Lynyrd Skynyrd: The Heartbreaking Story of an American Legend

(Image credit: Gems \/ Getty)

Seated amid groups of well-heeled tourists enjoying afternoon tea in an upscale West London hotel, the Lynyrd Skynyrd touring party - all lank, shoulder-length hair, luxuriant facial topiary, well-worn leathers and smudged prison-ink tattoos - stand out like peacocks in a chicken coop. As band manager Ross Schilling lays out the itinerary for day three of Skynyrd’s summer European tour above the gentle harmonic clink of silvered teaspoons on fine bone china, the group’s colourful language and raucous laughter attracts the occasional reproachful glance from fellow diners, but for the most part, the focus of the room is elsewhere, with a chorus of sympathetic murmurs soundtracking television images of Queen Elizabeth II’s rain-soaked Diamond Jubilee celebrations.

“I guess this is kinda a big deal for y’all,” offers vocalist Johnny Van Zant, a mixture of bemusement and empathy in his soft Southern burr as he watches the 86-year-old monarch gamely smile her way through vicious squally showers.

America’s own rock royalty, the members of Lynyrd Skynyrd understand better than most the concept of strength in the face of adversity. Across their four decade history the Jacksonville, Florida band have been assailed more than most by the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, suffering calamities and curses that would have sapped the spirits of weaker men. And still they endure - unbroken, unbowed, defiant and proud - still loved and misunderstood in equal measure.

Guitarist Gary Rossington, Skynyrd’s sole original member, will look you in the eyes and tell you straight-up that he believes that his band’s new album Last Of A Dyin’ Breed is their finest collection of songs since 1977’s Street Survivors. And in that belief, he just might be right: recorded ‘live off the floor’ with producer Bob Marlette (Black Stone Cherry/Shinedown) it boasts a swagger and vitality that bands half their age would kill for. Both a eulogy for simpler times gone by and an open-hearted exhortation to seize and celebrate precious moments in the here and now, the songs themselves are classic Skynyrd, by turns sentimental (Ready To Fly), ornery (Nothing Comes Easy), bawdy (Mississippi Blood) and tender (Something To Live For). Given the band’s resurgent career arc - their last studio album, 2009’s bullish God & Guns secured their highest Billboard chart-placing since the aforementioned Street Survivors debuted in the Top 10 in October 1977 - it looks set to draw a whole new generation of fans into the Skynyrd Nation. But in truth such considerations are secondary to this mythical American institution: for Rossington, Last Of A Dyin’ Breed stands as a full-blooded, feral declaration of independence from a reborn group many feared lost in the wreckage of the October 20, 1977 plane crash which left band leader Ronnie Van Zant and guitarist Steve Gaines dead in a Mississippi swamp.

“Our motto when we started out was that if we didn’t make it we’d die trying,” says Rossington. “And we made it…but at a cost. There were many dark days, years of it really, and sometimes even now. But this story ain’t over yet.”

Given that so many of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s classic songs revolve around themes of rugged individualism, self-determination, spiritual journeys and destinations unknown, it’s entirely fitting that the Skynyrd dream was hatched on the open road. Whenever truck driver Lacy Van Zant embarked on long distances drives in the 1960s, he’d bring one of his three boys along with him to share the ride: for young brothers Ronnie, Donnie and Johnny Van Zant the concepts of freedom and independence were inextricably bound up with the songs they’d hear on Lacy’s AM radio as they crossed state lines. The Van Zant boys fell in love with country music and soul music and bluegrass and rock ‘n’ roll in equal measure and in the music’s joyous, elevating melodies they heard a route out of Shantytown, the tough, impoverished west Jacksonville neighbourhood they called home. And so in the mid ‘60s, Ronnie Van Zant rounded up a collection of Shanytown’s waifs and strays, damaged young men who’d lost their fathers to illness, addiction and prison, and cajoled, bullied and coerced them into joining his new band. From the off, Gary Rossington saw Lynyrd Skynyrd as a dysfunctional family, but a family nonetheless: from day one the eldest Van Zant boy cultivated an out of step ‘Us Against The World’ mentality in his young charges. Nothing would be handed to the band without a fight, he insisted, nothing worth having would come without a pricetag.

“Ronnie had a reputation as a fighter,” Rossington recalls. “He didn’t take no shit from anybody, and so I was just glad I was on his side.”

“Playing in the bars back then was tough. We had to fight to get shows, but then we often had to fight to get out of those shows alive! People wanted to drink and fight and meet girls, and oftentimes the band was in the way. Hell, if three people clapped you’d feel so great you’d tear the place down. You couldn’t believe that anyone would care. But bit by bit, they started to care…”

Now sixty, the soft-spoken, rail-thin Rossington carries the slightly haunted air of a man who has seen rather too much of life. It was the guitarist who coined the title Last Of A Dyin’ Breed for Skynyrd’s thirteenth studio album - inspired, originally, not by his feelings about his band’s place in the rock ‘n’ roll world but by newspaper articles he read about the dwindling wolf population in Yellowstone Park - and that emotionally-charged, rather fatalistic title speaks volumes about his mindset towards the band in 2012. It is Rossington, of the band’s three core members, who seems most encumbered by the sheer weight of Skynyrd’s considerable legacy, and most keen to make their remaining years count, not least because he’s painfully aware that, as Skynyrd’s last original member, the band will die with his own passing.

“This band means everything to me,” he says quietly. “After the plane crash I didn’t want to play guitar any more, I just wanted it to be over. But I’m so thankful that it’s not.”

The current line-up of Lynyrd Skynyrd was hand-picked by the guitarist, drawn largely from members of the extended Southern Rock family. Former Blackfoot frontman Rickey Medlocke, a childhood friend from Shantytown who actually played drums on Skynyrd’s very first recording session at the famous Muscle Shoals studio in the spring of ‘71, was recruited to replace the late Allen Collins in 1996: “Gary said ‘If you pass the audition I’m going to give you a Snickers bar and a dollar fifty and you’re back in the band,’ the guitarist recalls today. Third guitarist Mark Sparky’ Matejka is an alumni of the Charlie Daniels Band, bassist Johnny Colt a former Black Crowe, backing singer Dale Krantz-Rossington Gary’s own wife.

“We know it’s not the original band the guitarist admits,” but it’s the original thought and intention, the original music and the original family. And when I arrive in a city and see the name Lynyrd Skynyrd up in lights it still makes my heart soar like an eagle.”

Almost two years older than his fellow guitarist, Rickey Medlocke comes across as a decade younger than his sixty-two years. Confident and gregarious, as one might expect from a musician who’s been performing onstage from the age of three, Medlocke lived in London “on-and-off” for three years in the 1980s, and still has friends in the city: speaking at volume about his admiration for the singer Adele, his excitement at the current Soundgarden reunion and his fondness of striking up conversations with total strangers in London “boozers” over pints of snakebite, he’s cheerfully oblivious to the stares and murmured asides his rock star demeanour attract.

A man with fingers in pies - he has a new version of Blackfoot in rehearsals, owns two recording studios and is currently shopping Homeland Nation, a documentary series about the on-going injustices suffered by Native Americans, around the networks - Medlocke says he rejoined Skynyrd “to keep the legacy alive and the music alive.” Back in 1977, the guitarist received an invitation from Ronnie Van Zant to join Skynyrd on their Street Survivors tour: he only declined when Blackfoot secured US dates of their own that autumn. On the evening of October 20 his band were onstage in Columbia, South Carolina, when a stage hand asked ‘Hey man, didn’t you play in that Skynyrd band? Your buddies just had a plane crash and they’re all dead.’

“I thought the guy was being a smart ass and I told my guitar tech ‘Get this motherfucker out of here!’” he recalls. “But at the end of the night the club owner came to me and said ‘Ricky, you played in the Skynyrd band didn’t you? Their plane fell late this afternoon in Macomb, Mississippi’.”

“We made it back to the hotel and I called my parents. And my old man said ‘Fate has a funny way of changing things, doesn’t it?’

Johnny Van Zant would doubtless concur. In 1986, some 18 months before he received a call from Gary Rossington, the vocalist had decided that the music business was not his thing: after releasing four well-received solo albums, he simply walked away from the industry to take up a position as a truck driver.

“Most people who came from Shantytown wound up dead, in prison or in the music business,” he recalls. “When Ronnie was a teenager people wouldn’t have been sure where to place their bets. But by the time I hit 25 I knew there had to be other options.”

Barrel-chested, stocky and boisterous, Van Zant is at pains to portray himself as a simple man, just another regular Joe: “There ain’t no royalty in the Van Zant family,” he insist as one point during our interview: “We’re just common people/common folk” he repeats every few minutes. The youngest of Skynyrd’s core trio at 52, he’s the only member of the band still resident in Jacksonville, a father of four girls and a committed Christian. Quite what his girls, or indeed his pastor, will make of Honey Hole, the penultimate track on Last Of A Dyin’ Breed, which celebrates cunnilingus in distinctly icky single entendre terms (’Down, down, down, down, Down is where I wanna go/ Down down down down, Down to the honey hole’) is open to question, but then by his own admission, Van Zant is no saint: “The only person who ever walked this earth who was perfect is Jesus Christ,” he smiles. “So everybody is a sinner.”

The singer has certainly inherited some of the legendary Van Zant feistiness. He might be just play-acting when, interrupting Classic Rock’s interview with Medlocke, he hollers “Hurry up with this guy, he ain’t got shit to say!” across the crowded hotel tearoom, but he’s equally in defending the honour of the current version of the band his brother started while he himself was still in diapers. “I know that you have people who’re like ‘Ah, this ain’t the old Skynyrd’,” he notes at one point. “That’s fine, opinions are like assholes, everybody’s got one.”

“And then people say we’re rednecks or racists: yes, we play with the Confederate battle flag and yes, the Klu Klux Klan used it, but to me it just means ‘I’m from the South.’ That don’t mean that I’m a racist pig, never have been. Nor was my brother. Surely I’m proud to be a Southerner, and that’s my heritage, but we’re American: the Van Zants are from Pennsylvania, so we’re just transplanted Northerners, born in the South. So when people talk about the mythology of Southern Rock sometimes it makes me laugh, we’re just a rock ‘n’ roll band, and hopefully a good rock ‘n’ roll band.”

Lynyrd Skynyrd’s reputation was built on the road. Before the band ever committed a single note of their music to tape, they had played over 1,000 shows. in 2012, their appetite to bring their music to their people remains undiminished. In addition to the thirteen gigs on this European run, the band will notch up a further 42 shows on home turf this year: the release of Last Of A Dyin’ Breed will be accompanied by further overseas dates. Johnny Vant Zant talks of the campaign in almost evangelical terms: “People ask us what gives us our inspiration now,” he says. “One is our faith, two is our fans and family. We’ve been through Hell and back over the years. But then most of your good preachers have been through Hell and back. When you’ve been down you’ve gotta believe in yourself and ask God for redemption and go ‘Hey, I’m gonna fight for you and I’m going to testify for you’. Just like I’m doing right now.”

Gary Rossington too sees Skynyrd’s mission in 2012 in equally unequivocal terms: each gig, each song, each warm, familiar note now is dedicated to Jesus Christ and the memories of those taken early from the band’s bosom.

“When you have so many tragedies and deaths and unique experiences you have to believe in something,” he says simply. “I don’t know how I would live without believing in God. I see miracles every day, I’ve lived through them. It’s hard not to believe when you’re standing in my shoes.”

When Gary Rossington is asked, as he surely is in every interview he grants, to talk about the events of October 20, 1977, his body language changes. His head bows, his eyes fix on a spot in the middle distance and his words are delivered haltingly. It’s clear that his memories are of the night are still raw: how could they not be?

After Skynyrd’s 1948 Convair crashed into a woodland copse at approximately 90mph, Rossington regained consciousness in a swamp. The guitarist couldn’t move: his arms, legs, wrists, ankles and pelvis were shattered. Above him, the flight’s co-pilot John Gray was hanging from a tree, decapitated. By his side, the bodies of Steve and Cassie Gaines, Skynyrd’s new 28-year-old guitarist and his sister, one year older, were prone and bleeding. Nearby, unmarked save for a small bruise on his temple, lay Ronnie Van Sant. Skynyrd’s frontman hadn’t been wearing his seatbelt when the plane went down, and catapulted from his seat, he died on impact. The band’s pilot Walter McCreary and assistant tour manager Dean Kilpatrick had also perished.

“At first I didn’t know who’d died,” says Rossington. “I remember them taking me out in a pick up truck because I was all broken up and hurting. The next day my mom came into the hospital and told me what had happened. And she told me who’d made it or not. It was a terrible time. We were freaked out mentally and our hearts were broken. We were family. We’d just started to make it big. Our dreams were coming true…”

With deeply unfortunate timing, one of the Berkeley Hotel residents, a Skynyrd fan in his mid forties, chooses this precise moment to walk to our table and ask Rossington for a photograph. Understandably thrown, the guitarist composes himself for just a moment, then rises to his feet, extends his arm around the stranger’s shoulder and smiles obligingly for the camera. When he resumes his seat he suddenly looks terribly fragile.

“After the crash I was mad at first. But back when I was 10 years old my father died and I started learning that life was not a game. God helped me through it all back then, and I think there’s a reason for all this. It’s all supposed to mean something.”

The mechanics of rock ‘n’ roll have changed very little since that fateful day in 1977. Backstage at Hammersmith Apollo, burly men in faded Sabbath and Zeppelin T-shirts push and drag cabinets and cables off trucks and down corridors, tour managers bark unintelligible commands into crackling walkie-talkies and over-excited well-wishers are politely reminded that After Show passes only come into play after the rock ‘n’ roll show. Skynyrd first played this storied, sticky room back in the autumn of 1975, on their first UK headline tour. That evening, in the minutes immediately before showtime, there was an air of panic in the band’s dressing room as drummer Artimus Pyle was nowhere to be found: just in time, the errant drummer was discovered, blitzed on LSD and necking Jack Daniels from the bottle, atop a golden scorpion in the venue’s Circle bar. Tonight’s pre-shownpreparations are rather more sedate. Where once glasses of bourbon and fat rails of cocaine were ingested to get the band up to speed - ahem! - now strong coffee and premium-priced spring water is the order of the day. And if muted conversations about the merits of the baked gnocchi with wild mushroom, sage and dolce latte dinner option versus the baked salmon with herb crust dinner option appear terribly civilised for an outfit with a hard-won reputation as Southern Rock’s most rootin’ tootin’ bad-ass rock ‘n’ rollers then Gary Rossington for one appears wholly relieved by this change of pace.

“None of us drink anymore,” he confides, “and nobody does drugs. We’re all too old for that. Now it’s all about the music. Just like it was in the beginning.”

“We didn’t do hard drugs so much at all until maybe ‘76/‘77. And even then it was only because you couldn’t get away from it, because the record companies would employ people to ensure you were always topped up. But we knew drugs were bad, they took out a lot of good bands and good people, and that freaked us out. So we drank a lot instead because that was legal. It was the done thing then to get drunk and throw chairs out the window so we thought we’d be part of that. We were kinda rambunctious and rowdy then. We’d get drunk and fight with one another over any little thing that went wrong, not big fights, but we’d yell and shout and push and there may be a slap or two. It was just like a family: you fight every day with your brothers, but you still love them. It was kinda fun. But now a hellraising night for us is some nice food and maybe a movie.”

“I’ve on the road my whole life,” adds Rickey Medlocke. “I know the road, I know the ropes, and I’ve seen it take a lot of people down to the bottom. With me it used to be all about the homes and the sports cars and the drinking and the drugs and playing music. But I never lost sight of the fact that music got me all of that. Now I’m smart to the point where I know that I can’t do the things I used to do when I was 25. I can’t spend money like when I was 25 and I can’t do the drinking and the drugs like I did when I was 25. But what I can do is enjoy life at 62 and play guitar in an iconic band that’s the last of a dying breed.”

“And when I talk about the last of the dying breed, there’s a few of us out here: there’s Skynyrd, the Rolling Stones, Aerosmith and AC/DC. And I always say to people ‘If you’ve never seen one of those bands, see them before it’s too late.’ Because some soon enough, and it won’t be long, you’ll be able to see our guitars hanging on museum walls, and eat burgers in our restaurants and buy our T-shirts in trendy shops, but you won’t be able to reach out and touch the real deal. And that makes me a little sad. And maybe it should make you a little sad too.”

As band members shuffle around the dressing room picking, poking and prodding at the modest selection of crudites, dips and fresh fruit which serves as their backstage rider, you can’t help but wonder if this lifestyle is entirely appropriate for men of their age and status. And then just after 9pm Gary Rossington slings a vintage sunburst Gibson Les Paul over his right shoulder and steps onto the stage of the Hammersmith Apollo, carving out the riff from Working For MCA, and as one, the balconies rise to their feet to salute the return of America’s greatest living rock ‘n’ roll band. And in those moments this all makes complete sense.

The set is all killer, no filler, tight and compact. They roll out I Ain’t The One, What’s Your Name?, Saturday Night Special, Simple Man, Tuesday’s Gone - bang bang, bang - each melody as familiar as the American national anthem, each iconic riff greeted with full-throated roars of approval from the Skynyrd Nation. No new cuts from Last Of A Dyin’ Breed are aired, though Johnny Van Zant adds one freshly worked piece of theatre into the set when he wraps a Union Flag around his mic stand during Sweet Home Alabama, to the delight of the partisan crowd.

But predictably, perhaps inevitably, it’s a thirteen minute version of Free Bird which truly sets the Apollo on fire. As a backdrop featuring an eagle clutching the Stars and Stripes unfurls behind drummer Michael Cartellone, spotlights pick out the simply embroidered names of the Skynyrd fallen - Allen (Collins), Billy (Powell), Steve (Gaines), Cassie (Gaines) and Ronnie. And when Rossington and Medlocke stand shoulder-to-shoulder pealing out the tumbling triplets which bring the song to it’s epic conclusion, Johnny Van Zant moves quietly to centre stage, and points to the heavens. It’s hard not to be moved by the simplicity and sincerity of the gesture or by the standing ovation it receives.

“Everyone has angels and I think Ronnie is one of my angels, guiding me through this,” Van Zant says quietly afterwards, as well-wishers begin to fill the Apollo’s bijou dressing room. “You never question the will of God. Everything is planned out, from the day that you are born, until the day that you die, your life is planned out. That’s the Christian way. Surely, at times you go ‘Why?’ but then you rewind yourself and go ‘Okay, it’s God’s will.’ It’s all part of the bigger plan.”

“I never wanted to be Ronnie,” he continues, “I’m my own man. I could never fill his shoes because Hell he didn’t even wear any shoes! But hey, I’m going to die one day too, and my brother was a bad ass so I don’t want to go through those Pearly Gates and get a right and a left in the jaw, and have him say ‘What the hell were you doing? What were you thinking?’ Surely we’re aware of the legacy, but the fans keep coming, so we must be doing something right.”

“What happened was very hard on us and our familes,” adds Gary Rossington. “Our family had just been demolished. You never get over something like that, you just learn to live with it. But when I see the people who turn out to see us every night I feel we’ve been blessed. We’re ordinary people, no better than nobody else and nobody is better than us, but sometimes you look out at all those faces singing Ronnie’s words back to you and you can’t help feeling that you might be one of the luckiest people alive.”

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Paul Brannigan
Contributing Editor, Louder

A music writer since 1993, formerly Editor of Kerrang! and Planet Rock magazine (RIP), Paul Brannigan is a Contributing Editor to Louder. Having previously written books on Lemmy, Dave Grohl (the Sunday Times best-seller This Is A Call) and Metallica (Birth School Metallica Death, co-authored with Ian Winwood), his Eddie Van Halen biography (Eruption in the UK, Unchained in the US) emerged in 2021. He has written for Rolling Stone, Mojo and Q, hung out with Fugazi at Dischord House, flown on Ozzy Osbourne's private jet, played Angus Young's Gibson SG, and interviewed everyone from Aerosmith and Beastie Boys to Young Gods and ZZ Top. Born in the North of Ireland, Brannigan lives in North London and supports The Arsenal.