- 13 Aug 19
46 years ago today, southern rock icons Lynyrd Skynyrd released their debut album, (Pronounced 'Lĕh-'nérd 'Skin-'nérd). The record featured hits like ‘Free Bird’, ‘Gimme Three Steps’, ‘Simple Man’ and ‘Tuesday’s Gone’, and has since been certified double platinum. To mark the occasion, we’re revisiting our 2010 interview with the surviving members of the legendary band.
If ever a band has come to define a musical genre it has to be Lynyrd Skynyrd, who in the early 1970s virtually invented Southern Rock, and continue to be its main flag-bearers. With their trademark triple-guitar attack and iconic Dixie anthems such as, ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ and ‘Freebird’, this tough, streetwise outfit out of Jacksonville, Florida sang in praise of whiskey, guns and hell-raising. In their heyday, they rivalled The Rolling Stones and The Who as crowd pullers. Even now, forty years since they first formed, they’re still waving the Confederate flag live and on record – their latest album God & Guns includes defiant songs such as ‘Southern Ways’ and ‘Skynyrd Nation’ and they’re about to head out on a European tour.
Lynyrd Skynyrd’s longevity is all the more astonishing given that the band was almost wiped out when, in October 1977, a hired plane carrying them to a gig crashed, claiming the lives of lead singer Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines and singer Cassy Gaines. The current line-up features Ronnie’s younger brother, Johnny Van Zant on vocals, founding member Gary Rossington on guitar and Rickey Medlocke, the only other original member, also on guitar. Medlocke had in fact left the band just before their breakthrough to form his own successful Southern outfit, Blackfoot. He returned in 1996 and has been with the band ever since. Despite the fluid line-up over the years, he insists that the spirit of the music is the most important thing about Lynyrd Skynyrd.
I think the name is way bigger than any one person,” he says relaxing at his home in Memphis. “It’s about carrying on a tradition. I was one of the founding members, as was Gary, and we love the fact that we can still go out and give people a chance to see it live and hear it live. One of these days we’re not going to be there anymore, so I tell everybody to see us now, while you still can. When I was a young man, naturally your first inclination is to get into partying, carousing and staying up late and I went through all that but I was fortunate enough to come out alive. I’m grateful to be talking to you right now.”
Though he originally played drums in the band, he has long since swapped over to guitar, while also continuing as one the main songwriters.
“I was fortunate enough to be raised on the road by my grandfather who was a Delta blues musician,” he explains. “I learned banjo first and then drums and finally the guitar.”
Medlocke’s contribution to the early Skynyrd was highlighted on First And...Last, an album of early songs released just after the tragedy. Half of them were either written or co-written by him, including essentials like, ‘Preachers’ Daughter’.
“Back then we had a lot to prove,” he says of those early days. “We were young adults trying to make a dream happen, we wanted to get our music out there. We were a garage band but we had a certain magic and little did we know how big it was going to be. But I wasn’t surprised at the success, as Ronnie was an incredible writer – although no one gave him much credit at the time.”
Medlocke has played a variety of guitars over the years but mainly sticks to Gibson Les Pauls – his latest being the Les Paul Axcess which he plays through a custom hot-rodded pair of Marshall cabinets, combined with an old Fender Blues DeVille with two 12s “for beef and cleanliness.”
“Young guitar players always ask me for advice. I tell them I listened to Clapton, Hendrix and Jeff Beck but that the secret is actually writing great songs that’ll be there forever. Live shows are dead tomorrow but songs are always there. ‘Skynyrd Nation’ from the new album is really all about the fact that we’re three generations deep and on a night to night basis ,when the audiences come to see us perform, it’s like a whole nation coming together.”
The band received a further boost in popularity a few years back when Kid Rock blended the iconic guitar riff from ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ and a part of Warren Zevon’s ‘Werewolves Of London’ to create ‘All Summer Long’ – which became a worldwide hit. Following this unlikely mash-up, Kid Rock and the Skynyrds went on a hugely successful joint tour together.
“It was good for us but it was great for him,” Medlocke reflects. “I think we gave him a new lease of life – he needed something at the time to put himself back on track. The great thing about that tour was that our fans were able to see him and his fans were able to see us. It was one of the biggest-selling tours in the country that year. It was good for me too personally, as my future significant other was his backing vocalist (laughs).”
Although it’s almost 33 years ago, Medlocke clearly remembers the day of the plane crash and his own reaction to it at the time.
“The thing that a lot of people don’t realise is that I was supposed to be on that plane,” he reveals. “Even though I’d left the band, I stayed good friends with them. Ronnie had asked me if I wanted to come and ride along with the guys for a few days. I thought it was a good idea too, but at the last minute I got booked for two shows with my band, Blackfoot.
“We were pulling into an airport ourselves when we heard about the crash. I called my parents and they were real upset ‘cause they knew all the guys so well. It hit me really hard and I had to stay out on the road to keep my mind off it. It was all quite weird. It was just a bad thing that happened – a stupid mistake on the part of the pilot. If we’ve learned anything, it’s that you’ve got to be sure that safety is being taken care of. But I thoroughly believe that I’m meant to be in this band and hope to continue as long as I can. I’ve just passed my 60th birthday and people ask where I get all that energy from. It doesn’t hurt having a 38-year-old wife, I suppose!”
Revisit Lynyrd Skynyrd's debut below: