Lynyrd Skynyrd still going strong, playing rock 'n' roll staples

Nick Rogers

Johnny Van Zant committed only to six short weeks of singing in his late brother Ronnie’s stead for a 1987 Lynyrd Skynyrd reunion tour. The band did its shows, earned its cheers and went home.

“Then the fans were, like, ‘Why?’ ” Van Zant recalls. “ ‘Why are y’all doing this? You teased us,’ you know? And I’ll be honest with you: It kind of felt like a family. Skynyrd’s always been family, whether they were arguing or whatever. It was kind of like the family fell apart again, like from the plane crash.”

Van Zant is referring to one of rock ’n’ roll’s most resonant tragedies — an October 1977 crash that killed Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist-vocalist Steve Gaines, backup vocalist Cassie Gaines (Steve’s sister), the band’s assistant road manager and the chartered plane’s pilot and co-pilot.

Disbanding afterward, it took 10 years for the group to reunite, and their fans weren’t going to let them go away again any time soon.

“So we thought, ‘You know what? Why don’t we get together and write some songs and see what happens?’ ” says Van Zant, 49. “We saw some more shows come up, and it’s been 21 years since then.

“We wouldn’t be here without the fans, and it’s a pretty amazing thing to look out and see how many different generations are out there. It’s a pretty mind-blowing thing. Maybe when I’m 80 years old, God willing that I live that long, and I’m sitting on the front porch smoking a big cigar, I’ll wonder if it really happened.”

It’s an overdue Springfield stop for Skynyrd. In 2005, the band was to headline the Illinois State Fair Grandstand for a concert that sold almost 10,000 tickets. The gig got canceled after Van Zant had to have a polyp removed from his vocal cord.

Skynyrd staples snuck their way into the set of Johnny and brother Donnie’s country-rock outfit (called Van Zant) in 2006 at Taylorville’s Nashville North USA. But Sunday night will be the real deal, with original band members Gary Rossington (guitar) and Billy Powell (keyboards) on stage.

The crowd will hear all the Skynyrd standards: “Tuesday’s Gone,” “Gimme Three Steps,” “Simple Man,” “Sweet Home Alabama,” “What’s Your Name?,” “Saturday Night Special” and, of course, “Free Bird.”

“I think it gets down to great music and lyrics people can relate to, no matter what generation it is,” Van Zant says of Skynyrd’s staying power. “A song (about drugs and alcohol) like ‘That Smell’ is timeless. It’s kind of a sad thing, but different generations get into different stuff. ‘Free Bird,’ people relate to it as graduating and also people passing on. People ask me if I get tired of ‘Free Bird.’ The answer is no. How many bands would love to have a ‘Free Bird’ in their setlist?

“ ‘Sweet Home Alabama,’ I guess, is just the feel of it. God gave my brother a special gift to touch people with his words, and he sure used it while he was here.”

Taking the mentality of not fixing what’s not broken, the new Skynyrd keeps the hits and deeper album cuts pretty straightforward in the live show.

“We’re a feed-off-the-audience act,” Van Zant says. “If the audience is rocking and wants to have a good time, we’ll all have a good time. If they want to sit on their hands, well, we’ll still have a good time.”

Skynyrd’s roots lie in Jacksonville, Fla., circa 1964 when the band was known as My Backyard. Six years later, the band changed its name in mocking tribute to a gym teacher who’d enforced policies against long hair, and embarked on a run of performances throughout the south.

After being signed to MCA by Blood, Sweat and Tears’ Al Kooper, Skynyrd’s debut, “(pronounced 'leh-'nérd 'skin-'nérd)” sold 2 million copies and earned the band a spot opening for the Who.

Prior to joining the reconstituted Skynyrd, Van Zant had his own band, as well as a series of solo albums. A virtual soundalike to brother Ronnie, Van Zant now is the band’s principal songwriter, and has led the band to record seven new studio albums since 1991. Skynyrd is set to begin recording its latest album in the next couple of weeks as “free agents.”

“We’re home free, and, as far as sales and stuff, why get 10 percent when you can have 90 percent?” Van Zant says with a gravelly laugh, discussing the departure from the Sanctuary label.

Among the tracks for the new album might be “Cottonmouth Country,” an unreleased, unfinished track from “Street Survivors” sessions. Van Zant says it wouldn’t be re-recorded, only completed.

“Ronnie’s on there singing, which is, of course, a cool thing, and it has Steve Gaines playing lead on it,” Van Zant says. “I can’t really explain it to you. It has a real funky kind of vibe and Ronnie was singing his butt off on it. I don’t really know why they held up on it.”

Work on the new album will go into full swing once Skynyrd has finished a trio of tours this spring and summer: its own headlining endeavors; a “Rowdy Frynds” double bill with Hank Williams Jr.; and an appearance with Kid Rock on May 15 at Madison Square Garden.

The Garden date is bittersweet for Van Zant, as Ronnie was to lead the band there in November 1977 — a month after the plane crash.

“The band has never played there,” Van Zant says. “That was always Ronnie’s big dream, and to fulfill that has always been an important dream for me, too. Playing show after show, you can get lost in the years and maybe not cherish it as much as you should have. These days, and I can speak for all the band members, we really enjoy going out every night and doing it to it.”

Nick Rogers can be reached at (217) 747-9587. Read his blog, Unpainted Huffhines, at

Lynyrd Skynyrd with James Otto

7 p.m. Sunday (April 20)

Prairie Capital Convention Center, 1 Convention Center Plaza, Springfield, Ill.

Tickets $49, $39 and $34; available at the center box office or through Ticketmaster — by phone at 544-9400, (800) 827-8927 and (800) 359-2525 for TTY orders, online at and at all physical outlets.