Lynyrd Skynyrd: Gimme Back My Bullets
Originally published in Guitar World, Holiday 2009
On God and Guns, a newly resurrected Lynyrd Skynyrd reclaim their right to bear arms—and to rock and roll.
When Lynyrd Skynyrd stopped by the Manhattan offices of Sirius/XM Radio to promote God & Guns, their new album, they performed inside the Fish Bowl. Located smack in the middle of the satellite radio conglomerate’s lobby, the appropriately named room is fully enclosed in soundproof glass, its inhabitants on display from all sides.
Throughout Skynyrd’s six-song performance, the hand-picked fan club members who made up the seated audience responded enthusiastically. More telling was the gathering crowd of Sirius/XM employees, who left their desks one by one to take in the legends in their midst. They filled the hallways around the stage, hung over the balconies from above and lined the back of the room.
By the time Skynyrd began to hammer out the familiar opening riff of “Sweet Home Alabama,” their last song of the performance, the scene felt more like a real concert than a promotional stop by a band getting the word out on its latest—in Skynyrd’s case, 15th—album. Nobody could have predicted such a scene back in 1987, when the band played together for the first time in a decade. That tour marked the 10th anniversary of the plane crash that killed singer Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines and his sister, backup singer Cassie Gaines, and seemingly ended the band in the midst of their prime.
Singer Johnny Van Zant stepped in for his late brother back in 1987, and he’s still at the mic. Much else has changed, however. Keyboardist Billy Powell died from a heart attack in January 2009, in the middle of recording God & Guns. That left guitarist Gary Rossington as the band’s sole original member. Suffice to say, change has been a constant in the band’s lineup. More than 25 members have passed through Lynyrd Skynyrd’s ranks since Rossington, Ronnie Van Zant and guitarist Allen Collins first formed the band in Florida 45 years ago. Guitarist Rickey Medlocke, who has emerged as a spokesman for the group, has been with Skynyrd for 13 years, but he was with them back near their beginning. He was actually the band’s drummer from 1970 to 1971, before he left to form and front the band Blackfoot. He rejoined Skynyrd in 1996 and is now a core member, along with Rossington and Van Zant.
Medlocke shakes his head when talking about the tragedy the band has continued to stare down. Powell’s death affected them deeply, he says, and when longtime bassist Ean Evans succumbed to cancer a few months later, they briefly considered hanging it up. It was two more body blows for a band that has taken more than its share of hits.
“Losing Ean and Billy really hurt,” Medlocke says. “It felt almost like too much. And to be here less than a year later, coming off a very successful tour with Kid Rock, promoting a new recording we feel great about…well it’s almost hard to believe.”
For a band with such a long history, Skynyrd could rest on their laurels. But God & Guns is an ambitious work, and with it Skynyrd have honored their traditions and polished them with a modern sheen courtesy of producer Bob Marlette (Black Sabbath, Saliva, Shinedown). Several tracks, notably the flag-waving anthemic title track and “Gifted Hands,” a tribute to Powell, will fit right in to country radio. Elsewhere, Skynyrd turn up the crunch, taking a hard-edged musical approach that would sound at home next to Nickelback. The first single, “Still Unbroken,” is among those rockers, a defiant statement by some of rock’s ultimate survivors, which has been adopted as a theme song by the WWE.
The wide musical range is also reflected by the album’s guest musicians. Marilyn Manson guitarist and noted chicken picker John5 co-wrote six songs and plays a couple of finger-blistering solos, while Rob Zombie and country Dobro ace Jerry Douglas make appearances as well. But the heart of the music remains the band’s signature three-guitar attack, delivered here by Rossington, Medlocke and Mark “Sparky” Matejka. The guitarists animate the songs, sparking off one another and creating rich textures with pumping rhythms and screaming three-headed leads.