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.
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."
Lynyrd Skynyrd, with Nazareth. 6 p.m. August 10, Fillmore Auditorium, 1510 Clarkson Street, $22.50, 303-837-1482.