By Martin Popoff
No band to the left side of BADFINGER has seen more tragedy than Jacksonville, Florida’s LYNYRD SKYNYRD, owned by and betrothed to all of America, on tour pretty much forever for 40 years now. If the crash and more crashes later wasn’t enough, concurrent with the 2009 release of the band’s last album, God & Guns, Skynyrd lost two more brothers, bassist Ean Evans, who had not long ago replaced the deceased Leon Wilkeson, and keyboardist Billy Powell, second to last link to the original band, leaving only Gary Rossington.
But unlike other bands who soldier on ignoring the uproar to pack it in, Skynyrd have managed to stay valid and vital, due to the ties of longtime vocalist Johnny Van Zant to original singer Ronnie Van Zant, and to the writing and performance prowess of guitarist and ex-BLACKFOOT leader Rickey Medlocke, who weirdly drummed for Skynyrd back in the low ‘70s before they ever even recorded.
So life rolls on, and the band are back with a tough yet intriguingly swampy new album called Last Of A Dyin’ Breed, a fine addition to the catalogue, textured, hard-hitting, very much in the spirit of the early days.
“I think this one’s more old school style, more the way the original band, the first one, played and recorded,” agrees Gary Rossington, prone to heart problems yet tirelessly touring the Western world in service to the Skynyrd nation. “We all got together on this one and played together; everybody knew it was pretty cool to do it like that, instead of piling on the way we used to do, i.e. get a drum track and kind of add tracks. This is the way we used to do it, and it’s really fun, like I say more of an old school style. And instead of southern rock or country rock, it’s more rock ‘n’ roll than country, you know?”
That’s a sentiment curiously seconded by Rickey Medlocke, which had me scurrying back to God & Guns for a comparison confirmed…
“I think the biggest thing is that the band went back to more rootsy rock ‘n’ roll on this record. The last record has a lot of country influence on it. We did some experimenting on the last record, dabbling in almost the country market on three or four songs, and it just, you know, didn’t culminate. So this record, we went back and kind of did it old school. We got in the studio, all of us at one time, and recorded the songs all at once. Then when we’d get a good take, we could go back. If anybody made a mistake, we’d go back and fix it and continue on. I think there’s a lot of gutsy, roots rock ‘n’ roll in this record, as well as some blues stuff. I’m pretty happy with it, man; it’s really good.”
Not so much the country versus rock thing, what I’d noticed right away was the variety of textures, from DEEP PURPLE-ish organ to piano, acoustic, banjo, but mainly some nice guitar blends.
Says Gary of his co-axeman Rickey, in the band since ’96, “You know what? He was back in the original band with us for a while playing drums. And then he went off on his own and did Blackfoot and played guitar and sang. Ricky just brings a lot of the old school stuff. He’s a great guy and a great guitar player, and plays all of the leads like Allen Collins used to. And that’s really hard, to do Allen Collins’ parts – especially ‘Freebird’ – and Ricky does them note for note, and knows them really good. He was around Allen a lot too and saw him play, played with him, and so just all that, just old school, old memories, everything. Skynyrd, you know, he’s part of it.”
And where does Gary think he fits in the puzzle, besides anchor and even icon to the past? “Well, I have a lot of pride in what we play what I play. I just try to make it good. I just try to make it melodic. It’s just a song, you know? And then there’s a lot of guitar playing so I try to add slide. I try to play slide on a lot of songs, so they’re different. A guitar and a guitar and a guitar… they all can kind of sound the same. So if somebody’s playing a slide, it puts a little bit of color on it. So most of the songs have some kind of slide on it. Whether it’s all the way through or not, I try to that. But in general, I play melodically.”
“I like this one called ‘Mississippi Blood’,” continues Rossington, asked about key tracks on the new record. “It’s kind of a cross between an old blues, new blues and rock ‘n’ roll, and it’s just nasty. ‘Homegrown,’ that’s really cool. It’s kind of today’s rock ‘n’ roll – with an old classic band doing it like us, it’s kind of cool. We wrote it for the fans today, and it’s about, you know, homegrown, whatever you want to make of that (laughs). Girls or women or guys, or whatever, in your neighborhood. So that’s it. One song on here called ‘One Day At A Time’ really tells a good message. There’s one we wrote called ‘Ready To Fly’ which is about getting a call from your mother who’s sick or maybe gonna pass on. And that’s all happened to us, when you get up to be our age, or you lose your parents or are about to lose them. So it’s a sad song about mama leaving; I hope people will be touched by it.”
Rickey zones in on ‘One Day At A Time’ as well. “That sounds like a track that the original band might have written and recorded. I also like ‘Homegrown’ – that we wrote with Blair Daly. It’s the type of heavier rock tune I like to play. There’s a song called ‘Good Teacher’ I like. I like some of the ballads on there, man. I mean, all of it really, jointly together, makes up for a really good record.”
“Everybody’s got a right to their own opinion, you know?” says Gary, asked about the subject of Skynyrd and politics, given how divided America is right now. “I think the country is kind of on a back road now. I would like to see some changes about certain things. But you know, I don’t know what we can do. We’re a rock ‘n’ roll band. We’re more music and rock ‘n’ roll than politics. I know that in my experience and life and stuff, it looks like most of them are crooked. The ones that are in there that are good, I don’t know, there’s not enough of them. But I don’t know what to say about it. I’m more about conservatism than the left wing people, you know? I just can’t see their way. But I hate to talk about it. I don’t know much about politics. I don’t think anybody does (laughs).”
“I agree that America, first of all, is very deeply divided,” adds Rickey. “One thing I don’t like is how everybody is making a racial thing out of this whole political arena that we are in. I’m Native American, so the racial thing kind of hits home with me. To be honest with you, man, I’m sick of the politics here. I’ve been browbeaten by it until I’m sick of it. I’ve been slammed in my face about it. And honestly, I don’t perceive anything getting any better. I don’t know. I hope it does. I mean, I play in a band where all walks of life come together for a couple of hours and enjoy music and there’s no problems. Everybody’s laughing and singing and drinking and having a good time together. Then when that’s over, it’s back to the same old thing, you know what I mean? And I look at that like, wow, why can’t you just continue with this? Why can’t it be continued?”
“But I find that America is moving toward a certain type of government that everybody else is moving away from,” ventures Rickey, in closing. “And I find that very upsetting to me. And I was raised… I gotta tell you, Rickey Medlocke lived in some of the most magical years in this world’s history. I lived in the ‘60s. I lived in the ‘70s, right into the ‘80s. And man, it was bad to the bone. You know, every song that could have been written was already written back then. Every song that could be written has already been done – there’s really nothing original anymore. Well, there’s no original politics anymore. Politics are the same old thing. We elect people, we put them in office, and guess what they do? They sell us out. They sell us down the river and we pay for it. So we try to tread lightly on the politics, although we can be very outspoken about it. We tend to be reserved, but if push comes to shove, yeah, we can be outspoken. Personally, I’m pretty blunt. I’m pretty brash about human rights and human dignity. When I see things not right, people stealing from the normal average people, and the politicians filling their pockets while everybody else goes hungry, sure, I’m pretty blunt about it. And then we take a vote on it, and one way or another, I either get shot down or it gets upheld, you know? (laughs).”