Singing Songs About the Southland: Lynyrd Skynyrd Bassist Johnny Colt Talks Black Crowes, Train and Performing with His Idols
If a musician grew up in the South during the '70s, it was almost impossible for him or her to avoid falling under the spell of Lynyrd Skynyrd.
Such was the case for bassist Johnny Colt, who was born in North Carolina and spent his early years in Georgia.
Colt got his break as a member of another huge band from the South, the Black Crowes. After a stint with Train, Colt now finds himself onstage with his childhood heroes, Lynyrd Skynyrd, the band he joined after the death of longtime bassist Leon Wilkeson.
We recently caught up with Colt as the band celebrates its 40th anniversary.
GUITAR WORLD: You're one of the newer members of Lynyrd Skynyrd. How did you get introduced to the band and wind up replacing Leon Wilkeson?
The story of me joining is a little strange. I had left the music business and became a conflict journalist. The conflict journalism started for me in the Gulf and the oil spill. When Skynyrd needed a new bass player, they knew me from the Black Crowes. They had seen footage of me in the Gulf in a steam boat being chased by a police. [Lynyrd Skynyrd's] Rickey [Medlocke] and Gary [Rossington] were sort of like, “That’s rock and roll, we need that guy playing bass for us!” — and they called me.
I had a deal with CNN and had no intention of going back to the music business, but you know, it’s Lynyrd Skynyrd. When you grow up in Atlanta, joining Lynyrd Skynyrd is like joining the Rolling Stones.
They’re just legends, just incredible musicians, and as you know, musically you get better as you get older. It’s not a sport. So when I visited them the first time in the studio, I wondered how they would be, what kind of shape they'd be in, what was happening with Lynyrd Skynyrd at that point. They were in the studio working on Last of a Dying Breed at the time. I saw Gary play guitar and I just hung with them. It sounds kind of corny, but in a way it was just kind of like coming home.
You mentioned being a kid from Atlanta — and now you're playing with Skynyrd, which happens to feature the singer from Blackfoot [Rickey Medlocke]. It doesn’t get much better than that.
It really doesn’t.
In terms of the Black Crowes, did you play with them from the beginning through Three Snakes and One Charm?
Yeah, through I guess that live box set that came out. That’s me on that. On most of the records people know, I’m in the band. I was with them for 10 years.
You also did a stint with Train, which is a bit different, musically speaking. How did that happen?
What happened with Train is, the guy who produced their records at the time was Brendan O’Brien. He produced Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Bruce Springsteen and Stone Temple Pilots. I had met Pat [Monahan], who is the singer for Train and an exceptional singer. I mean the guy has all the talent you can ask for in a singer. Because he comes from Pennsylvania, he’s got a work ethic. He comes from Erie. You know, it’s lunch pail; he’s just got this drive.
I had met him before, and I really respected everything about the way the band functioned: how they toured, they kept it real, they were bringing their money home, they had kids, they were grown-ups, they were professionals. That means a lot to me after what I had gone through with the Crowes. So I already liked the talent in the band and I liked the work ethic and the attitude. The music was definitely very different. So basically what happened was they lost their bass player unexpectedly and they had an entire fourth quarter of the year touring set up, so they needed a guy who could show up and play their whole set without a rehearsal.
No, it’s not. So I was busy at the time, again. I leave the music business and do something else and I just get pulled back. It’s like the mob. I was out doing something else, and Brendan called me and said can you help these guys out? For Pat and Train, I said sure. And what happened was I showed up and I played the whole set, and it is different music, but there’s a lot of Train music I love. I’m a huge fan of their first record.
But the truth is, we walked out, I hit the first note, Pat opened his mouth and started singing and it was like wow, he’s so much better live than he is on his records. That doesn’t happen very often. Then I looked out at the audience and it was like 4,000 women, and you know what occurred to me? We’re talking about all kinds of women. These are attractive people, smart people, people you want to date. And I said to myself, damn. At that point I’d been married like 15 years. And I was like, why couldn’t I have played in a sweater rock band when I was 20 and I could have done something about this? This is awesome.
So I intended to just stay for four weeks of touring. But they were great guys, and I ended up staying for six or seven years. But I’ll tell you what: My days in the Black Crowes took a few brain cells, so the amount of time, I’m not certain, but definitely more than five years in Train. It kind of flew by, really.
You mentioned you grew up in Atlanta, and now you're a member of Skynyrd. Was there a time where you went from hero worship to being colleagues or buddies? Was it hard to make that transition?
I’ll tell you, I hope this doesn’t sound arrogant, but the way it is, when we started in the Crowes, you have hero worship, definitely. There’s no way around it. But we opened for Aerosmith and I was around Joe Perry. I spent time with Jimmy Page. In the early days I spent some serious time with Robert Plant. He was a super-cool guy that wanted to spend time with you on tour. Keith Richards, you know, we did an entire Stones tour in Europe. So I was a little desensitized to that part.
But this is the part I wasn’t prepared for. I wasn’t prepared for the songs. Some Lynyrd Skynyrd songs are literally the backdrop of America. Songs like “Simple Man” and “Free Bird” and “Alabama." I wasn’t prepared for how emotional the crowd gets during the songs. I wasn’t prepared for how emotional I became playing them the first few times. Nor was I prepared for the heaviness of the legacy to where you’re playing “Free Bird” and there’s Leon’s name on the backdrop, Steve’s name, obviously Ronnie, Steve Gaines and Allen Collins, of course, and everybody else.
When it comes to being around the people themselves, Gary is an incredibly humble and likeable kind of guy, and he doesn’t have to be. That guy has been through it all, has done it all, and he couldn’t make you feel more at home. Between Johnny, Rickey and Gary, they’re Southern in a way I grew up with. It kind of feels like I’m around my family, my relatives. They are almost 20 years older than me, Gary and Rickey. It feels like family.
Gary’s slide guitar playing gives me goosebumps. I stand right next to him. I’m playing some of the most important songs of my life, and obviously the most important songs of many people’s lives, standing next to the guy who wrote them, and the guitar playing is better than ever. It’s pretty incredible.
You can catch Johnny Colt on tour with Lynyrd Skynyrd through October, culminating with the second Simple Man Cruise in Miami on October 20. For more information, visit lynyrdskynyrd.com and johnnycolt.com.
John Katic is a writer and podcaster who founded the Iron City Rocks Podcast in 2009. It features interviews with countless rock, hard rock, metal and blues artists. In 2013, he started Heavy Metal Bookclub, a podcast and website devoted to hard rock and metal books.