Classic Southern-rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd is in the second year of The Last of the Street Survivors Farewell Tour. In its first year, the farewell trek sold out ninety percent of its shows. The 2018 dates included a guest-filled marathon concert attended by 57,000 fans in the band’s hometown, Jacksonville, Florida.
Fifty-five years into Lynyrd Skynyrd’s history, guitarist Gary Rossington is the lone surviving original member. Johnny Van Zant—younger brother of the late Ronnie Van Zant—has been the band’s lead singer since it reformed in 1987. Guitarist Rickey Medlocke—an early member of the group who left in 1972 to lead his own Southern-rock outfit, Blackfoot—returned in 1996.
Shortly after Medlocke’s departure, Lynyrd Skynyrd released its album debut, Pronounced Leh-Nerd Skin-Nerd. The album launched a hot streak of Skynyrd music, including five studio albums released from 1973 through 1977, featuring the future classics “Free Bird,” “Gimme Three Steps,” “Simple Man,” “Tuesday’s Gone,” “Call Me the Breeze,” “Saturday Night Special,” and “Sweet Home Alabama.”
Tragically, on October 20, 1977, during a flight from Greenville, South Carolina, to a concert date in Baton Rouge, Lynyrd Skynyrd’s plane crashed in some woods near Gillsburg, Mississippi. The calamity killed Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines and his sister, backup vocalist Cassie Gaines, plus road manager Dean Kilpatrick and the plane’s two pilots. Twenty other members of the entourage were injured.
Following a decade-long, post-crash hiatus, Skynyrd survivors Rossington, Leon Wilkeson, Billy Powell, and Artimus Pyle joined Johnny Van Zant for an intended temporary reunion. Despite changing lineups and the passing of more members, the band has carried on for the past 32 years.
In advance of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s May 17 concert at the Smoothie King Center featuring opening act Hank Williams Jr., Rickey Medlocke spoke to OffBeat from his Mississippi lake cottage near Memphis.
What sort of reception are you getting during the Last of the Street Survivors Farewell Tour?
People are pretty shook up that we’re looking at calling it a day. But we’re not dissolving as a band. When we say “farewell tour,” it comes down to us just calling it a day as far as heavy touring.
Is the band doing meet-and-greets on the tour?
Oh, yeah. It’s nice to meet the people who come to see us. We love that stuff. The way I look at it, this has been and continues to be an incredible journey. And it’s all about the music that Ronnie Van Zant and Garry Rossington and Allen Collins and the guys created back in the day. The fans keep coming out because they love the music, and the songs are timeless.
What led to the decision to stop touring?
Gary Rossington had some heart issues. Eighty, ninety shows a year is a lot of stress and wear and tear on him. We thought it was a good idea to pull back on touring. Now that’s not to say we won’t do some special events, or maybe even residencies out in Vegas.
How is Gary feeling now?
Gary’s doing really good. This tour happens every weekend. We fly in, we do a Friday and Saturday show, we fly out. We’re home by Sunday. Gary is really good with that.
And there are plans for a new Skynyrd album?
We’re getting ready to go in the studio and produce a song or two, maybe a whole album.
Do the band members have projects beyond Lynyrd Skynyrd?
Everybody has side projects. I’ve already started talking about doing other dates, shows, maybe with Blackfoot. And I’m into producing and writing still. I’ve got my own studio down in Florida. I’ll always be in entertainment. I love to play music, entertain people, and be on the road. I’m not pulling back. I’m going to keep going forward, but also be there for Lynyrd Skynyrd when Lynyrd Skynyrd needs me.
You and your wife, Stacy Michelle, also do music together?
Stacy sings with Kid Rock. She toured with Joe Walsh. She’s worked with Keith Richards and Ron Wood and Willie Nelson. We’ve been talking for years about writing and recording together and maybe doing a series of dates together.
Although you were a member of Lynyrd Skynyrd in the early 1970s—and have been a member again since 1996—you weren’t inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with other members of the band in 2006. How do you feel about that?
I consider myself a member of the band in the formative years. I wrote songs with the guys and sang songs in the studio with them. But the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame didn’t induct me with Lynyrd Skynyrd. I don’t lose any sleep over that. When I get on stage with the band and play for the fans, the fans are the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. And it took Lynyrd Skynyrd being nominated seven times to get in that thing. I think that, finally, the outcry from of the fans just got to be too much, so they put them in.
Why did you leave Lynyrd Skynyrd in 1972 to do Blackfoot?
I wanted a career playing guitar and singing and writing songs. At the time, they already had two great guitar players, but little did I know that they would get Ed King later. I’ve always wondered what it would have been like to have been that third guitar player. Allen Collins’ style and my style are very similar, but when they got Ed King, even though all three styles were very different, they meshed together great.
Do you believe things happen when they’re supposed to happen?
Gary Rossington told me, right after I got with the band again, he said, “It was meant for you to be here now, not back then.” That’s true. I’m thankful I’m here today.
You’ve told reporters through the years that Ronnie Van Zant invited you to travel with the band shortly before the plane crash in 1977.
Ronnie asked me to go with them for a week and maybe get up on stage and jam. I saw Ronnie before they left for that tour. But at the last minute, I got booked for a couple of weeks with Blackfoot. I couldn’t go. So, it was meant for me to be here now.
Were you and Ronnie close?
We were good friends. My granddaddy, Shorty Medlocke, inspired Ronnie to write “The Ballad of Curtis Loew.” My grandparents raised me, and Ronnie, Gary, and Allen used to come over to our house and sit on the porch while my granddaddy played the blues for them. Ronnie wrote a song called “Made in the Shade” that’s on the Nuthin’ Fancy record. He dedicated the song and the whole album to my granddaddy.
What made Ronnie such a great songwriter?
The way he wrote songs that related to people on the street. He was a genius at that. He created songs in his head and never even wrote them down.
How did you react when Gary Rossington reached out to you about the possibility of you rejoining Lynyrd Skynyrd?
Ronnie’s widow, Judy, invited me to the premiere of Free Bird: The Movie. There was an all-star jam session there at the Fox Theatre [in Atlanta] the night before with anybody and everybody. I played “Highway Song,” the Blackfoot hit, solo acoustic. The band’s manager and my manager were standing in the audience together. My manager found out that Gary had been thinking about me being back in the band for years.
But it took a while for that to happen?
January and February rolled by. I was thinking, ‘Maybe they decided not to go forward with it.’ But then Gary left a message on my answering machine. “Hey, Rickey. It’s Gary Rossington. I want you to learn Allen’s parts for ‘I Ain’t the One,’ ‘That Smell,’ and ‘Free Bird.’ I’m going to audition you. If you pass the audition, I’m going to give you a dollar-fifty and a Snickers bar to join the band.” Gary came down and we sat in my dining room, where I had my old Firebird guitar and a CD player and my little amp set up. After I got through the lead on “I Ain’t the One,” Gary reached over and turned the CD player off. He said, “That was fantastic, brother. You want to be back in the band?” I said, “Yeah, I want to do this.” And Gary then got Johnny on the phone. Johnny said, “Are you going to be happy just being a guitar player?” I said, “My granddaddy always told me, ‘You’ll never get to be the driver of a Cadillac unless you ride in the backseat first.’” I told Johnny, “I’m in the backseat. Let’s go.”
You made a commitment to Gary and Johnny?
Once I’m in something, my loyalty lies there. And I take loyalty to heart, because I know what it’s like when people are disloyal. I promised Gary, right when I got in the band, “I’ll be here till the last note in ‘Free Bird’ is struck.”
Lynyrd Skynyrd has experienced so many losses through the decades. Do you, Gary, Johnny, and the rest of guys still feel like a family?
It’s a band family. When we lose somebody, we hurt. When somebody in the band is having problems, whether it be personal or health, we feel for them. And I stand up there with Gary and Johnny every night. We’ve been together an awful long time. So, it’s like three amigos standing there. It’s a special, heartfelt thing.