Johnny Van Zant Interview: Lynyrd Skynyrd Perseveres Through Loss of Billy Powell with New Album
Image attributed to Lynyrd Skynyrd
With a catalog of over sixty albums, sales beyond thirty million worldwide and their beloved classic American rock anthem, “Sweet Home Alabama,” having over two million downloaded ringtones, Rock & Roll Hall of Famers Lynyrd Skynyrd remains a cultural icon that appeals to all generations.
Led by core members Gary Rossington (guitar), Johnny Van Zant (vocals) and Rickey Medlocke (guitar), the band continues the tremendous legacy that began over thirty five years ago in Jacksonville, Florida with their August 21, 2012 release, Last of a Dyin’ Breed, a legacy that was halted for a decade after the 1977 plane crash that killed band members Ronnie Van Zant, Steve Gaines and Cassie Gaines. Since then, the band tragically lost Billy Powell, Ean Evans, Allen Collins, Leon Wilkeson and Hughie Thomasson, yet they continue to forge ahead.
"Oh, my God. We lost Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, all the greats. Billy was just awesome. God, I can’t say enough. Billy. God rest his soul. He was the kind of guy that couldn’t take out the garbage, but you put him behind a keyboard, and he could make it sing pretty as hell."
Rounding out the line-up is bass player Johnny Colt, an original member of the Black Crowes who recently joined the band, Mark “Sparky” Matejka on guitar, Peter Keys on keyboards, and Dale Krantz Rossington and Carol Chase as the Honkettes backing vocalists.
Johnny Van Zant is the younger brother of Lynyrd Skynyrd co-founder and former lead vocalist Ronnie Van Zant and 38 Special founder Donnie Van Zant. He has recorded with Donnie as the musical duo Van Zant since 1998.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Hey Johnny, how are you?
Johnny Van Zant: I am having a rock and roll breakfast … a chocolate chip cookie and a diet coke (laughs).
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Sounds good to me. The new music is great.
Johnny Van Zant: Thank you very much. We started about the end of February and went into most of March with mixing and all that stuff. Then, we mastered it, went to Europe, came back and said, “Wow, that’s pretty good.” We had a good time doing it. Our “Skynyrd Nation” really likes it. Our fans like it a lot. It came in at number fourteen on Billboard’s Top 200 the first week it was out.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Is Last of a Dyin’ Breed carrying a torch for the members of the band that are gone?
Johnny Van Zant: Sure. I think so. And, for bands of our era. There are very few bands out here really doing it, you know? I hate to say that we’re any different from a lot of the bands from our era, but the Allman Brothers do maybe forty shows a year. ZZ Top does quite a few. We’re with ZZ tonight. We go out and still get it, so we’re definitely the last of a dying breed. Hell, even many of these younger bands don’t tour as much anymore.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I recently saw 38 Special in concert.
Johnny Van Zant: Oh, yeah. They still go out and do quite a few shows. Donnie’s a knucklehead. He’s everywhere on stage. He has a blast doing it.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Are you and Donnie still turning out music as Van Zant?
Johnny Van Zant: We’re going to. We just kind of got caught up in a dual career. That about made us a dying breed for sure because it’s kind of hard to do both. We did really well on our first country album and got a gold record. Just coming off the road with Skynyrd and going out and doing that, we found ourselves never at home. It was going to cost us more to do both careers because we were both going to be divorced (laughs).
We just weren’t around, so we thought we’d better back off one. Donnie has been with 38 since the beginning, and I’ve been with Skynyrd twenty-five years. I’m sure we’ll do something else. We still want to make a Christian album and still want to make a blues record together, so there are things on our bucket list.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Speaking of marriage, is that the sort of relationship you have now with the guys after twenty-five years?
Johnny Van Zant: It’s kind of weird. I’m going to knock on wood, and I don’t want to hex myself, but we seldom argue. Gary and me kid around all the time. Me, Gary, Rickey, Dale and various wives all travel on the same bus, and we’ll get to messing around. I’ll say, “Gary, go to your room!” He and Dale take the stateroom. We’ll banter back and forth like that. But, no, for some reason, it just all worked out. Gary’s like a brother to me, and I’m like a young bratty brother to him because we’ve been around each other our whole lives.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I’m sure you had Ronnie in mind with the lines, “A barefoot brother who gave me hell, I learned from the best who taught me well,” in the title track “Last of a Dyin’ Breed.”
Johnny Van Zant: Oh, hell yeah. Definitely (laughs). I also honored my dad. He was a truck driver, so just like my daddy; I’m a traveling man.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Johnny Colt, formerly with the Black Crowes, just joined the band, and I understand he doesn’t play on this record.
Johnny Van Zant: No. He did not play on the record, but we had a fellow named Mike Brignardello who was playing bass for us in the studio because Robert Kearns had wanted to go off and do other things which was fine with us. We love Robert. He’s a brother of ours, and he needed to go explore his avenues. Life’s too short if you have any doubts, so you need to go pursue whatever you want to do.
We had taken a break and started working on Last of a Dyin’ Breed, and Mike Brignardello wasn’t there, so Johnny Colt comes up, grabs a bass and starts playing with us while we are kind of messing with it. We had a room upstairs, and anytime we were working up stuff, we’d go upstairs and kind of mess around and work up the arrangements. I’d be on my knees singing crazy lyrics because I didn’t have all the lyrics, and the guys would play crazy bars, so we’d work on the stuff upstairs. Actually, they had broken down amps and stuff, kind of like an almost stripped down thing.
Colt came up and just jumped in and started playing along with us. We just all hit it off. He would’ve played on that song, but we had already hired this guy to do it. Johnny has just worked out great. Before, we had to keep Medlocke in a cage pretty much all day long and let him out on stage just once a night. Now, Medlocke has a new friend, Johnny Colt. We keep them both in a cage together (laughs). Medlocke is glad to have the company. I don’t know quite how to describe those two boys, but my daddy used to say, “Boy, you’re filled with piss and vinegar!”
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I do remember that saying (laughs). Johnny, what did the band lose when Billy Powell died?
Johnny Van Zant: Oh, my God. We lost Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, all the greats. Billy was just awesome. God, I can’t say enough. Billy. God rest his soul. He was the kind of guy that couldn’t take out the garbage, but you put him behind a keyboard, and he could make it sing pretty as hell. That’s what God gave him. He was one of those guys that were just a freak of nature when it came to a piano. I’ve never heard anybody play the piano like Billy Powell.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): He had a very distinctive sound.
Johnny Van Zant: Yes. Peter Keys has done a phenomenal job for us, don’t get me wrong. I’ve got to tell you, it’s the same way with me. My brother was a freak of nature, too, you know? He just had a one of a kind style. Hell, believe me, I never tried to be Ronnie and never wanted to be Ronnie. I do what I do, and Peter does what he does, too. In my opinion, we have some big shoes to fill. Thank God, Ronnie didn’t wear any shoes, so I don’t have to worry about it (laughs). Thank God, he was my brother.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): He was one of a kind for sure. Two songs off the new album, “Nothing Comes Easy” and “Something to Live For,” are politically charged. You grew up in a house full of Democrats.
Johnny Van Zant: Sure.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You’re a Republican now, so when and why did you change?
Johnny Van Zant: Ronald Reagan. I loved Ronald Reagan. Still to this day, I think he’s the best president we ever had during my life on earth. He did some great things. There is a lot of stuff that the Democrats say and do that I’m not that far apart on, that I like, but there’s a lot of it I don’t like and don’t agree with. There’s a lot on the Republican side that I think could be changed.
I’ve caught some flack during this political season because I spoke my opinion as an American. I took a lot of flack from Democrats. People said, “Well, I’ll never listen to his music again.” I’m like, “Well, that’s pretty self centered, don’t you think?” It’s pretty one sided, too. We’re supposed to be living in America and being able to speak your mind and your opinion. I guess I’m just going to hate John Cougar, Bruce Springsteen and many other people because I don’t agree with them, if I wanted to look at it that way. I love Bruce and John’s music, so that’s just crazy to me.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Yes. It is ridiculous.
Johnny Van Zant: I hope in my heart and soul that this country could survive another four years with Obama. If he can do it, I’m behind him a hundred and thirty percent, but I just don’t think he’s the right guy to do it. That’s just my personal opinion, but that doesn’t make me right. Everyone has his or her own opinions. We’ll see what happens in November and hopefully the best man wins, the best man takes this country and gets it back working. We’ve got bigger problems than that, you know what I mean?
We’ve got bigger problems than the economy. I’m looking at the foreign affairs. There is a lot of stuff that needs to be straightened out. To be honest, I don’t think I’d want to be the President of the United States. My hat is off to the guy who becomes president for the next four years, and my prayers are with him for our country. I just love this country so much. We stand behind our troops and their families. We’ve always supported them as Lynyrd Skynyrd. The only time I think this country has been really united was right after 9/11. We are getting farther and farther apart.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Especially during this political season. Johnny, do you and the band ever tire of playing “Sweet Home Alabama” or “Free Bird?”
Johnny Van Zant: No, not at all, honey. We love those songs. “Sweet Home Alabama” is just a phenomenal song. For a song about Alabama, it’s just amazing to me how many people love it. There are people who don’t even know where in the hell Alabama is, you know? We’ve been the ambassadors to Alabama for a long time. Ronnie, Gary and Ed wrote a great song. How can you get tired of playing something that great? Most bands would give their left arm or leg to have a song like that.
Do you know the best thing about “Sweet Home Alabama” when you’re playing the song in Alabama? You can get the heck scared out of you because right after you say, “Sweet home Alabama,” you hear, “Roll Tide Roll!” I’ve got to tell you, the first time that happened, I was like, “Oh my, God, what are they doing?” What is so amazing now is how many places we go to hear people do that!
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): That is amazing (laughs). Tell me about your childhood with the boys. Were the brothers always close?
Johnny Van Zant: I was tortured as a child by Ronnie and Donnie, and I’ve needed psychological help (laughs). It was great just like any other family. There was a lot of music around our house. Ronnie was a very special guy, very seldom wore shoes, just a good Southern boy. If he had a shirt or something that you liked, he’d say, “Oh, okay, here.”
Money wasn’t a big thing to him. We were rich in other ways in life. We were rich in family, not money. Money doesn’t make you happy, but family sure does, and that goes a long way. Looking back on my childhood, I wouldn’t change one thing. We were taught to work hard. Nothing was given to us. My parents never had a thing handed to them. They had to go out and get it.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Do you think that when Ronnie named the band back in 1970, he could have predicted it would still be going strong today?
Johnny Van Zant: No. I don’t think anybody who ever had any success could have predicted it, but I think God had a plan. Donnie and me had a song called “Help Somebody” from the Get Right with the Man album, and one of the lines is, “If you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans.” That’s a pretty strong line. I don’t think any of us really know what the heck we’re doing.
God has a plan for us, and we go by that plan. No matter how much we think we’re in control, He’s the one with the master plan. I don’t know if Ronnie knew. Surely he didn’t. I’m sure he knows we’re still out here doing this because I believe in angels. I believe in God, so I know that Ronnie’s spirit is still here with us. I think he’d get one hell of a kick out of coming back and seeing all of it.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Johnny, what’s next after the tour for this “last of a dyin’ breed" band?
Johnny Van Zant: Honey, we’re out with ZZ Top right now doing shows, heading to California for some shows, doing a cruise at the end of October, going back to Europe in November, then having Christmas and starting all over again (laughs).
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