Beyond the tragedy, the history, the raging guitars and the killer songs, ultimately, Lynyrd Skynyrd is about an indomitable will. About survival of spirit; unbowed, uniquely American, stubbornly resolute.
With their first set of new studio material since 2003's Vicious Cycle, legendary rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd returns with God & Guns, due out 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.
Driven by core members Gary Rossington (guitar), Johnny Van Zant (vocals) and Rickey Medlocke (guitar), along with longtime drummer Michael Cartellone, Lynyrd Skynyrd have recorded an album ("under duress, as usual," according to Van Zant) that very much lives up to the legacy begun some 35 years ago in Jacksonville, Florida, and halted for a decade by the 1977 plane crash that killed three band members, including Ronnie Van Zant and Steve Gaines. Since then, the band tragically lost Allen Collins, Leon Wilkeson and Huey Thomasson, yet they rock on.
With the passing of Powell and Evans, "a lot of people probably expected us to say enough is enough," admits Medlocke. But that would not be the way of this Rock & Roll Hall of Fame powerhouse. With a catalog of over 60 albums and sales beyond 30 million, Lynyrd Skynyrd remains a cultural icon that appeals to all generations, and God & Guns is a fitting addition to the canon. The Skynyrd Nation awaits.
"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.
Returning to the studio after the death of Powell, whose keyboards can be heard on more than half the songs on God & Guns, was "very difficult, I ain't gonna lie to you," says Van Zant. "But we got through it, as Lynyrd Skynyrd seems to always do. Music's a great healer. These songs needed to be out there, this record needed to be made. Gary, Rickey and myself just said ‘let's go for it, let's get this thing done.'"
Unfortunately, coping with loss is familiar to this band. "We just kind of fell back in," says Rossington. "We've been doing this a long time, so you just kind of do what you do. As you get older, you get a little more used to it. You know it's coming, and it's coming to you, too. I just thank God for every day and all the time I had with the guys that aren't with us anymore."
The crying is over and now it's time to rock. "We've had some really bad moments this year already, and I'm glad we're able to pick ourselves up by our boot straps and just continue to play," says Medlocke. "For us to weather through this makes this record even more special. I'm sure Billy and Ean are looking down upon us with big smiles."
With noted rock producer Bob Marlette, input from guitarist John 5, and a wealth of material written by the band and a cadre of elite Skynyrd-minded songwriters, a remarkable album emerged. "We never really worked with producers that well, we kind of always wanted to do it our way," admits Rossington. "But Bob Marlette came on and he's such a great guy; he figured out how to talk to us musically, and we became friends instantly. He had a lot of fresh ideas and ways to do things, and also wanted to capture the old sounds, too."
Of John 5, Rossington adds, "he's probably one of the best guitar players I've ever played with, and I've played with a lot of great ones. He just lives with a guitar on him, and he knows that neck like nobody I've ever seen."
With a backbone of Southern rock and country, passionate Van Zant vocals, and trademark layered guitars, God & Guns manages to maintain the iconic Skynyrd punch while sounding completely contemporary. Sure to attract attention in these politically divided times is the title track, which harbors a sense of menace and unwillingness to back down that hearkens back to Skynyrd's earliest days. The band knows the song, and others like "That Ain't My America," will have their critics, but Medlocke says listeners should get beyond the title.
"It's not just the words ‘God and guns.' you gotta look past that and look at what this country was founded on: freedom," Medlocke says. "Everybody should be able to make their own decisions and not be led around by a nose ring and told what to do and when to do it."
And if some critics don't like it, "that's called freedom of choice," says Medlocke, who carries his Native American heritage with pride. "I'm sure some critics will look at it, God & Guns, the rednecks are back.' Well, the guys in this band aren't rednecks, Rickey Medlocke's the only damn redneck in this band ‘cause I got red skin."
The title track, along with the unmistakable Skynyrd bite of the first single "Still Unbroken," form thematic songs for an album laden with attitude, heart and purpose. "Skynyrd's about tradition," says Medlocke. "We are guys that don't go around preaching about our own personal or political beliefs, although I'm sure you could probably guess mine. In this record is personal tragedy, personal relationships and being on the road, all under that umbrella of real life. That's what we think, that's what we believe, and we stand next to that title, God & Guns."
To portray Skynyrd as a bunch of "gun nuts" would be incorrect, according to Van Zant. "I'm kind of like Ronnie, ‘handguns are made for killing,' and I've never seen anybody shoot a deer with a .38," he says. "I do own a bunch of rifles, I live out in the swamp, and you've got to protect yourself."
Skynyrd is a band, after all, that has never shied away from standing up and speaking for a segment of the population whose voices are seldom heard. "Everybody's so scared to say stuff these days, that's not what I'm about," says Van Zant. "We live in America, we can speak our minds. These are our values. That doesn't mean we're always right in everybody's mind. Hopefully, we don't offend a bunch of people. And if we do, well, get a record deal, man, and make your own songs."
This is a band well aware of the responsibility that comes with putting the name ‘Lynyrd Skynyrd' on anything, be it an album or a concert. "We feel like we have to keep the standards high," says Rossington. "I wouldn't put this record out, I'd fight not to, if I didn't think it was good."
And so Skynyrd stands, "still unbroken," in 2009. "People may say, ‘they need the money,' well I don't think any of us need the money," Van Zant says. "It's just that we love the music, it's bigger than the money, it's not even about that any more. We have to make a living, sure, but it's about the legacy of Lynyrd Skynyrd, and what it stands for, what the fans are all about. There's nothing like getting out there playing a great show with Skynyrd and seeing people love this music."
Adds Rossington, "We're still standing, still keeping the music going. We wanted to do the guys who aren't with us any more proud, and keep the name proud, too." Gary Rossington- Guitar Johnny Van Zant- Vocals Rickey Medlocke- Guitar Mark "Sparky" Matejka- Guitar Michael Cartellone- Drums Robert Kearns - Bass Peter Keys - Keyboards Honkettes: Dale Krantz Rossington- Backing Vocals Carol Chase- Backing Vocals
In-depth Biography Lynyrd Skynyrd was the definitive Southern rock band, fusing the overdriven power of blues-rock with a rebellious Southern image and a hard rock swagger. Skynyrd never relied on the jazzy improvisations of the Allman Brothers. Instead, they were a hard-living, hard-driving rock & roll band -- they may have jammed endlessly on-stage, but their music remained firmly entrenched in blues, rock, and country. For many, Lynyrd Skynyrd's redneck image tended to obscure the songwriting skills of their leader, Ronnie Van Zant. Throughout the band's early records, Van Zant demonstrated a knack for lyrical detail and a down-to-earth honesty that had more in common with country than rock & roll. During the height of Skynyrd's popularity in the mid-'70s, however, Van Zant's talents were overshadowed by the group's gritty, greasy blues-rock. Sadly, it wasn't until he was killed in a tragic plane crash in 1977 along with two other bandmembers that many listeners began to realize his talents. Skynyrd split up after the plane crash, but they reunited a decade later, becoming a popular concert act during the early '90s.
While in high school in Jacksonville, FL, Ronnie Van Zant (vocals), Allen Collins (guitar), and Gary Rossington (guitar) formed My Backyard. Within a few months, the group added bassist Leon Wilkeson and keyboardist Billy Powell, and changed their name to Lynyrd Skynyrd, a mocking tribute to their gym teacher Leonard Skinner, who was notorious for punishing students with long hair. With drummer Bob Burns, Lynyrd Skynyrd began playing throughout the South. For the first few years, the group had little success, but producer Al Kooper signed the band to MCA after seeing them play at an Atlanta club called Funocchio's in 1972. Kooper produced the group's 1973 debut, Pronounced Leh-Nerd Skin-Nerd, which was recorded after former Strawberry Alarm Clock guitarist Ed King joined the band. The group became notorious for their triple-guitar attack, which was showcased on "Free Bird," a tribute to the recently deceased Duane Allman. "Free Bird" earned Lynyrd Skynyrd their first national exposure and it became one of the staples of album rock radio, still receiving airplay decades after its release.
"Free Bird" and an opening slot on the Who's 1973 Quadrophenia tour gave Lynyrd Skynyrd a devoted following, which helped their second album, 1974's Second Helping, become its breakthrough hit. Featuring the hit single "Sweet Home Alabama" -- a response to Neil Young's "Southern Man" -- Second Helping reached number 12 and went multi-platinum. At the end of the year, Artimus Pyle replaced drummer Burns and King left the band shortly afterward. The new sextet released Nuthin' Fancy in 1975, and it became the band's first Top Ten hit. The record was followed by the Tom Dowd-produced Gimme Back My Bullets in 1976, which failed to match the success of its two predecessors. However, the band retained their following through constant touring, which was documented on the double live album One More from the Road. Released in late 1976, the album featured the band's new guitarist, Steve Gaines, and a trio of female backup singers, and it became Skynyrd's second Top Ten album.
Lynyrd Skynyrd released their sixth album, Street Survivors, on October 17, 1977. Three days later, a privately chartered plane carrying the band between shows in Greenville, SC, and Baton Rouge, LA, crashed outside of Gillsburg, MS. Ronnie Van Zant, Steve Gaines, and his sister Cassie, one of the group's backing vocalists, died in the crash; the remaining members were injured. (The cause of the crash was either fuel shortage or a fault with the plane's mechanics.) The cover for Street Survivors had pictured the band surrounded in flames; after the crash, the cover was changed. In the wake of the tragedy, the album became one of the band's biggest hits. Lynyrd Skynyrd broke up after the crash, releasing a collection of early demos called Skynyrd's First and...Last in 1978; it had been scheduled for release before the crash. The double-album compilation Gold & Platinum was released in 1980.
Later in 1980, Rossington and Collins formed a new band -- naturally named Rossington Collins Band -- that featured four surviving members. Two years later, Pyle formed the Artimus Pyle Band. Collins suffered a car crash in 1986 that killed his girlfriend and left him paralyzed; four years later, he died of respiratory failure. In 1987, Rossington, Powell, King, and Wilkeson reunited Lynyrd Skynyrd, adding vocalist Johnny Van Zant and guitarist Randall Hall. The band embarked on a reunion tour, which was captured on the 1988 double live album Southern by the Grace of God/Lynyrd Skynyrd Tribute Tour -- 1987. The re-formed Skynyrd began recording in 1991, and for the remainder of the decade, the band toured frequently, putting out albums occasionally. The reunited Skynyrd frequently switched drummers, but it had little effect on their sound.
During the '90s, Lynyrd Skynyrd were made honorary colonels in the Alabama State Militia, due to their classic rock staple "Sweet Home Alabama." During the mid-'90s, Van Zant, Rossington, Wilkeson, and Powell regrouped by adding two Southern rock veterans to Skynyrd's guitar stable: former Blackfoot frontman Rickey Medlocke and ex-Outlaws Hughie Thomasson. With ex-Damn Yankee Michael Cartellone bringing stability to the drum chair, the reconstituted band signed to CMC International for the 1997 album Twenty. This lineup went on to release Lyve from Steeltown in 1998, followed a year later by Edge of Forever. The seasonal effort Christmas Time Again was released in fall 2000. Although Wilkeson died one year later, Lynyrd Skynyrd regrouped and recorded Vicious Cycle for a 2003 release. The DVD/CD Lyve: The Vicious Cycle Tour followed a year later, 2006 saw the release of Face to Face, and 2007 brought Paper Sleeve Box and Lyve from Steel Town. But death continued to haunt the band, and the lineup continued to change, as much from attrition as anything else. Wilkeson, Skynyrd's bassist since 1972, died in 2001 and was replaced by Ean Evans that same year (Evans in turn died in 2009). Thomasson left the band to reform his band Outlaws in 2005, dying two years later in 2007. His spot in Skynyrd was taken by Mark "Sparky" Matejka, formerly of Hot Apple Pie, in 2006. Original keyboardist Powell died at the age of 56 at his home near Jacksonville, Fl in 2009. That year also saw the release of a new studio album, God + Guns, on Roadrunner Records. Live From Freedom Hall was released on the same label in 2010. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine & Steve Leggett, Rovi