Skynyrd's Johnny Van Zant Finds His Country Heart

Hall of Famers take "Freebird" out again, and Johnny gets a country welcome

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It was the Fox Theatre in Atlanta, 1976. A simpler time and what felt like real personal freedom. A time when a young, barefoot Ronnie Van Zant took the stage with his new Southern rock band, Lynyrd Skynyrd, which -- cheered by a sell-out crowd of sweaty fans and with a Confederate flag unfurling behind them -- brought the house down with an encore rendition of "Sweet Home Alabama." All hell broke loose, and a rock legend was born.

A lot has changed in thirty years -- but one thing persists: It's still possible to crack open a beer, drift back on a daydream called "Freebird" and see Rock & Roll Hall of Famers Lynyrd Skynyrd at their white-hot best, live. The good ol' boys still do up to 100 shows a year, mostly in the summertime. (Lead singer Johnny Van Zant also tours with his brother and .38 Special founder, Donnie, as Van Zant, a country music duo.) On June 23rd, Skynyrd will square off with 3 Doors Down, Bo Bice and Hank Williams Jr. at Atlantic City's Trump Taj Mahal, followed by a co-headlining trek with 3 Doors Down and a solo jaunt from late June through mid-September.

Not only does performing in front of their fans keep them energized, it's what saved them in 1976. Those three sold-out nights at the Fox scored them a platinum album, One More From the Road, at a time when the band desperately needed help. Three years after signing with MCA, their last studio effort, Gimme Back My Bullets, had petered out on the charts. Furthermore, they were exhausted from touring as many as 123 nights straight -- so exhausted that drummer Bob Burns and guitarist Ed King had stepped off the bus for good. But in placing all their chips on a live album, Skynyrd won big: One More From the Road became their best-selling record, ever.

A little over a year after the album's release, of course, tragedy struck: Ronnie Van Zant and guitarist Steve Gaines were killed in a plane crash, and the Skynyrd amps were turned off for ten long years. But Ronnie's younger brother Johnny managed to help resurrect his big brother's band, and he's been at the Skynyrd mike since 1987. "He's just like Ronnie," says lead guitarist Gary Rossington. "He looks just like him, and he sounds just like him." (Only he does wear boots onstage, unlike his brother, who went barefoot.)

Today, Billy Powell, 54, still tears up the keys and Rossington, 53, delivers some of rock's best-known licks on a Gibson axe, a re-issue of a 1959 Les Paul he named "Dottie," after his wife. (The venerable guitar company even issued Rossington his own signature-model Les Paul.) It's the combination of that tough, gravelly Van Zant vocal, Powell's painful piano fills and Rossington's searing guitar riffs that pack in three generations of fans to hear "Freebird." Rossington says he never gets tired of playing the epic anthem.

"Every time I play it in front of people, I see their emotions come up," he says. "Some people have old memories of it, and they just lose it -- they're crying, and they're singing every word. You just can't stand in front of thousands of people doing that and not feel some emotion. Sometimes they sing louder than us and you can hear them over the PA."

For Johnny Van Zant, 47, music is as much about a love of performance as it is about a love of family. Little more than a year ago, he teamed up with middle brother Donnie to do something that Ronnie always wanted to do: make a country album. As the country music duo Van Zant, the brothers released Get Right With the Man last May and watched as singles like the earnest "Help Somebody" and the deviant "Nobody Gonna Tell Me" climbed the country charts, putting Get Right on the path to go gold by summer's end. Now they've just released another single, "Things I Miss the Most," and they're up for the Top Country Music Duo award at the Academy of Country Music awards the end of May.

"We've already won, really," Johnny says. "Who would've thought that we'd even be in a category like that? especially with folks who've been in the country music business for so long, like Montgomery Gentry and Brooks and Dunn."

But the transition has felt natural, having grown up in Jacksonville, Florida, watching the Grand Ole Opry. "Rock & roll has kept us alive for all these years," Johnny explains. "But we just love country music. It's in our blood. It's the steel guitar, it's the violin, it's the banjo. And not only that, but just the people in the country field. It's the down-home feel, and that's what we're about."

So while Skynyrd was just inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and Johnny and the crew are rocking amphitheaters across the U.S., he's also carving a place for himself in the world of country, out on the road with Donnie singing about the "dogs out barkin' in the yard and the tractors in the field."

Says Johnny, "Sometimes, hell, we get around these rock bands, and they're like, 'You guys are hicks!'"

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