Lynyrd Skynyrd

Rickey Medlocke &
Johnny Van Zant

by Paul Guy
Interview for FUZZ magazine

(As all their fans know, Lynyrd Skynyrd got their name from one of their high school teachers, a Mr. Leonard Skinner. Mr. Skinner did not approve of the guys' antics, their appearance, their behaviour, or their rock'n'roll...)

Did you ever meet Leonard Skinner again?

Johnny : Sure! He likes us now, we made him famous! We did a thing at the Rock'n'Roll Hall Of Fame last summer, and he came to the press conference - and one of the journalists asked him, how does it feel to be the Leonard Skinner who Lynyrd Skynyrd named the band after? And his only comment was, "Cool!" That was it, that was his big comment! Not a man of many words...

(To Rickey) How long have you been playing with the band?

Rickey : Well actually this is my return to the band, I was with them starting in late '70, early '71, I think it was three years and then I went back with Blackfoot, and now I'm back in Lynyrd Skynyrd again. In fact last year when I rejoined the band it was almost 25 years to the month. (Johnny: It was, man...) So it was really cool, it's really nice to return to friends, and people that you've known for a long time, have a chance to work with them again, and it's the first chance Johnny and I have had to be able to work in the same band together, to write, and record, and tour together, so it's worked out really well.

I've never really read up on Lynyrd Skynyrd before, I just enjoyed the music - "Street Survivors" is one of my favourite albums - but I loaded some stuff down from the Internet last night, and I was really surprised that you guys referred back to the Beatles and the Stones as being your earliest influences...

Johnny : Oh yeah. The Beatles were awesome.

Rickey : Well actually there was a lot of influences, if you look back, you know, Creedence Clearwater Revival, the Cream, Hendrix, all those early bands like that, really influenced us all, and made us take on our own identity as far as style of playing and how the band started to get its own sound, and stuff like that. There's a lot of early influences there.

Johnny : Paul Rogers is my favourite singer, he's kind of unique. This summer he's opening up for us. I don't know about Europe, but in the States he is. Unbelievable singer.

Rickey : Well Hendrix and Clapton and Beck are my three favourites. But Jeff Beck was way out here in left field somewhere, he was just so unorthodox in his playing. His playing was just not of the norm. And that's what I loved about him, you know what I mean? It was amazing. But for the roootsy part of it I really love Hendrix and Clapton. I saw Hendrix several times growing up, and I saw the Cream, and I was blown away. I mean just b-l-o-w-n a-w-a-y.

You've certainly kept your identity as a band - this new record ("Twenty") is definitely a Skynyrd album.

Johnny : Well we tried to do that, you know - and plus I think it kind of comes naturally, I mean we're all from the same part of America, we all grew up pretty much in the same town, and we tried to keep it true to what Skynyrd is all about. One of the reasons for Rickey coming into the band again, previous albums up to this one were leaning a little bit more the country way, and we wanted to go the rockin' way, and Rickey's a ball of fire all wound up, so we unwound him and let him go, you know.

Rickey : Turn him loose! Yeah, that's me...

Johnny : Before a show, you know, we have a cage... and we stick him with a cow prod (Rickey laughs) - and he comes out, and plays the hell out of his git-tar, you know...

(To Rickey) You've got Native American ancestry, haven't you?

Rickey : Yeah, I do. My father is a full Dakota, Sioux Indian - South Dakota, Rosebud Reservation, he was born and raise there. My mother is half Choctaw, and half Scottish! (Laughs)

Quite a blend...

Rickey : Yeah, I'm proud of it. You know, on the airplane today, there was a guy who knew as much about it as I did, he was really bursting about Native Americans, it was really interesting.

Johnny : I'm always doubtful, I sleep with a hat on...

Rickey : (laughs uproariously) And a big lock on his door , real big!

Johnny : (laughing) And a big lock on the door! We've become real good friends.

Rickey : Oh yeah.

(To Rickey) Do you have a favourite guitar?

Rickey: Well I have a favourite guitar, I basically play an Gibson Explorer - and also I have an old reverse-body Firebird, those are among my favourite guitars to play. I also have amounted quite a few Les Pauls and stuff, but they call them the weird-shaped guitars, when I come out playing, that's what I'll be playing on. But I love experimenting with different guitars, to see if there's something I've missed, somewhere along the way. I even have a couple of Stratocasters at home for using in the studio - as a matter of fact I used one some on this record, but for the most part of it I have an old 57 Les Paul Special that was once owned by Buddy Holly. I bought it from his sister and brother-in-law in Lubbock, Texas, and that's one of my prize possessions. The old reverse-body Firebird I got is one of the early prototypes. Two Explorers, a Flying V, a 67 Black Beauty Custom - a 54 Goldtop - I got a beautiful old double-neck, one of the rare white ones, that's turned absolutely yellow now, the SG-shape solidbody. I have a collection of different stuff - National steels and Dobros, mandolins, banjos and stuff.

What amps were you using on this record?

Rickey : We had all kinds - we had the Matchless, I had all my Marshalls, we had Gary's Peaveys, we had Vox AC30's, we had Fender Vibroluxes - it was just like a whole wall, and we'd try different combinations.

Johnny : A bit like an AC/DC concert! (Laughs)

How did you go about writing the songs?

Johnny : With this particular album, we just kind of went into a room, sat around, drank lots of coffe, and looked out at the snow, cause we done it in Wyoming. Gary has a nice place out there and so we went out there and just, like - Rickey may have an idea or something, or I may have a lyrical idea, or a melody, and we just kind of put them together and have fun. Pretty much the whole thing was really written by me and him, and Gary, and Hughie Thomasson. And we just had fun doing it, we were writing like two songs a day, and they were pretty much coming effortless.

Those are often really the best songs, aren't they?

Johnny : Yeah, any time you have to really sit down and... you know, it just takes away from the fun of it.

How about lyrics, do you all collaborate?

Johnny : Yeah, me and Rickey really do good with that. We just talk it out a lot of times, we just talk it through. It's cool.

I liked the lyric on "Talked Myself Right Into It"...

Johnny : Basically the way the story came about is, I was supposed to go to New York City with my brother, we had to get up at like 5 o'clock in the morning, so I said, OK, I'm not going to do nothing the night before, you know, I'm going to be a very good boy and sit at home. All of a sudden a friend of mine showed up, and I sat there, and I thought "No, no, no, I'm not going to do nothin'", but I talked myself right into doing it and I said, "Ah! It'll be OK" - I got drunk, and the next day I'm sitting on the plane going, "Ooooh! aaaah!" - Oh God, I was hurtin' really bad. And that's how the song came about. It's just really about talking yourself into doing things when you know you shouldn't, you know.

Rickey : My granddaddy, Shorty, who was a Mississippi Delta bluesman - the song from Blackfoot "Train Train", that we had out in the early years, he wrote that song and played the harmonica on it, he was quite a musician. Ronnie and Gary and Alan and myself, when I was with the band in the early 70's, they'd go to my folks' place and hang out on the porch with my dad, because he played the blues. And that's kind of where they got that song "Curtis Lowe", it's actually about my dad Shorty.

So when are you guys coming back to tour?

Rickey : Actually the tour starts over in America June the 10th, and we come over here for about 25 shows in Europe at the very beginning of October. I think our first date is in Finland. We're starting in the Scandinavian countries and going down into Europe. We're playing in Gothenburg on the 6th of October, but we'll probably do one or two more.

Are you taking the whole band on the road, everybody?

Rickey : Sure. Whole entourage! We've got a big show in America. We've probably got about what, 35 people?

Johnny : 35 people that actually work for us, setting up lights, and PA, and stage gear, and everything, we have everything down to a wardrobe person, we're spoiled! Spoiled Americans...

You pretty much started the whole 3 guitar Southern Rock thing, didn't you?

Johnny : Pretty much so.

Rickey : Pretty much, yeah.

Johnny : We're pretty much the *last* band right now to be around with three guitars.

Rickey : We *are* the last band around with three guitars!

How do you split the guitar parts up?

Johnny : (bursts out laughing) You take that one....

Rickey : It's interesting, because in the original band you can pretty much hear that Gary and Allen would kind of interweave their parts together, where their parts fit, they would play the rhythm and do a little bit of the same stuff, except they would change things up a little bit, and then you would have either Ed King or Steve who would play parts within that mesh, and it worked together really great, and we still do that right now. Gary and I will be playing the rhythms, and Hughie will like intertwine parts within the song, it's worked out really well.

Johnny : It's pretty cool to watch it because it's not like people are fighting over, you know, "Hey, it's my lead!" "No, it's your lead!". I think everybody knows what they do, and what they do best.

When it comes to the rhythm, do you concentrate very hard on not playing the same inversions?

Rickey : No, actually we don't - for instance in Saturday Night Special, there's really three different guitar parts in that song when you play it live. And there's different inversions, different ways to play stuff, you know - but it is three different parts. And like on "That Smell", that has not really got a whole lot of guitars going on it at one moment, so what Hughie and I do, we actually take and double all Allen's parts. So basically in handling Allen's stuff Hughie and I actually double the rhythm guitar part in that, so that Gary can do what he normally did. And it works well, it's really strong.

Johnny : Sometimes people lay out, too. You play for a few bars, do a little improvisation.

You leave yourselves the freedom to improvise, them?

Rickey : Yeah, which leaves *him* the freedom to be able to sing over...

Johnny : To sing over, yeah.

Rickey : To sing in the spaces and stuff...

Johnny : And not only that, but you also have Billy Powell, the keyboard player, so you have keyboards to deal with too. and the bass player...

© Paul Guy