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.”
THE NEXT CHAPTER
Van Zant says new members Keys and Kearns fit perfectly into the band. “God works in mysterious ways,” he says. “With Robert and Peter coming into this band, it was like they were sent to us. It was not a hard job to find these two guys. They just kind of came into our world and fit in perfectly.”
Video: Lynyrd Skynyrd on finding the band’s new members.
Keys is a North Carolina native who previously was with the band Cry of Love, which scored a No. 1 hit on Billboard’s Mainstream Rock chart with “Peace Pipe.” “He’s a Southern boy,” Van Zant says. “When he walked in, he just kind of reminded us of Leon [Wilkeson]. Peter is actually a transplant from Detroit all the way down here to Nashville. Actually, we found out about him through Kid Rock. He got the audition-it was so cool because he just came in and played-and said, ‘I thank you for the opportunity,’ and walked out. We were like, ‘Wow!’ ”
The album was preceded by two singles: “Still Unbroken” and “Simple Life.” Both were accompanied by videos. The band wrote every song on the album, except the title track, and the set includes guest appearances from friend and guitarist John 5 and singer Rob Zombie on the track “Floyd.”
Though “Still Unbroken” is a personal anthem about overcoming adversity, Rossington feels it strikes a universal chord. “Huey Thomasson wrote that song with us-me, Johnny and Rickey-and he passed away a couple of years ago, so that shows you how long we were writing for this album,” Rossington says. “That is kind of our story, but you can find a lot of people in life that are still unbroken. You go through stuff and you keep going.”
The veteran rockers admit the title track will likely strike people as politically incorrect, but self-censorship has never been in Lynyrd Skynyrd’s vocabulary. “We were just in Europe and [with] everybody that was the first question: ‘What is the meaning of this “God & Guns?” ‘ ” Van Zant says. “We believe in God and I think that Rickey says it best: ‘Any religion that you believe in you should be able to pray to it.’ For me, personally, it is Jesus Christ and the Lord above.”
Van Zant says he doesn’t own any handguns, but supports the rights of others to do so. “It is a scary world out there and believe me that if someone were to try to come into my house, I want to be able to protect myself,” he says. “We are not saying that every idiot out there should own a gun-and there should be better background checks on guns. Not everybody should have the right.”
On “Skynyrd Nation,” the band sings about a fan base that is “three generations strong,” and Van Zant says the group is pleased to see fans who weren’t born when “Free Bird,” “Sweet Home Alabama,” “That Smell,” “Gimme Three Steps” and other Skynyrd classics first ascended the charts in the ’70s.
“I have said many times that the Lynyrd Skynyrd band is one of the purest rock bands you will ever see,” says Charlie Daniels, who sang at Ronnie Van Zant’s funeral and wrote a tribute carved in stone at Van Zant’s grave. “If you like rock music, you’ve got to like the band. They play together incredibly well and stay true to the sound they started with.”
Now, with the creative part of the album wrapped, Skynyrd’s members are optimistic about the future. “It has been 22 years and it feels like 22 seconds to me. It really does,” Van Zant says. “I am proud that I have done this. Skynyrd is a big family. We have argued, fussed and fought. We have drank and done other things that we should not have done but we are in a good spot now. I think that from here on out life is going to be a good thing.”