JVZ: Well, yeah, he was on our last record, Last of a Dying Breed.
John is a good friend of us. We knew we were going to be good friends
with John because we were in Nashville writing and our manager mentioned
John and said, “You know, he is a little different than you guys.” And
we said, “ That’s OK, that’s no problem.”
John walked in, he was just coming from a photo shoot. He had on the fingernails with his hair all up. When he walked in and I went, “Damn, you are different. Damn, are you a freak or something?” And he said, “I was thinking the same crap about you guys.” We just hit it off. He is a wonderful guitar player. Not only can he play Heavy Metal and Rock & Roll, but he can play the hell out of some Country music, which we love. I just admire his work and he is one of the most phenomenal guitar players I have had the pleasure to work with.
CB: A lot of people are saying Rock is dead and Country music is the new Rock. Do you believe that Rock is dead?
JVZ: No. I think Country music is Lynyrd Skynyrd. I
think a lot of the Country music is what we do, but I don’t think Rock &
Roll is dead at all. People have been saying that shit for years and
years and years: "Rock & Roll is dead." Then it comes back. It’s like
For us we just played Houston, Texas, in front of 10,000
people. We played Bristol, Va., I think there were 14,000 people on
a Sunday night. The night before last we were in Camden, N.J.,
14,000 people on a Wednesday night. I’m sure Cincinnati is doing quite
well. We are in Pittsburgh tonight. It is going to be phenomenal here.
If Rock & Roll is dead and gone, man, I am missing out on it.
CB: Tell me a little bit about Last of a Dying Breed and which songs we are going to hear from that album when you come to Cincinnati?
JVZ: Well, it is debatable. What we do, each night we try to think about what new song we want to put in. Right now we are really concentrating on 40 years. It’s been 40 years since (Pronounced 'lĕh-'nérd 'skin-'nérd) came out. It’s been our major focus to play as many songs off that record and celebrate that era.
CB: Where do you see yourself in 15 more years?
JVZ: Hopefully alive. Hopefully playing some shows
and still doing this. Doing a lot of fishing and drinking a good
Budweiser and something like that, I don’t know. If you want to make God
laugh, tell him your plans. I never really plan too much. I just like to
go along with the flow and the good Lord throws me in the direction he
wants me to go.
CB: Do you ever get tired of playing “Free Bird”?
JVZ: Not at all. I am quick to say, "Not at all." How
many bands would love to have songs like that? Most bands say we would
give anything to have one of those. “Free Bird” and ("Sweet Home Alabama"), that’s
the cool thing about Skynyrd. We have three generations of fans who love
those songs. It is amazing to me.
We are out with Bad Company right now and we are real big Bad Company fans. We are at the top of the game with these guys. From my era and a lot of other people’s era, Bad Company was the rule of the roost when it came to Rock & Roll. Paul Rogers is one of the best singers. Simon Kirke and Mick Ralphs have been around for years. It is just great to be out on the road and playing shows with good friends too. We are having a blast. We hope to do it again sometime after this tour and look forward to coming your way.
CB: Are you flattered when someone like Kid Rock uses "Sweet Home Alabama" in his songs? Excited? Upset? How do you feel when someone integrates that song?
JVZ: We were actually doing a tour with Bobby when
he had “All Summer Long” (the song that incorporates "Sweet Home") out. For us, hell, it keeps us in the spotlight.
He did a good job on it. It was a hit song for him and everybody got
paid. So surely, we are like, “Can someone else use it again and again?”
It is kind of funny when you think of stuff like that. Who would have thought when that song was written a long, long time ago, people would still be loving it and a band from Jacksonville, Fla., and what success my brother and Alan and Gary, my hat is off to them. I love keeping the music alive. It is a great thing. It’s a great thing because the song has been used in Forrest Gump and various movies. Any time anything like that pops up as long, as it is not in bad taste, is great. It has been a good ride.