The legendary singer-songwriter Ronnie Van Zant and guitarist Steve Gaines and vocalist Cassie Gaines died in the 1977 plane crash that ended the band's initial run. After surviving the crash guitarist Allen Collins tragically passed away. Most recently the band lost bassist Leon Wilkenson.
The band had just finished recording an album celebrating its 30th anniversary when guitarist Gary Rossington was hospitalized with a heart condition. After an emergency triple bypass, Rossington is OK and the band plans to hit the road this summer.
"It's a long time comin'," philosophized Ronnie's youngest brother, Johnny Van Zant, who has grown into the role of fronting the band so well Lynyrd Skynyrd truly has become the central part of his identity.
"We've hit on a combination of old style Skynyrd, with new style Skynyrd, with commercial Skynyrd," Johnny said with a laugh. "We've got the rockin' country thing going full blast on this one."
Johnny knows how powerful the group he fronts is right now, with Rossington leading a Southern rock supergroup guitar lineup that also features Blackfoot's Rick Medlocke and Hugh Thomasson from the Outlaws. Rossington and keyboardist Billy Powell, whose melodic touches add a stark beauty to the band's sound, are the surviving charter members of the group. Drummer Michael Cartellone gives the rhythm section a thunderous kick.
While virtually all the band's contemporaries were writing to a suburban audience, Lynyrd Skynyrd fiercely promoted the values of America's working class. The band's hometown of Jacksonville, Fla., truly was a blue collar town, and Ronnie, Donnie and Johnny Van Zant learned the value of hard work from family patriarch Lacy Van Zant. Ronnie was a master at articulating these values in Skynyrd's songs and Johnny has grown into the role so well that he's actually brought the group to another level. The new album is packed with working class anthems like "That's How I like It" and "Pick'em Up."
"Our fans are country folks, they like the basics," Johnny explained. "They're not afraid of dirt, they know how to work with their hands. If you've got a good car and a good woman you can be happy. Life has gotten so complicated that a lot of people have lost sight of the fact that the simple things are the best things. We came from a basic family. Our father was a working man. Our mother was a housewife. We didn't live the high life. Sure, these days we buy our own cars, but we still live a basic life."
The album's strength is even more dramatic in the wake of original member Leon Wilkenson's tragic and untimely death. Wilkenson, the laconic bassist known for his huge sound and the outlandish collection of hats he wore on stage, died last July at 49 of natural causes. "Mad Hatter" is the band's tribute to its fallen member.
"That's about brother Leon," Johnny explained. "God broke the mold when he built him. He survived the plane crash and we always used to kid him, called him the Mad Hatter and the Cat in the Hat because he had nine lives."
Wilkenson had recorded a couple of tracks for the album before he passed, and Skynyrd fans had heard him play "Funked Up" and "The Way" in live performance.
"We've done 'Funked Up' and 'The Way' live and they both got great response," Johnny noted. "The people really loved 'The Way,' they were coming up to us and saying they can't wait to hear it on record. The eerie thing about it was the song is about how things are so screwed up in general and passing on to the other side and it was the last song Leon played on, that and 'Lucky Man' were the only two songs on the album he played on."
The band completed the album with a former bandmate of Thomasson's from the Outlaws, Ian Evans, on bass.
"Ian's a trouper," said Johnny. "He and Leon were good friends. Leon had a few problems toward the end and Ian would fill in for him when he couldn't make the gigs."
Skynyrd has always managed to balance its party anthems with messages that offer hope for a better future. "The Way" touches on an inspirational theme that ranks with one of the band's most enduring songs, "Free Bird."
"I hope we can help some people through their bad times with our music," said Johnny. "That's what music's all about anyway. Music has brought me through some really dark times in my life and I hope this record can bring some other people through their bad times."