It's a warm, sunny Monday afternoon in August and Lynyrd Skynyrd is at DR&A Television and Film Production Studios in downtown Nashville filming a video for the single "Simple Life." Standing on the bare set, guitars blazing and hair blowing, Johnny Van Zant, Rickey Medlocke and Gary Rossington look like three rock legends who haven't got a care in the world. But life in Lynyrd Skynyrd has never exactly been simple.
"God & Guns," the band's first new studio set since its 2003 album "Vicious Cycle," was recorded during another sad period in the band's history: Founding member/keyboardist Billy Powell and longtime bassist Ean Evans died earlier this year. Losing two members during the recording of an album might derail most bands permanently, but Lynyrd Skynyrd has survived tragedy before. In 1977 a plane crash killed three members-founder/lead vocalist Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines and his sister, backup singer Cassie Gaines-en route to a show in Louisiana. Guitarist Allen Collins was later paralyzed in a car accident and died in 1990 of pneumonia. Bassist Leon Wilkeson died in 2001, guitarist Hughie Thomasson in 2007.
"We are a big family," says Johnny Van Zant, who took over lead vocal duties when Skynyrd resumed performing in 1987 with a historic appearance at Charlie Daniels Volunteer Jam XIII. "I have been in this band for 22 years and if you take any big family, in probably the last 22 years they have loss. And you know what? Families do not stop living. We have got to keep going on. This is what people do."
Video: Lynyrd Skynyrd on the band's tragic loss of members.
Evans and Powell recorded parts of the album before they passed on, but neither lived to finish the project. The band's lineup now consists of Van Zant, Medlocke, Rossington, keyboardist Peter Keys, bassist Robert Kearns, longtime drummer Michael Cartellone and guitarist Mark Matejka. The Honkettes-as Skynyrd's background vocalists were first dubbed in the '70s-are Rossington's wife, Dale Krantz Rossington, and Carol Chase, both of whom have served for more than two decades.
Video: Lynyrd Skynyrd on what it took to make the new album.
Working with producer Bob Marlette, the band crafted an album that is more a raucous celebration of life than a somber epitaph. It was released on Sept. 29 on Loud & Proud/Roadrunner Records, a partnership that gives Lynyrd Skynyrd the ongoing experience of longtime business collaborator Tom Lipsky, the president of Loud & Proud (which formed in 2007), and Roadrunner's marketing and distribution backbone.
Video: Lynyrd Skynyrd on working with producer Bob Marlette.
"They write great songs and they are absolutely great players," Lipsky says. "They survive personally and professionally every day, every year and every decade, and they continue on. That is the American spirit in a nutshell, and that is what always pushes me to work with them."
The group's memories of their bandmates drove them to new heights, Van Zant says. "To be honest-besides some of the circumstances that we were underneath -- creatively this was probably one of the greatest times I have had working with a producer," he says. "I actually sang all of the vocals inside the control room. Bob [Marlette] would set up for it and I would just sing. Anything he would want to suggest to me, I would just take the headphones off instead of pushing the talk back button. It really helped me out, I think, vocally."