By Mike Greenblatt
With the release of “Red White & Blue (Live)” on Loud & Proud Records, Van Zant — comprised of Donnie of 38 Special and Johnny of Lynyrd Skynyrd — continue their role as Southern Rock royalty. The recently unearthed show from 2006 is a country rock ‘n’ roll evening for the ages with songs from all three bands met with orgasmic response, so much so that a decade after the fact this concert still sounds valid, vital and right in there with today’s brand of rockin’ country.
Goldmine: How is it that your new live CD is a decade old?
Johnny Van Zant: In 2005, “Help Somebody” off our “Get Right with the Man” CD went to No. 7 Country. We had always wanted to do a country album so our managers got us a deal in Nashville with Columbia Records. Hell, we were raised on country music. Ronnie (Van Zant) was a big country fan, too. So Donnie and I figured we could fulfill his dream, too. I mean, sure, it would be without Ronnie but, hell, we’re his brothers and we felt we had to do this. So we did the record and were kinda satisfied with it. All of a sudden we started getting hits on it. Then we got offered a tour. So we did some dates with a friend of ours, Gretchen Wilson, before doing dates by ourselves. We were both playing with our respective bands but this was one of the shows we did by ourselves at Wild Adventures Theme Park in Valdosta, Georgia.
If it weren’t for ol’ LJ (38 Special bassist Larry Junstrom) who brought along his new Pro Tools system, we wouldn’t have this CD. When he played it for us years later, we were amazed how good it was. I mean, man, you can rehearse for days and play the gig but the one thing you cannot do is watch the show from the audience. We just wanted to know how we sounded! But we never did listen to it. Things just got in the way. We were thinking of doing our third country album but we were burned out. Donnie can’t be in 38 Special, I can’t sing for Skynyrd, while trying to do a country project in full force at the same time. So we backed off it. Then just last year, Donnie says to me, “Y’all should check this out! It’s really good!”
Donnie Van Zant: I said that partly because Valdosta, Georgia is very close to Jacksonville, Florida where we’re from, so I think we had a lot of family and friends in the audience. That helped out a whole lot.
JVZ: Yeah, it’s just a little country park that Dolly Parton is rumored to be sinking some money into. We put it out because, hell, once we die, someone else will probably put it out. We might as well put it out ourselves now! So we took it to Loud & Proud and they loved it. We really want the fans to hear this.
GM: I’ve always wanted to know about that period of time —between 1977 and 1979 — when there was no Lynyrd Skynyrd.
JVZ: It was over. We knew it was over. Nobody could ever replace Ronnie and we all knew that. That plane crash ruined everything. But, I’ll be honest with you, I had some week back then. Ahmet Ertegun signed me to Atlantic Records on Monday. On Friday, I got a call from (original Skynyrd guitarist) Gary Rossington to join in on a meeting that I didn’t know anything about. They wanted to do a tribute tour. Y’know, I look at all these websites of people saying how Lynyrd Skynyrd died in 1977 in that plane crash, how that was the end of that band. Hell, I was one of those same people. It was over. But when I walked into that room with Gary, (guitarist) Allen (Collins, 1952-1990) and (keyboardist) Billy (Powell, 1952-2009) all sittin’ there sayin’ how the last thing Lynyrd Skynyrd wanted to do was end with a damn airplane crash, I knew we could make something good out of something very bad. It was kind of a no-brainer when they asked me to sing. I did want Donnie to be involved but 38 (Special) was taking off big-time.
It’s been one hell of a ride. I don’t know when this will end. We’re all getting a lot older now. It’s had its ups and downs but you know what, man? It’s still a great thing. We just played at Jones Beach (New York). Pissing rain! The promoters all goin’ nuts wanting to pull the strings on the show. Friggin’ 7,000 fans stood out in the damn rain. Major rain. Then the tide surge came in so the first 10 rows had folks standing in water up to their knees. These were diehard Skynyrd fans. So I’m so glad we continued. I’m thrilled to be still here today doing it. I think of the young kids who never got the experience to hear “Sweet Home Alabama,” “Free Bird” or any of those great songs played live. Some people call us a tribute band. Sure, we pay tribute every night.
GM: Johnny, do you feel any sense of responsibility still to carry this mantle or are you past that at this point and now it’s about you and your career.
JVZ: There’s always going to be a responsibility and I seem to always think what Ronnie would want to do in each particular situation.
DVZ: When Skynyrd went off the road after the crash and they asked Johnny to step in, I wasn’t so sure about it. It just seemed weird picturing Skynyrd without Ronnie Van Zant. But when they played the Jacksonville Coliseum, and once I experienced that as a fan, and seeing what a great job Johnny did, I was very much sold. He does Ronnie justice, and I think Ronnie would be very proud of him. And now he owes me $20 for saying that. (laughs)
Ronnie was one-of-a-kind. Billy Powell was one-of-a-kind. Nobody is trying to replace those guys. You can’t replace them. But you sure as hell can continue what they started.
JVZ: Hey, next year will be 30 years for me playing by Gary Rossington’s side and I’m honored to do that and be there. It’s been a pleasure. Unreal. And every year I look out into the audience now that we’re three generations into this, going on four, and I see kids, grandmothers, grandfathers, 12-year olds, 14-year olds, it amazes me. I don’t call people who like Skynyrd fans. We actually call ‘em part of Skynyrd Nation. It’s a big family.
GM: Ronnie cast such a long shadow. How do you react when people call you “The First Family of Southern Rock”?
JVZ: I don’t know about that, man, as long as Gregg Allman is still around. But, then again, you can call me anything you want.