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While Skynyrd fans mourned, the group's biggest-selling album, Street Survivors (which ironically depicted the band before a wall of flames), elevated the group to sainthood. Two years later, the surviving members performed an instrumental tribute version of "Freebird" at Charlie Daniel's Volunteer Jam, and later guitarists Gary Rossington and Allen Collins went on to form the Rossington-Collins Band, achieving some success on FM radio. In 1987, original members Rossington, keyboard player Billy Powell and bassist Leon Wilkerson asked Johnny to join the band for a one-off tour that turned into a second life for the group. The act's current lineup includes original members Rossington, Powell, and Wilkerson along with former Outlaws guitarist Hughie Thomason, Blackfoot string-slinger Rickey Medlocke and drummer Michael Cartellone. (Collins died in 1996 from pneumonia after being paralyzed in a 1989 car crash.)
"I never wanted to do it, really," Van Zant says of filling his brother's shoes, "I figured that was the end of Lynyrd Skynyrd. But one day, I got a call from Gary saying he wanted to do a reunion, and I went over there, and all the guys were in the room, and you could just tell that this was something they needed to do. And I thought, 'Well, Ronnie wouldn't have wanted the band to just end like that.'" Twelve years later, he's convinced the move was a correct one.
"It was good for the fans and good for the guys in the plane crash, as part of the healing process. Besides, I always said the whole vibe of Lynyrd Skynyrd is bigger than any one person. And it'll be going a long time after we're gone."
One relic of the band's past and homeland, the battle flag of the Confederate Army--a longtime staple of Skynyrd shows--will also be hanging around, no matter how politically incorrect it may be in various parts of the U.S. and the rest of the world. "We go to Europe," Van Zant points out, "and they think we're totally prejudiced, 'cause we hang the bars and stripes. But for us, the bars and stripes doesn't mean we want to see anybody in slavery or anything like that. It's just our heritage. To us the bars and stripes means grits, 'y'all,' and the beauty of the South. There's no prejudice at all in that with us.
"People always think of Germans as this or that from the Hitler days," he says, "and young German people are still getting bashed about that, and they didn't have a damn thing to do with it. Well, we didn't have a thing to do with what our great-great-grandfathers were doing during the Civil War, either. We're not proud of slavery, but hell, that war's been over with for a long time, let's forget about it. We're all Americans, that was one of the stupidest things that ever went down in history."
Such remarks might seem controversial to those who see the rebel flag as a symbol of the South's more distant and darker past, but Van Zant doesn't. Nor does he see a problem in doing a Columbine benefit with ties to Wal-Mart, a discount retailer that sells its share of guns and ammunition.
"No one's had a problem with that," Van Zant says. "I mean, the Wal-Mart near my house, they're selling a few guns, but they're not selling semi-automatic weapons or anything like that. Like I said, a person should have the right to own guns to hunt game, not human beings." The alignment with the chain, he notes, is based on a simple allegiance anyway. "Hell, Lynyrd Skynyrd," he divulges, "we shop at Wal-Mart."