Skynyrd Still Skyward
by Mark Smith
TRAGEDY and triumph.
Never have two words been more deeply entrenched in the psyche of a music group than with American rock legends Lynyrd Skynyrd.
Since its formation as a garage band in Jacksonville, Florida, in 1964, it seems the group has never been able to experience one without the other.
After rising to world-wide fame in the early 1970s with enduring classics Sweet Home Alabama and Freebird, the group was forced to disband after losing three members, including songwriter Ronnie Van Zant, in a plane crash in South Carolina in 1977.
In 1986, before the band’s reunion, surviving guitarist Allen Collins crashed his car while drunk, killing his girlfriend and leaving him paralysed from the chest down.
He died from pneumonia on January 23, 1990.
The band, now led by Van Zant’s younger brother Johnny, continued to record, sparking an exciting new period.
Then in 2001, Leon Wilkeson, the band’s bassist since 1972, was found dead in his hotel room.
In 2006, the band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Guitarist Hughie Thomasson died shortly after.
So it’s strangely poetic that in 2009, the band’s latest triumph is something that has again risen from the ashes of tragedy.
The band’s new album God and Guns has been heralded as the group’s finest record since its 1970s hey-day, but guitarist Rickey Medlocke says it took the untimely death of two more of its members to get it that way.
The band started recording the album in 2008, but lost keyboardist Billy Powell and bassist Ean Evans during the recording process to a suspected heart attack and cancer respectively.
“One of the key elements in this whole thing that really pushed us to dig deep and come up with the goods was the fact that we had lost Bill Powell and our bass player Ean Evans to cancer, and knowing that we had started this record with them, and all of a sudden we couldn’t finish it with them,” Medlocke said.
“And we knew that if we didn’t get this record out they would have been very disappointed.
“At one point we even talked about calling it a day but then we said, ‘you know what, we can’t do that because Billy and Ean would be very upset’.
“So we picked ourselves up by our bootstraps, dug down deep and really, really committed to making a great CD.”
The album blends a range of musical styles from blues and country to hard rock and includes guest appearances by Marilyn Manson guitarist John 5 and Rob Zombie.
The album debuted at number 18 in the US charts, its highest result since the 1977 album Street Survivors.
Lyrically, it takes aim at what Medlocke describes as a nation of forgotten values.
The album title is a reference to a speech US president Barack Obama gave in San Francisco deriding small town America for clinging to their God and guns.
“Our country (the US) is trying to be so politically correct, and a lot of the family values and personal values have been forgotten,” he says.
“It’s not the way half of our nation wants it to be. And this record kind of speaks out for some people who maybe can’t speak out for themselves.
“We go out and say, ‘hey, when did it get to be that kids can’t pledge an allegiance to the school in the classroom or be in the classroom and say their prayers’?
“Everything has become that if you’re doing something, you’re insulting someone else’s religion, or if you say something you’re insulting someone else’s race.
“We don’t try to use the band as a political stance; we are just musicians who write about real substance. And we’ve been writing about what is on people’s minds for years.”
Medlocke puts the group’s endurance through so many tragedies down to a simple love of the craft.
“When you’ve got great bands that have spent their whole lives playing music, what else are you going to want to do?,” he said.
“We have fans from 15 to 65 years old and it’s pretty amazing for us.
“I think that’s what drives us through the tragedies.”
Medlocke also hinted at the possibility of playing in Australia for the first time.
“There has been a lot of interest in an Australian tour. We have never been out there, but it is something we really want to do,” he said.
God and Guns is out now through Roadrunner Records.