Billy Idol may have wailed about a "Rebel Yell," but no band embraced that Southern sensibility more defiantly than Lynyrd Skynyrd. One of the most essential Southern bands of the last 40 years, they emerged from their native Jacksonville to become album rock standard bearers, courtesy of such radio staples as "Freebird, "Sweet Home Alabama," "Gimme Three Steps," "That Smell," and "You Got That Right."
Sadly, the band's early upward trajectory ground to a halt with the tragic plane crash that killed original band members Ronnie Van Zant, Steve Gaines, and Cassie Gaines on October 20, 1977. Though this effectively ended the first and most indelible phase of their career, in the late eighties, the band regrouped. Skynyrd came spiraling back. They're currently promoting Last of the Dyin' Breed, their new album, which will bring them to Hard Rock Live on October 25.
Guitarist Rickey Medlocke, an early member of the group prior to their big breakthrough spoke with us from his home in Melbourne about, among other things, the recent controversy surrounding their embrace of the Confederate flag.
New Times: Why do think Lynyrd Skynyrd has been able to maintain its momentum all these very many years?
Rickey Medlocke: I really believe that we pride ourselves on consistency. I think the biggest element has to do with the material. I think that the band has got legendary songs that will be here a lot longer after we're gone. Great songs, magical tunes. And for me personally, the group emerged at a time when legends were built and many groups became arena rock bands. It was a different age and a different time, and I think people love to relive that. Plus, their kids want to try to experience it and live some semblance of that. It's just built from that.
Why do you think Jacksonville was such a prolific spawning ground for so many bands back in the day?
Well, people always ask me that, and I say, maybe it was something in the water. Seriously, I think one of the reasons is that Jacksonville was a very transient city. You had the shipyards there, you had the naval bases there, Anheuser Busch was there... My grandfather, Shorty, who wrote the Blackfoot song "Train Train," he was a musician in and out of Nashville, and he played with a lot of bands and a lot of older musicians in and around Jacksonville. And they had kids, and those kids ended up being born with talent and, hey, you've got it!
So who makes up your audiences these days? We have three generations of fans that come out and see us play, ages anywhere from 15 to 75, and the majority of those are in their late teens through their early 30s. It's amazing, because they've heard about this band, they've seen it maybe on television and heard the music all over the radio and it strikes their curiosity. We come out and play and they know we're having a good time doing what we're doing.
Even though Skynyrd has seen a lot of its members come and go over the years, you've still managed to maintain that high bar that was set way back in the beginning. It doesn't seem to matter so much about those individual members as much as it does about the Skynyrd branding and the band itself. Why do you think that is?
Gary is one of the founding members that's still left. It was rumored early on that Johnny was going to come on board and produce and write songs and take Ronnie's place anyway. I was with the band early on, then I left to form my band Blackfoot, and I've been back with the band almost 17 years. When you look at that, there's the nucleus and the core of the group. With Gary, Johnny and myself there at the center, to us, it is Lynyrd Skynyrd.
We also got great players in the band, Johnny Colt, the original bassist from the Black Crowes, he's also from Train and Tommy Lee's Super Nova. Michael Cartellone was from Damn Yankees and had great success with that. We got a great piano player in Peter Keys and another great guitar player, Mark Meteika. All these guys are pros, along with the two girls. Gary's wife Dale is still a backing vocalist and so is Carol Chase. The band members themselves are consistent and we go out there and give it 110 percent. I think the audience feels that and they keeping come back for more.
Is it a challenge to avoid repeating yourself? And do you sometimes feel intimidated about having to come up with new songs that rise to the level of the early classics?
Well, it's really not an easy thing to do. First of all, we do realize we're always going to be compared to our past history. We also feel that every song that could possibly be written has been written. There are only seven chords, and so many licks and so many ways to write songs. Everything now is either borrowed from, stolen from, assimilated from, whatever. It's to the point where you look at it and go, "Wow, how the hell are you going to come up with any original riffs?" When we think about it, we think, let's just write, and whatever way it comes out, it comes out. We can't sit there and worry and analyze constantly all the time. We just go in and write what we feel. Write about real substance and try to have fun with it.
What are your thoughts about the current state of Southern rock?
All of a sudden, there seems to be a lot of bands who are trying to stake a claim in that genre. I think people like Blackberry Smoke, Black Stone Cherry... There's a couple of bands up and coming that people haven't heard of yet, but they're bad asses. There's this group called Cadillac Black. You got the Drive By Truckers.
Still, the days of arena rock bands, no matter what the genre, have come and gone. I think these days it's more about packaging bands together so they go out and make money for promoters. When we did this latest record, we knew we were doing it old school, but we also knew that we were kind of the last of our kind, along with people like the Allmans and the Rolling Stones and Aerosmith and ZZ Top and AC/DC, bands from the old arena rock days. So we titled the record appropriately, Last of a Dyin' Breed, because we feel we are that.
Part of the Skynyrd legacy has sadly involved the series of tragedies that the band has been forced to undergo, and here we are on the 35th anniversary of that horrible plane crash that took so many of the original band members. Do you guys have plans to mark that in any special way?
No, you know what, man. For Gary, who survived it, and Johnny's brother, who perished in it, we just kind of like try to forget about it. There's a lot of heartbreak involved in that, a lot of pain and agony, and even today, a lot of times when people come up and start asking me about it, I basically say, that was a bad time in the band's life and people lost loved ones, and so I just try to ease on out of it, you know what I mean? It's a hard thing, it really is. I'm actually glad we're not playing on that day.
Even beyond that, it seems the band has been touched by so much tragedy. Even after the plane crash, there were so many members of the band who passed away and are no longer with us -- former bassist Leon Wilkeson, former keyboard player Billy Powell, Hughie Thomasson, who played with both Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Outlaws, former bassist Ean Evans...
We feel like the guys and gals that went before us, even though they're not here anymore, they're still with us in spirit and we like to think that we're honoring their memory. For me, when I got back in the band, Gary got me back in the band. He said to me, "I don't have Allen here with me anymore and you're about the closest thing I can get, not only in your playing style, but in your personality and stuff like that." Allen was really an off the cuff kind of guy, and our playing styles were similar, so it was easy for me to slot myself right in there. I'd like to think that one day, when my time has come and I have to book out of here, I'll see him and he'll shake my hand and say, "I'm proud of you. You did a great job for me."
So who plays that famous "Free Bird" guitar solo in concert, the one that was once called the third greatest guitar solo of all time?
I do. That was Allen originally, and now I cover everything that Allen did. I cover all his stuff. I play that lead -- I add a little of my own stuff in there -- but for the most part, it's all Allen's stuff.
You've been in the news recently about the fact you display a Confederate flag. Supposedly you stopped using, but now you've added the visuals to your show again. What was that all about?
Here's the way it went down. We did a weekend appearance on CNN and we had finished the interview when a producer asked Gary why we were no longer associating ourselves with the Confederate flag. A lot of the loyal Skynyrd fans really took offense to it because we had kind of taken it down. What we really were trying to do was not confuse the heritage with hate. That flag for the most part is about the heritage of the South, but not because of what people make it out to be... Slavery and oppression and this and that. It was a battle flag. It was what the soldiers carried into battle.
Our bass player, Johnny Colt, is quite a historian and he said something very interesting. He said, why does the South have to take their flag down when the North came down here and carpetbaggers destroyed homes and property, and raped and pillaged. And everyone's asking for reparations... Why can't the North give reparations to the South for all the damage they did. My folks were all Native Americans. Why can't we get reparations for all the damage the colonists did when they got here. In looking at it, everybody's got a problem with something somewhere. That rebel flag was the flag the soldiers carried into battle. Had the South won the war, that flag would be flying over the White House. But they didn't, so it's the stars and stripes. For us, it's not about hatred. We don't preach that. We don't go out and talk about that. We don't even believe in it. Those people took it way, way too serious. It's all about heritage, not hate.
So are you using the flag now?
We're back to using a semblance of it. Johnny has one tied on his microphone stand when he comes out for "Alabama," a small one. And we kind of have a banner that looks like a rebel flag and it says "Alabama" on it. You know what, if someone's going to bitch at us for using it, bitch at Kid Rock for using it. I think about my ancestors and my grandfather said it pretty good. He said, "You know what, everybody came over here for dinner and they never left."
Lynyrd Skynyrd at 7:30 p.m. on October 25 at Hard Rock Live, One Seminole Way, Hollywood. Tickets cost $47.50 to $92.50. Visit ticketmaster.com.
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