In 2009, Lynyrd Skynyrd released "God & Guns". It was their 12th studio album - and almost their last. The band had suffered through the losses of several members including Hughie Thomasson, Ean Evans, Leon Wilkeson and Billy Powell. Rickey Medlocke, Johnny Van Zant and Gary Rossington talked a lot about finally hanging it up and letting the Skynyrd legend gently slip into history. But they pushed forward-comforted and buffeted by the good wishes of longtime fans - and finally completed and released the album. "God & Guns" charted at number 18 in Billboard and signaled the highest-charting record they'd made since 1977.
Now three years after "God & Guns" Skynyrd have returned with "Last of a Dyin' Breed". Producer Bob Marlette has returned - he worked on the previous album - to run the band through their paces. Guitarist Rickey Medlocke says there is a real organic feel to the music and a return to the way the band used to record during their formative years, which is putting everyone in the studio at the same time and seeing what happens. Medlocke talks about the new record and what the band has been through in recent years.
UG: Blackfoot was originally called Fresh Garbage?
Rickey Medlocke: Yeah, that's correct. Back in '69, myself along with Charlie Hargrett, Greg T. Walker and a keyboard player formed a band and we were doing actually quite a few Spirit songs. We were doing "I Got a Line On You" and "Fresh Garbage" and quite a few of 'em. What we decided to do was when we were picking names, we just decided to call the band appropriately "Fresh Garbage". Actually I guess it was pretty cool at the time. I'm not really sure I'd do that nowadays but it sounds even better today than it did yesterday.
Were you a Spirit fan?
Right. Well you know later on in the years down the road I actually got to meet Randy California. Had a pretty comical moment with him when I told him that one of the rock and roll bands I'd played in was actually named after one of their tunes. He got a pretty good kick out of that you know.
Do you think you applied that two-guitar approach you were using with Blackfoot guitarist Charlie Hargrett to Lynyrd Skynyrd when you joined them?
Well first of all when I came back into Lynyrd Skynyrd, I remained playing on the road a lot every year with the Blackfoot band that I had with other members and stuff. We were doing anywhere from 150 to 200 shows a year. So my chops actually remained up. Second of all man I've always got a guitar with me. I like sitting down and just playing all the time.
Did you see Blackfoot as a Southern rock band?
I think we'd been labeled that and we'd gotten into that clone. But I think the band was really a hard rock group and very heavy tending toward maybe heavy metal. I think the band was a hard rock group that still had that bluesy-type feel to us that still lies underneath. But we just happen to be four guys that came out of the South and we just got labeled as a Southern boogie band or a Southern rock group or whatever. But I think we were a rock group that happened to come from Jacksonville, Florida.
Do you think you brought back more of the rock sound to the band when you joined?
The deal was when I came back to Skynyrd one of the big things was that when Gary [Rossington] came to see me he was saying to me, "I really want to put the rock back into the band" because the band had taken a little bit of a left turn into country music and kind of messing with country at the time. It really wasn't going anywhere. They'd kind of gotten turned down by Nashville, which is aptly so because you've got a classic rock band that's always been known as a rock band.
Skynyrd was kind of caught between the rock and country worlds.
Country music was not gonna be open to playing a classic rock band on radio. So the deal about it was that Gary said, "I really want to put the rock band into the group." And I said, "Well I sure am not a country player and if that's what you want I'll bring it with me." Kind of ironically enough Allen Collins and I had kind of the same style. A very similar style, which I came into Lynyrd Skynyrd and molded myself to.
You saw your part in Lynyrd Skynyrd as replacing the guitar hole left by Allen Collins?
Ironically we played the same kind of guitar and the same kind of amplification and the whole bit. So it was kind of like Gary was kinda getting his Allen Collins back in the name of Rickey Medlocke. You know what I mean? In the form of Rickey. So for me I came back in and I already knew the songs 'cause I'd lived with 'em my whole life and loved 'em. For me it was easy to come back in and mold myself into the band. I told Gary at the time, "Look, I'll come back in this band and my thing is to play all of Allen's parts just like he did 'em and as close as I can to em." That's what I've done ever since I came back into the group.
But you've brought your own signature as well.
Over the years and stuff I've kind of made the parts, the leads and stuff, kind of my own. Not really changing 'em all that much but just adding a few little things here and there to bring it along in the style. In doing that it's all worked out really well. Gary and Johnny [Van Zant] love it and it works for them and as it turns out now almost 17 years later I guess I was the right choice.
"I write with a lot of dropped tuning. I love doing that kind of stuff and it works out great."
It was about 15 years ago that you recorded your first album with the band. What was that like recording the Twenty record?
The deal is we had sort forth on getting songs together and writing songs with Gary, Johnny, Hughie [Thomasson] and myself. We went back to Muscle Shoals and recorded at Muscle Shoals; the old studio had changed and this was the newer Muscle Shoals Sound. We went back and actually it was a learning process. I had been back in the band since March of '96 and so we came back together and wrote songs together that fall. We had a great time at doing it and I thought the songs were accordingly really good. As a matter of fact my idea was I remember as I was going home on a flight, "We really need to come with something that's gonna kinda grab the attention of everybody."
How did you think you could do that?
My idea was to get films and recordings of Ronnie singing "Travelin' Man." I went to Johnny and Gary and said, "Hey, the technology is there today to be able to put Johnny and Ronnie and let them sing this song together. Do a duet." So through technology we were able to get the recording and bake the tapes and be able to bring it back and to be able to let those guys sing together. And it worked out great, man. It worked out really good.
The Twenty album was also Hughie Thomasson's first album with Lynyrd Skynyrd. What was that like playing in the studio with Hughie?
I had actually never played onstage with Hughie so the experience of learning about him and being able to share songwriting with him and recording was a great experience. Hughie was just deep down a really great guy and had a great heart and was a great musician. I mean the guy was a serious player. You know what I mean? He and I used to have a lot of fun 'cause when it got to the duel leads and stuff and it was always fun to share that with him. In "Free Bird" when it goes into the duel leads, Hughie and I did that and it was just great. Hughie was just a class act, man. He really was. Gone way too soon [Thomasson passed away in 2007] and nowadays we still miss him.
Jumping forward a few album to the God & Guns album in 2009, that was the highest charting record the band had made since 1977. What was so special about that album?
I'll be honest with you - we had started out recording and Billy Powell and Ean Evans were still alive. Ean was our bass player and had come in when Leon Wilkeson had passed away. Ean had become such a part of us as a bandmember and like a brother. When Billy passed, he had already started the God & Guns record with us. Right in midstream, I remember we played New Years's Eve four years ago and Ean had not been doing well for two years and I was really afraid for him. He's a very stubborn guy and didn't go to the doctor and so forth and so on. So he came in on that New Year's Eve night and he just barely did make it through a show. We forcibly made him in Norfolk, Virginia to go to the hospital and the emergency room. They put him in and they ran all kinds of tests and found out he had stage IV cancer [Evans passed away in March 2000].
Then Billy Powell passed away right before Ean Evans.
We lost Billy towards the middle of January 2009. Then all of a sudden we knew we were gonna lose Ean, man, and we were in that stage right there, that mode of, "My God, we're in the middle of a record." Right before that I remember Johnny, Gary and I had gotten on the phone and were very adamantly questioning whether we should really continue or not.
Lynyrd Skynyrd was going to call it a day after the deaths of Billy and Ean?
We were pretty well of the opinion that it had come down to it to where, "You know what? We've lost so many guys and maybe we should think about this - maybe we should call it a day." Having said that three days later all three of us got back on the phone again. Johnny had seen a quote on the Skynyrd website talking about Billy and how it was a sad deal and "We know you guys are going through it blah blah blah." But this fan on there said, "With this happening we hope you guys continue to keep the music going. We hope this is not the end of the Skynyrd Nation."
That must have felt good to read that.
It was really at heart so we decided, "Hey, you know what we'll do? The guys would have wanted us to get this record out and continue. Let's just continue this and let's keep it going and let's finish this record." Well we went back into the studio and started recording again.
How incredibly difficult was that to do?
It was a tough one, man. We'd just lost Billy and Ean was in cancer treatment in Nashville across town from us and unable to be on the record with us. It was kind of a weird deal. It was hard. It really brought us as a unit - Johnny, Gary and I - together and tighter. I don't know, man.
You had to find replacements for Billy Powell and Ean Evans?
We found the guys that took their places and it was almost like Billy dropped Peter Keys in our lap in a way. It was weird. Then we had Robert Kearns who worked with us for quite a while up until this year and then he dropped out to go play with Sheryl Crow.
Robert Kearns was replaced by Johnny Colt.
The deal is we have a great bass player now who was the original member of the Black Crowes, Johnny Colt. He played in "Train" and "Rock Star Supernova" and all that stuff. He's really come in and done a great job and we're back kicking butt.
"I like sitting down and just playing all the time."
You were able to survive all those calamities with the "God & Guns" record and it came on the Billboard charts at number 18.
We finished that "God & Guns" record and we put it out and we were actually surprised. We actually got surprised that all of a sudden it was received so well. Over in Europe, man, 99 percent of the reviews were just all very positive and very forthcoming in saying, "Great record." When it hit the charts and debuted when it did I was like, "Wow, that's pretty amazing."
Which brings us back to our original question: What made "God & Guns" so special?
I guess the reason why I would pretty well think is that it had that feeling about it as being from the heart and really a down to earth kind of thing for Lynyrd Skynyrd. Do you know what I mean?
That leads up to the new album "Last of a Dyin' Breed". What has the response been to this record so far?
Already we're getting great reviews from a lot of people. We went back to basics with [producer] Bob Marlette and we worked the songs up as a band and recorded 'em as a band and all in the studio at one time. It was cool, man. It's bad to the bone and I'm looking for great things out of it.
Is it a true return to the early Lynyrd Skynyrd days of recording when everybody was in the studio at the same time?
I think so. We purposely said, "Hey, you know what we'd like to do this time? Let's go back in and be old school about it." So that's what we did. We went back in the studio and was old school about it, man, and we had a blast. You can hear how much fun we're having and just enjoying ourselves. I do believe it is kind of a throwback to the original band and it's fun, man.
The title track is a great example of how Skynyrd layers slide, rhythm guitar, organ and piano. Have you learned over the years how to fit all these parts together?
Oh yeah. You know what we do, man? We do kind of like the old band did. Everybody has a style that fits a certain song and a certain part in the song. Like my style might not fit the lead and maybe Gary's style does or maybe Mark's [Matejka] goes. Actually it goes song by song and that's how we formulate the stuff and pick the parts.
What's happening on "Homegrown"?
In the solo section Gary and Mark trade back and forth and then at the very outset of it that's all me. The dropped tuning and everything that's all me. Because that's one of my specialties that I like to do; I'll do a lot of dropped tunings and I write with a lot of dropped tuning. I love doing that kind of stuff and it works out great.
"Ready to Fly" was a piano ballad with synth strings.
The ballad stuff I'm in on the writing with it lyrically and musically and so forth and so on. What's cool is the string section actually is Bob Marlette's wife. She's the one who writes, arranges and records it all because she's a violin and viola player and she plays all that stuff.
Is there a fine line between using just enough or too many strings on a Lynyrd Skynyrd album?
We don't try to go overboard with the string stuff. We try to be real careful not to soften things too much. But it's beautiful stuff and it comes alive in certain times when you hear that kind of thing.
There are the classic Skynyrd harmony guitars in "Ready to Fly". Were you listening to bands like Wishbone Ash and Humble Pie back in the day doing the harmony guitar thing?
Oh yeah. It was a Skynyrd signature and a Blackfoot signature of doing duel leads. When we went back in to do this record we decided, "Hey, let's make the effort to do a bunch of duel leads on this thing, man. And make it sound really authentic." I think it does; I think it came together really great and it sounds like we're together on it and playin' it. Personally for me that was one of the things that I really enjoyed creating was those duel leads.
"Mississippi Blood" has banjo and Dobro and then the big electric guitars come in. That's the same arrangement you used when Blackfoot covered "Sittin' On Top Of The World" back on the "After The Reign" album.
Surely. We're all in on making decisions like that. We wrote that song with a guy named Jaren Johnston. He came in with an idea and we listened to what he had and changed it from "Mississippi Mud" to "Mississippi Blood." But the banjo thing really was an idea collectively I think between all of us. So Mark, our other guitar player, had a banjo at home and he brought it in and was able to formulate that on there. Then the incredible Jerry Douglas played on it. He's an incredible lap steel and Dobro player who played on "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" He plays with Union Station and all them guys. I mean he's just phenomenal so he's the guy we brought in to do that because he's such a phenomenal expert at doing that kind of stuff. We love him and we had him on the last record and we just had to bring him in for this one.
"We have a great bass player now... He's really come in and done a great job and we're back kicking butt."
Are you singing on "Mississippi Blood"?
The deal about it is Johnny and I share the vocals in that. That's me and him together. I think he comes in singing the first line and then I sing the second line and then he's on the third line and then we do the harmonies together.
"Good Teacher" has that heavy wah-wah riff.
That's me. As you can see I used to listen to Hendrix an awful lot. When the song was brought into us, Johnny brought it in, and right when I heard it I went, "Whoa, man. This kind of reminds me of a 'Crosstown Traffic' kind of tune." And all of a sudden I told Bob Marlette, "Dude, I'm doing the wah-wah pedal on this thing." He says, "Yeah, break it out and let's hear what it sounds like." Well, automatically, man, I muted the strings and took a rhythm to it and he was like, "Wow, this thing is like Hendrix." And I said, "Yup, that's exactly what I felt." We're doing it live as a matter of fact right now onstage.
Going back to the Blackfoot songs you were doing Hendrix-type stuff on songs like "Tupelo Honey" from the After the Reign album.
My heroes growing up when I got into playing more electric stuff were of course, I was a big George Harrison fan and a big George Harrison nut. Then from there of course it went to Hendrix and Clapton and Jeff Beck. I'm still just a huge fanatic for Jeff Beck and his work. I love what he does and he's just a rare bird.
He still plays so incredibly.
Oh my God, man. He's just a rare bird in today's music world. So I draw on those kinds of things when I'm formulating stuff.
What is your take on more modern players like Steve Vai and Joe Satriani?
Well you know what? Those guys are really gifted no doubt about it. I mean they've got a gift clearly kind of far beyond what a lot of people would have today. You know what I mean? I gotta give it to one person, man - I gotta give it to Eddie Van Halen, man, for really opening the doors for a lot of guitar players. I remember when Eddie came out everybody wanted to be like Eddie Van Halen. That's kind of an interesting deal to me although I think Steve Vai is just incredible. Wow, what can you say? He's a very gifted and incredible guitarist and so is Joe Satriani.
Who are other guitar players you've listened to?
I think Steve Morse is an incredible guitar player. One of my personal friends right now, he used to open for Blackfoot when he was like 16 years old. I just went and jammed with him when he was in Fort. Myers, Florida where I live is Joe Bonamassa. Joe has been a friend of mine for many years. The guy went from being this really good blues/rock player to being like a virtuoso now. To me Joe Bonamassa can stand with anybody. I mean I think he can literally stand with Vai and Satriani and all these guys. He's just phenomenal. I'm proud to call him my friend; he's a great guy. But I like a lot of the modern guitar players nowadays. Such as what you called out and Joe and all that stuff I still listen to.
"We finished that "God & Guns" record and we put it out and we actually got surprised that all of a sudden it was received so well."
Talking about modern guitar players, John 5 plays on "Last Of A Dyin' Breed".
John, man, is another freak. The first time we met him he came in lookin' like John looks and Gary looked up and said, "Wow, man, you're a freak." And John 5 looked back at us and said, "You guys are freaks too." We just got a big laugh out of it and we got along. We asked him what his background was and what was really funny when we were writing together on the "God & Guns" record, he said, "Well I'm from the Midwest and my parents raised me on Hee Haw. I watched Hee Haw in our living room." And man, he took out his Telecaster and the guy could play like Roy Clark or better. He's such a well-rounded player and plays such variations. He's just a great guitar player. Period. I love John, man. He's been a big help to us writing stuff and doing stuff. He's just a great friend and plus he's a phenomenal guitar player.
You talked earlier about bring some of your own personality to the Skynyrd classics. Do you ever think about when some of those songs were originally created back in the day?
If you dig back in your history, I was in the early version of Lynyrd Skynyrd; I was a drummer.
The deal is I was one of the original drummers and when I came into the band a lot of that stuff was just formulating. I was there and can remember the day "Simple Man" was written. I mean I was there for a lot of that stuff and actually on "Skynyrd's First and... Last" record or "Skynyrd's First: The Complete Muscle Shoals Album" [the former album was re-released as the latter with additional tracks], all them old songs is on those records. I mean I was there and played "Free Bird" before it was actually recorded for the first record. I'm playing drums.
How did you originally join the band as a drummer?
Well I knew how to play drums and I was really unhappy in Blackfoot up in New Jersey and just didn't really want to continue going in the direction the band was going in. Because they had a female manager that one of the guys was involved with and it just was kind of going nowhere. I called Allen Collins and asked him did they need a roadie or someone to set up equipment. He said, "You need to call Ronnie." I called Ronnie and asked him the same thing and he said, "Do you still play drums?" And I said, "Yeah" because I played drums in "Fresh Garbage". I said, "Yeah, I can still play drums." I sold off some equipment and they sent me a plane ticket. The night I got into Jacksonville we were there sittin' in rehearsal and working up material that would later on become all those old sessions.
Can you tell if any of the songs you've done with Skynyrd since joining the band might become modern day classics in the same way "Free Bird" and "Sweet Home Alabama" are?
I think what happens with a classic rock and historical rock band like Lynyrd Skynyrd, I mean we are appropriately so like the album is named: "Last of a Dyin' Breed". You've got the Stones, AC/DC, Aerosmith and ZZ Top and you're always gonna be judged by your history. Can I tell you if we've got any that's gonna turn out to be classics like those? I don't know; I mean that's all up to the fans. Radio is not what radio used to be and the record industry is not what the record industry used to be back then. There's a lot of factors that go into it. So when you're talking about all-time classic tunes, what I want to be judged on is how I did the record; the quality of songs that I wrote; and the quality of the performance that I had. So that's where I'm at. You know what I mean?
You just brought up ZZ Topyou actually toured with them in 2011?
Off and on we've done dates with ZZ Top ever since '99 or 2000. And we're getting ready to do six shows with 'em here in the summer. Billy Gibbons and Dusty are very good friends of ours. And you know what? We have a great time with 'em when we get together.
Do you still derive the same joy from being in Lynyrd Skynyrd as you did back in the day?
Oh yeah. At the end of the day, man, when it's really all said and done, I've had a great life. Rock and roll has been very good to me. I've done things and had experiences that growing up as a kid I never dreamed I'd have. I started off in my life as a little old garage band and the next thing you know here it is. It's wonderful and I feel very blessed and fortunate that I'm able to sit here and talk about it because it has been great.
Interview by Steven Rosen
"We don't try to go overboard with the string stuff. We try to be real careful not to soften things too much."