When the airplane carrying members of Lynyrd Skynyrd crashed into a Mississippi forest in 1977, killing three members (lead singer Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines and his sister, backup singer Cassie Gaines), it seemed to mark the end of a band that many considered the best rock group in America.
But 10 years after the crash, fronted by Ronnie Van Zant’s younger brother, Johnny, Skynyrd re-formed. Though the new lineup has never approached the creative peak of the original band, this version of Skynyrd has since been a staple of the amphitheater circuit for nearly 30 years. Skynyrd was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2006, certifying the band’s legacy.
Wednesday night, a tribute to Lynyrd Skynyrd, “One More for the Fans,” will take place at the Fox Theatre. The star-studded show will not only honor the music of Skynyrd, but also honor Skynyrd’s contribution in helping save the Fox from demolition. In 1976, during a three-night run at the Fox that helped raise money to renovate the historic theater, Skynyrd recorded its landmark live album, One More from the Road. The album captured Skynyrd at the peak of the band’s power, and remains a testament to the band’s musicianship and underrated songwriting.
ArtsATL sat down with Johnny Van Zant to discuss the most valuable lessons he learned from his older brother, what it’s like singing Ronnie’s music, and what this tribute means to him and Lynyrd Skynyrd.
ArtsATL: Lynyrd Skynyrd has a long-standing history with Atlanta and the fabulous Fox Theatre. What will it mean to you Wednesday night when such music icons as Gregg Allman, Charlie Daniels, Peter Frampton, Alabama — just to name a few — converge on the stage to honor the band?
Johnny Van Zant: For me, it’s really about them honoring my brother, Ronnie, and [members] Allen [Collins], Gary [Rossington], Steve and Cassie Gaines, Billy Powell, Ed King, Leon Wilkeson, Bob Burns, Artimus [Pyle] — all the ones who started this band so long ago. I’ve just been like a receiver who’s been running this ball for almost 30 years now.
I can remember when they did One More from the Road at the Fox. Hell, I was still a teenager. I remember Ronnie saying, “Hey, we’re playing the Fox; we’re helping raise money to save the Fox.” And, of course, One More from the Road came out of that. It was an incredible record that did very well for Skynyrd. So to return to the Fox now, with all these amazing artists coming in to show their love and respect for all the people who started Lynyrd Skynyrd and to recognize what this band is all about, is a great honor.
You know, Charlie Daniels and my brother, Ronnie, were very close friends. Charlie and my brother, Donnie, are going sing a song together and that is going to be real special to me. I know there are going to be so many great moments with all these artists present. It’s going to be a good time for all. Personally, I can’t thank everybody enough. I guess I’m going to have to go to each and every one of their houses and take out the trash and cut their grass or something. I just don’t know how you can really thank them. But this is one to scratch off the bucket list, for sure [chuckles].
ArtsATL: This tribute is being called “One More for the Fans.” Give me a few words that pop into your head to best describe the Skynyrd fan.
JVZ: Hard-working, hard-playing, God-fearing, and let’s go ahead and cap it off with, music lovers. I think that sums it all up.
ArtsATL: Growing up, how were you influenced musically?
JVZ: We didn’t have 400 channels — there were more like four channels. We had The Ed Sullivan Show, The Grand Ole Opry, Animal Kingdom, and, I think the other one was Walt Disney. So, I got the best of it watching The Grand Ole Opry with my parents and brothers and, then, also seeing the Beatles, Elvis and Little Richard on Ed Sullivan. Of course, my greatest influences came from having both Ronnie and Donnie as my older brothers. No doubt, I got real lucky with that.
ArtsATL: Your brother, Ronnie, used to publicly say that of the three Van Zant brothers, you had the best voice. Do you remember him saying that and, if so, have you any thoughts on that compliment?
JVZ: Well, he was deaf (chuckles). But, yeah, he said that a few times. Ronnie was trying to encourage me as much as possible. That’s what he did. He was always “the encourager.” And, of course, my brother Donnie has always just been a freakin’ phenomenal singer. I’m just glad to be in the game with them and not on the bench.
ArtsATL: So, you feel Ronnie’s words affected your musical growth?
JVZ: They definitely encouraged me — especially with regard to growing as a singer. I started out playing the drums and was just real happy being in the back there, playing the drums. But, I’ve been out front singing for a long, long time now. So, his words absolutely have helped me do that.
ArtsATL: What was the best lesson your big brother, Ronnie, taught you when you were a little boy growing up?
JVZ: Probably how to punch somebody in the face . . . in case you had to use it [chuckles].
ArtsATL: And, musically?
JVZ: Musically, Ronnie taught me how to get my chops. I remember I had gotten this little gig paying me 100 bucks and I told him, “I’m not gonna do that for just $100.” And he jumped all over my ass for that. He said, “Anytime you can play out like that, play, play, play.” In other words, he was trying to tell me playing is how you get your chops. He taught me to never miss an opportunity to play and get better. Another important thing he was always telling me was, “Play for five people just the same way you would five thousand or ten thousand or twenty thousand.” And that was hard for me ’cause I was of the mind-set that, “the more, the better.” But, it’s a real art form to be able to play to a small room, too. Over the years I’ve learned Ronnie was right about that being something to strive for.
ArtsATL: If you and Ronnie could sing just one song from the universe, whose song would Ronnie choose to sing with you?
JVZ: He’d probably throw a Haggard song on me. Or a Free/Bad Company song.
ArtsATL: And whose song would you choose to sing with him?
JVZ: Probably throw out a Haggard song [chuckles]. But, you know, really, we’d probably both want to do a Skynyrd song if we just had one song to do.
ArtsATL: Which one?
JVZ: Probably “Simple Man.” And, you know, it’s funny you ask that question ’cause you’re gonna see something like that happen at this show by way of technology. They have us doing “Travelin’ Man” together.
ArtsATL: Would you both choose “Simple Man” because of lessons from your mom?
JVZ: Well, while that one actually came down from Gary, I will tell you, yes, our lessons from our mama meant a lot. When our mama spoke, we sure jumped!
ArtsATL: Did you get a lot of support and encouragement from your family over the decision to join Skynyrd in 1987?
JVZ: Oh, definitely. I was more encouraged by them than anyone. They believed in me doing it far more than I did myself.
ArtsATL: How do you manage to gracefully respect the shadow — holding one foot there, while also allowing your other foot to dance forward towards your own spotlight?
JVZ: By just being myself. I’ve never tried to be Ronnie. There was only one Ronnie. I have to be myself. Respecting that is what I try real hard to do.
ArtsATL: What would you say is the main ingredient Lynyrd Skynyrd possesses that causes their fans to come back for second helpings, decade after decade?
JVZ: The main ingredient is the truth. Skynyrd songs are about the truth. Skynyrd sings about real common things people can relate to — whether they be 10 or 60, or more.