By Isa Jones
By Mary Willson
By Brian Turk
By Drew AIles
By Taylor Boylston
By Bree Davies
By Emerald O'Brien
These days, despite the lingering image of the irrepressible Van Zant and his fellow rabble rousers, the band's persona has clearly sweetened, as evidenced by its upcoming performance at a scholarship fundraiser for the Never Forgotten Fund, to benefit the victims of the Columbine High School nightmare. As part of a peculiar marketing strategy, the show will be simulcast to over 2,100 Wal-Mart stores around the nation, which will be vending the band's new disc, On the Edge of Forever, to be released the day of the show. That Skynyrd would be embraced by two family-value-centric organizations might seem contradictory to those who still consider the band more apt to pack guns than stand in support of those who've suffered at the hands of their deadly use.
But Johnny Van Zant, kid brother of the late Ronnie and the group's current vocalist, is quick to make it clear that he and his mates are not a bunch of nefarious NRA members. "If people want to own a rifle or something like that for hunting purposes only, I tend to agree with that," says Van Zant, a polite Southern-drawled gent who enjoyed a solo career of his own in the Eighties. "But semi-automatic weapons and handguns, that's just unreal. I mean, what good are handguns? You can't shoot a deer with it, and they're really good for only one thing--killing," he notes, echoing the lyrics of his brother's "Saturday Night Special," an anti-gun diatribe light years ahead of its political time.
"I mean, we're musicians, we're not politicians or anything," Van Zant continues, sounding a bit uneasy on the soapbox, "but it sure seems like the politicians in this country would stand up and go, 'This is bullshit. Let's take this out of the reach of the common person.' In my opinion, the only people who should have handguns are the police. If I was president of this United States, I'd say, 'Hey, this shit's gonna stop, one way or the other.' It used to be school was considered a safe place," adds Van Zant, a father of school-aged children, "but nowadays you're scared to send your kids off to school 'cause you don't know if they're gonna come home. And that's a sad thing, one of the most disappointing things going on in America in my lifetime."
Sadness and disappointment are two things Van Zant can speak about with authority. He experienced both after the untimely death of brother, who was only 29 when he was killed at the height of Skynyrd's career. The band got its start in 1973 with the release of Pronounced Leh-Nerd Skin-Nerd, which featured the triple guitar threat of Gary Rossington, Allen Collins and Ed King. The platter also contained the band's first and most lasting single, "Freebird," which has held a place on the airwaves and in pop-music consciousness--not to mention status as a running joke on Beavis and Butt-head--ever since. (Too long a time, for those who find the tune's length, guitar-solo worship and revered status too much to handle.)
In 1974, Second Helping built on this success with more flannel-lined fury and keen lyrics from Van Zant's deceptively smart blue-collar pen. The disc's "Sweet Home Alabama," a delicious tongue-in-cheek swipe at Neil Young's "Alabama" (and not, Johnny Van Zant points out, Young's "Southern Man"), boosted the group's stock to its Southern followers while proving the outfit's broader radio-worthy moxie. A year later, "Freebird" was re-released and hit the Top 20, followed by a pair of successful full-length studio offerings, Nuthin' Fancy and Gimme Back My Bullets. In late 1976, Skynyrd released a live double disc, One More for the Road, that rightfully elevated the band to superstar status, thanks to its depth of songwriting, blazing chops and invigorating celebrations of raucous livin' and the travails of the working class.
But one year later, in October 1977, Skynryd's rise came to an end. The group's plane crashed in a Mississippi swamp, killing Van Zant and the Gaines siblings and severely injuring the band's surviving members. Reports were that the band's plane ran out of fuel, but Van Zant says the mistakes of the plane's two rookie pilots were the real cause. "It didn't run out of fuel," he says. "What happened was they were having trouble with one of the engines sparking, and they didn't want it to catch fire, so they went to dump fuel from one of the engines. They had two brand-new pilots, and these guys pushed the wrong lever and emptied both gas tanks. The plane was immediately out of fuel." For the band's true believers, particularly in the South, the event rivaled the JFK assassination in its "Where-were-you-when-you-found-out?" quality.