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.
As the band’s last connection to its origins, Rossington takes his role as keeper of the Skynyrd flame seriously. Still, he laughs when Lynyrd Skynyrd’s tortured history is compared to an old philosophy question: If you replace every part of a car over the course of decades, is it still the same car?
“Well, we’re definitely still Skynyrd,” he says. “I wouldn’t ever let anyone in the band that did not have absolute respect and understanding for the history, the original members and everything we’ve done. We want to be the real deal and no bullshit about it, because that’s what this legacy is all about. It’s all on the up and up.”
GUITAR WORLD On God & Guns, it sounds like you set out to do something decidedly different. The music seems like an extension of the group’s past efforts rather than a retread of familiar songs.
GARY ROSSINGTON Oh yeah! We wanted to show people that we still had some new, different, exciting stuff left in us. We love to play our classics and always will play them, but we also need to keep things fresh. We took a long time to write this album. Johnny, Rickey and myself worked on songs and went to Nashville and got a few more writers involved, and we tried really hard to write some good stuff that would stand up to our classics but also stand apart from them.
RICKEY MEDLOCKE We really wanted to bring something new to the table. We just wrote the best songs we possibly could and did the best recording of them. We didn’t cut any corners in terms of time or money.
My old man Shorty was a huge figure in my musical life. He wrote [Blackfoot’s] “Train, Train” and Ronnie wrote “The Ballad of Curtis Lowe” [from Lynyrd Skynyrd’s 1974 album, Second Helping] with him in mind. The old guy once told me, “If you ever want to make something happen and be noticed, do something different.” And that’s basically the advice we followed here, and it started with getting a really different kind of producer, Bob Marlette, who brought a lot to the table.
GW “Still Unbroken” could be your theme song. How much does it describe Skynyrd’s present attitude toward life and music?
ROSSINGTON Pretty much totally. That’s just a true story about what’s happening to us. After a while you just feel like you can withstand anything. You can’t make this stuff up.
I know a lot of people fear getting older, but in a way it’s great. You lose fear and don’t really care about how others see you. And after you get older and have been around long enough, people show a little respect whether they like your music or not. It’s hard for anybody in life to keep going through tragedy, but we all lose loved ones. Tragedies happen to everyone, and they happened to us in the public eye. People who have been following us have seen the band go through a lot and they relate to that. When people see you go through so much, they get closer to you. We’ve been through a lot and we’re still standing. Still unbroken.
MEDLOCKE The song reflects everything we’ve been through, and we almost named the album after it, but we wanted to move past our past. We still get questions about the plane crash, but the band has moved so far beyond that.
We actually began writing “Still Unbroken” right after Leon [Wilkeson, original bassist] passed in 2001. We worked on it with Hughie [Thomasson, who left Skynyrd in 2005 to reunite the Outlaws and passed away two years later] but never finished it. Then, as we were getting ready to start writing sessions for this recording, Gary listened through a bunch of cassettes of old songs to see if there was anything worth going back to, and he came across this song. We could hear Hughie talking and it was really moving in ways that are hard to describe. It’s what really got us going on this album. It all started there.
GW It also has a very thick, textured guitar sound.
MEDLOCKE That’s because it’s in a drop tuning, which I write in often. In this case, we are detuned half a step, and then the low E is down another step. I often use dropped D or C—I even go all the way down to A. What can be really cool is drop a guitar down there and have the rest of the band continue in standard tuning. It gives it a lot of power and texture.
GW Gary, Gregg Allman told me that when the Allmans were doing their stand at the Beacon Theatre here in New York last March, one night he looked down the line of guitarists and thought, Damn, I’m the only one left. How often do you feel like that?
ROSSINGTON Pretty regularly, but I just thank God I’m still here and that people still come to hear us and like the music. When Ronnie, Allen [Collins] and I started out this band, we just had a dream to share our music, to get in a really big band and make the world listen. We did it, and I’m just carrying that on.
GW Do you feel an obligation to the fans and even to history to keep Skynyrd going, rather than just saying, “Screw this. I’m in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Now I’m hanging it up and going fishing”?
ROSSINGTON Well, yeah. That’s what I’m doing it for—to keep the music going, and let people hear our music and the songs. I feel like we have a responsibility to them and to the music itself. And there’s a new generation of Skynyrd fans, too and we’re playing for them, as well.
I have felt like hanging it up sometimes, because it’s hard out on the road. But we don’t tour as much as we used to, and I always get home after a while. We have two little baby grandkids now that take up all our time when we’re off, so for me it’s the best of both worlds. I don’t have any reason to quit. Where Skynyrd is coming from is bigger than any of us. We just keep going.
MEDLOCKE In the middle of recording this album, we lost our bassist, Ean Evans, and Billy Powell, one of our best friends, a brother, one of the original guys who had been with us all those years. We were at a point where we didn’t know what we wanted to do. We thought that maybe we should call it a day. But you’ve got an obligation to the fans, the people who have been there all those years. And we are three generations deep into fans, just like we sing on [the God & Guns track] “Skynyrd Nation,” and we owe it to them, to give them something. We decided to finish the record and go forward.
GW Bob Marlette gave you guys a very modern sound. Did you have to adapt the way you played or recorded from what you have done all these years?
ROSSINGTON Yes and no. We did it all digitally and used Pro Tools, but when it came time to recording guitars and basic tracks, we did it like we always have. Those are all real tube amps. We took our time, tried a million different amp-and-guitar combinations, found the sounds we wanted and played our parts.
MEDLOCKE I really took my time to get a great sound, and Bob helped me come up with a cool approach to my tone. I’ve got a few great old Marshalls that I use live: ’71 and ’72 heads and an old combo with 2x12s. When I did the heavy tracks with drop tunings, I used both heads into different cabinets and then ran into the Marshall combo with a totally clean sound. I got different tones on all three, and they were mixed together for one huge sound. I tracked using either my new Floyd Rose–equipped, hollowed-out center Les Pauls, which the Gibson Custom Shop has made me, or my old Black Beauty. Once I got a solid rhythm track, I would come back and use an old Tele that has a real pristine ping on the top end and run it through the same amp setup and run another rhythm track. Bob mixed it all together to form the basic tracks for most songs, and it just sounded huge.
GW Could any other band have a range of guests on an album that stretches from country Dobro master Jerry Douglas to metalhead Rob Zombie?
ROSSINGTON [laughs] I don’t know. That’s two pretty wild bookends. Musicians respect each other if they think one another are good. We didn’t all get in the same room and become buddies, but everybody was on the same page. Jerry is a friend of ours and is so great. He’s the best Dobro player there is. I called him up and asked him to come in, and he laid down his tracks in one or two takes, and we all watched him in awe. He played Dobro on “God & Guns” and electric slide on “Unwrite This Song.” Rob came in because he was a friend of Doug Marlette and John5, and he did some really cool vocal tracks on the song “Floyd.”
GW John5 cowrote six of the songs and plays two solos. As Marilyn Manson’s guitarist, he seems like a wild choice for Skynyrd, but makes perfect sense to anyone who has heard his chicken-picking solo music. How did you guys hook up?
MEDLOCKE Through Bob Marlette. Johnny, Gary and myself were writing and John came by. He walked in wearing the whole stage getup—spiked hair, big boots, black fingernails, no eyebrows—and we kind of stared at him. The first thing we asked was, “What’s your background?” And he goes, “My parents raised me on Hee Haw.” Then he took out his Telecaster and started playing Roy Clark licks better than Roy Clark. And he was in! This guy is an unbelievable guitar player who can play everything, from country to jazz to the heaviest rock. We just enjoyed having John with us so much.
ROSSINGTON The first time we laid eyes on him was pretty wild, but then we realized how great he was, got to be friends and wrote a few songs. He’s coming from a different place, but we loved working together.
I relate to him through music, and that’s what it’s about. I don’t talk politics with people I meet or ask them the way they feel about things. The music and the band experiences are enough to talk about, instead of politics and all the stuff that people argue about. Everyone’s got their own opinions, and I don’t try to change their minds.
GW But the album really does make some direct political statements, starting with the title, which seems to refer to something President Obama said during the campaign.
MEDLOCKE We’re not talking directly about President Obama. I have never had a position in government, or a job that’s got that kind of pressure, so far be it from me to criticize anyone before they’ve had a chance to prove themselves. I don’t want to use my platform to speak out against anybody. I’m a rock and roller. I play music for a living.
I will say this much, however: we are all looked at like we don’t work, we just run up and down the road and party all the time, that it’s nothing but sex, drugs and rock and roll. But fuck that. We work our asses off for a living. You’re looking at a band that’s got granddads in it, a band that’s been through hell and high water. Now after all that work, all that time paying my taxes—and I’ve always adhered to the law and walked that line—I’m finding that I’m paying out so much of my hard-earned money to cover everything from A to Z. And I am very much upset about it.
ROSSINGTON We just believe in gods and guns. We’re just that way, being from the South. Most southern people are religious and also have the mindset of the right to bear arms. A lot of people down here live in the country and have to protect themselves.
GW But “Gods & Guns” is certainly coming from a different place than “Saturday Night Special” [from 1975’s Nuthin’ Fancy], which is probably the strongest gun control song ever written.
ROSSINGTON Well, we believe that, too. I think handguns were just made for killing, and I don’t think anyone needs one, but a shotgun to protect your family is different. And I’ve lived in places where you need a gun to protect yourself. We just believe in the right to bear arms and the constitutional thing.
MEDLOCKE I’m not sure what Ronnie was thinking when he wrote that [“Saturday Night Special”] or what he believed in. I for one heavily believe in taking guns out of the wrong hands. I am all for background checks before anybody’s able to own anything. I happen to have a concealed weapons permit, and I’ve had background checks on me. I don’t have a criminal record. As for assault weapons, get them off the street. There are certain steps we could take to make it right for everybody, and I’m all for them.
GW Other songs take on similar issues with similar political perspectives.
ROSSINGTON Especially “That Ain’t My America.” What that’s about is we didn’t really want a bunch of change and stuff. We liked America the way it was. I think we should go back to the way it used to be, but I don’t preach about it.
GW But Rickey, you really are putting yourself out there as a sort of Ted Nugent character. You recently went on Fox News’ Sean Hannity Show to talk politics. Gary, are you comfortable with that?
ROSSINGTON Sure. He’s got a right to his opinion. Some of the guys in the band don’t believe the way we believe, and we don’t push it on them. It’s just the way we feel. I respect everyone’s opinions, including ones very different from mine. Live and let live.
MEDLOCKE I’m honestly not as right wing as Ted Nugent is. I don’t run in the woods and shoot everything I see. But I do have staunch beliefs about religion and politics. As far as the religious part goes, I’ve got a lot of Native American blood in my body, and I’m more of a spiritual guy, and God could be whatever you really believe in.
As for the gun part, I happen to be old school and own a lot of guns, but I collect them. Guns to me represent your choice, your freedom to be an individual. People shouldn’t take it so bluntly and verbatim, but Skynyrd’s always been pretty damn bold and outspoken and known for pushing the envelope. One of the reasons we didn’t call it “Still Unbroken” is we wanted to move past all the bad stuff and make a new statement, something that reflected contemporary America.
GW There’s always been some controversy about whether or not you guys were supporting segregationist governor George Wallace in “Sweet Home Alabama.” When Ronnie sings, “In Birmingham they love the governor” the background singers go, “Boo, boo, boo” and some people have said Ronnie was saying he did not like Wallace. So which was it?
ROSSINGTON At the time, Ronnie liked Wallace and was for him, and the whole country seemed to be against [Wallace]. The background singers did sing “Boo boo boo” because that was supposed to represent everyone else saying they didn’t like him. The very last ad lib Ronnie did on there [during the piano solo] was “Montgomery’s got the answer.” Montgomery was the capital where Wallace was. No one’s ever really noticed it’s on there.
GW I always thought Ronnie had a sense of humor about the redneck image thing and you guys were sort of making fun of it.
ROSSINGTON Yeah, we made fun of it more than we thought it was a way to be and think. Some of the cats that are rednecks are just goofy and funny, but most of them are real-deal salt of the earth. So you got to pick and choose who you hang with.