Lynyrd Skynyrd are a Rock & Roll legacy. Overcoming adversity and loss throughout their 50+ year career, Skynyrd have strengthened the line that defines Southern Rock while stitching their music into the fabric of America with hits like “Sweet Home Alabama” and “Freebird” among many others. Having been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2006, then returning in 2009 with a brand new album featuring new material in God and Guns, this family troupe has proven unstoppable. But with all their history, one thing’s for sure: Lynyrd Skynyrd put on one heck of a live show, and that’s exactly what they’re celebrating with their latest CD/DVD Live From Freedom Hall. Released right on the cusp of the band’s big summer tour, we catch up with vocalist Johnny Van Zant to find out all about the special performance that marks long-time keyboardist Billy Powell and late bassist Ean Evans’ last stand with the band, and what’s in store this summer as the Skynyrd Nation carries on from coast to coast and sea to shining sea.
Having just released Live From Freedom Hall as you embark on tour for the summer, what can fans expect to see on this DVD that they won’t see on this run and vice-versa?
Johnny: Well this DVD I think [was] just a great show; we actually was out on the Rowdy Frynds Tour with Hank Jr. and this was recorded I believe in Lexington, Kentucky and was just a great night for us. If you’re coming to see us now, you’re going to hear a lot of new music from God and Guns! And you know this particular year, we’re going to scramble up the set a little and I think people are going to be blown away...
Can you expand upon what it’s like still playing the Skynyrd staples after all these years, and how the crowd reaction differs from place to place?
Johnny: That’s what makes it very interesting. People say “Hey, don’t you get sick of playing ‘Freebird’ or ‘Sweet Home Alabama’?”And I’m like No! Most bands would give their right arm to have just one song like that and for us every night’s a different place. The crowds are different every night. Some nights they’re crazier as can be and other nights they’re not as crazy, but more nights of craziness than anything at a Skynyrd show -- that’s the way we like it. Just having a good time. For us it’s an honor, a pleasure, to still be doing that and carrying on the Skynyrd Nation.
And in carrying on the Skynyrd Nation through so much loss, does it get difficult to keep going?
Johnny: We’ve lived through a lot of tragedy, but Rock ‘n’ Roll has its tragedies. We’re a big family, let’s put it that way, and family members come and go and we’ll all have to take that trip one day. Now for us who are still here we’re gonna work our butts off and do everything in our power to carry on what they started. As far as for me, I always looked at is as my brother being the quarterback and me being the receiver and we were always trying to get that touchdown.
With Freedom Hall being the last performance with Billy Powell and Ean Evans, can you tell me a little bit about their legacy living on through the album?
Johnny: Right, this live album and DVD is very special to me of course, and I think every member of Lynyrd Skynyrd and I think it’s special to Billy and Ean -- they had the pleasure of seeing it and living it of course before their untimely passing and I think any true Skynyrd fan would love to have this DVD and CD because it has those two guys on there. I know for myself, because I’m very honored to play with those guys who were both not only great musicians but great people too. So I’m sure they’re up there going “Alright! People finally get to see and hear this!”
In keeping with the celebration of Skynyrd, what are you most looking forward to in performing now?
Johnny: Oh I’m looking forward to it! You know we’ve already had a great tour over in Europe in probably the coldest time. We’ve got some great fans over in Europe and we had a blast over there and we’re looking forward to going back over again. [But] now it’s time for us to conquer America in 2010 here. We’re looking forward to it -- we have the Freedom Concerts coming up, we’re going on the road with Bret Michaels who’s another survivor now. Talked to Bret today and he’s had some bad health stuff going on and I said, “Now you’re an official member of the Lynyrd Skynyrd band!” (laughs) And my brother’s going out with me this summer, .38 Special, so we’re looking forward to the summer. We’ve had a little time off but it’s time to get back to doing what we do.
Tell me more about the upcoming Freedom Concerts and what they stand for.
Johnny: The Freedom Concerts? Oh gosh yeah. Well first of all we’re going to be out there with our buddy Charlie Daniels and Michael W. Smith, who I’ve never met but I’ve heard he’s a great guy and I like his music a lot. And of course I love Charlie Daniels. Along with my father Lacy Van Zant, he’s the father of southern Rock ‘n’ Roll as far as I’m concerned. For us to be able to be involved with that is a great pleasure. We’ve been very blessed with music and in our life - and in this stage of our life - as much as we can give back is a great honor. And to give back for a great cause like the freedom concerts, it’s going to be special for us because we’re real, real big supporters of our troops and no matter what goes on in the government whether you’re Republican, Democrat, Independent, whatever, all that needs to be out the window and you need to support the troops. So you know we’re there to be able to do that for their kids and them. You know I think the only time we’ve ever been united is after 9/11. If we could figure out a way to get back to that without going through tragedy it would be a greater and better country.
Are there any songs that you guys don’t normally play live that fans might be surprised to hear in your set?
Johnny: Golly, you know I think we’ve played just about every one of them live. Recently we played a song called “All I Can Do Is Write About It” which I think is pretty much one of the most cool songs my brother ever wrote. You’d have to listen to the words but it’s just a touching song and I think it kind of summed up his life and what he felt.
With us putting so much emphasis on you guys playing live, who are some of the bands you’ve enjoyed seeing live in the past?
Johnny: Oh gosh, we’ve played with just about everybody (laughs). Who I’ve enjoyed seeing live? I think one of my favorite bands has been AC/DC. You know, as far as live goes and live performance, AC/DC puts on a great live performance. We got the opportunity to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame a few years back, and they had Metallica there and they were really cool to see -- and Sting. I love all sorts of music, so I love seeing James Taylor along with Metallica. Golly that’s a hard question to answer! Who knows, maybe there’s something I haven’t seen. My wife and I, we went to see Tim McGraw just recently --and Lady Antebellum, that was a good show [too].
Even though it’s obviously something you love, I imagine when people are not on the road or in the studio, they’re taking a break from music and that’s cool that you’re still going to concerts.
Johnny: Yeah I enjoy music; I’ve always enjoyed music. I think anybody who’s in the music business or doing it for a career, you have to love music first. You don’t have to quit your job but music’s a great thing -- it’s a good healer. Anytime I’ve been sick or whatever, I’ve listened to music and it makes me feel better. Or having a great time out on the town, music’s a big part of that. It’s good therapy.