More than four decades since their formation in 1969, Lynyrd Skynyrd — despite numerous personnel changes and tragedies, including a 1977 plane crash that killed three of its members — still look like a band you don't want to mess with.
Bassist Johnny Colt, a onetime member of the Black Crowes who joined Skynyrd in 2012, wears a foot-long hunting knife and performs in animal pelts. Guitarist Rickey Medlocke, who played with the band for a spell in its formative years before joining full-time in the Nineties, shoots looks onstage that suggest he'd just as soon clobber you as play "What's Your Name." ("Who are you?" he growls upon taking a seat for our interview.) And even singer Johnny Van Zant, for all his big smiles and belly laughs, carries a glint of menace in his eye.
Which, on the surface, is perhaps what Brantley Gilbert — with his brass-knuckled microphone, rosary necklace with tiny handguns for beads, and perpetual onstage scowl — most has in common with Skynyrd 2015.
The two acts pair up for the latest episode of CMT Crossroads (airing Saturday night, June 27th, at 10:00 p.m. on CMT), attempting to blend Gilbert's brand of hard-rock/hip-hop country with Lynyrd Skynyrd's timeless Southern rock. The results are unexpectedly natural, but that doesn't shock Van Zant, who helped resurrect the band in 1987 and leads its seemingly unstoppable march today.
"I love seeing artists like him," he says, seated backstage next to Gilbert, Medlocke and founding guitarist Gary Rossington, prior to the taping at an event space south of Nashville. "He has attitude. He's like us at 30."
"He's for real too," adds Medlocke, "and you get that vibe from him. We didn't know what to expect when we got here, but he's a for-real guy."
Gilbert shrugs, a little embarrassed by the praise. Despite his genre-bending hits like "Bottoms Up" — which he and Skynyrd tackle for Crossroads — he says he was strongly influenced by the lyrical approach and triple-guitar attack of the Jacksonville, Florida, band.
"I'm a songwriter, so I put a lot of weight and value on words, but this is one of the first bands that showed me a different side of music," says Gilbert. "I see they've got three jamming-ass guitars on stage and we followed suit."
"Ronnie was real special in his songwriting lyrics. He set the bar high," says Rossington of Skynyrd's late lead singer Ronnie Van Zant, Johnny's older brother. He gestures at Gilbert. "Guys like this, listening to [what Ronnie did], you gotta be good."
Gilbert, whose current single "One Hell of an Amen" resonated with Skynyrd because of its pro-troops message ("That really hits home," says Van Zant), received his first taste of "Gimme Three Steps" and "Free Bird" from a childhood mentor who kept his CD changer loaded only with Skynyrd albums. Gilbert says he returned to those records to prepare for the onstage mash-up.
"I got to reeducate myself and got a chance to listen to these songs that I've known for so long and hear the small things that you miss on a record. . . [like] a finger sliding on a string," he says, impressed by the all-in-one-room way Skynyrd recorded during its heyday. "That happened in that room, it wasn't computer-generated."
Along with "Bottoms Up," "Country Must Be Country Wide" and "Kick It in the Sticks," the Crossroads episode features Gilbert trading verses with Van Zant on Skynyrd staples "Simple Man," "Sweet Home Alabama" and "What's Your Name." (Watch the performance of "What's Your Name" below.)
Echoing Van Zant, Medlocke says the musical connection between Gilbert and Skynyrd — who welcome Gregg Allman, Randy Houser, Jason Isbell and more for the two-disc CD/DVD set One More for the Fans out next month — is stronger than many might think. In fact, each represents a flavor of today's country music.
"[Lynyrd Skynyrd] wrote these great songs that have carried over into today and guys like [Brantley] have heard them and been influenced by them. It turns it into the new generation," he says. "Country has just crossed so many lines now, that Skynyrd falls right into that category."
"If Lynyrd Skynyrd came out today," sums up Van Zant, "we'd be in country."