Lynyrd Skynyrd Talks Southern Rock and Why "Every Band Wishes They Had a 'Free Bird'"
Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Southern rock band that just keeps ramblin' on.
Photo by Clay Patrick McBride
It can't be easy to leave a good band just when they're about to hit it big. And once that's happened, there's never a chance to get back in and enjoy what you helped start. Or is there?
Lynyrd Skynyrd guitarist Rickey Medlocke has been living out that rare chance for the last 20 years, since he rejoined the legendary Southern rock band in 1996.
Medlocke and Skynyrd will kick off their 2015 touring schedule with next week's Gator Jam at Miccosukee Resort & Gaming in Miami. And then they'll head overseas before returning to the U.S. for a proper summer tour.
It's a pretty busy schedule for a band in its fourth decade. But they all still love it.
"We're looking for a good run coming up," Medlocke says. "We've got more music to put out. And we're talking about going into the studio later this year."
New Times: You've been doing this for a long time. So, this is still fun for you guys, right?
Rickey Medlocke: Yeah. You know, I always said the day I quit enjoying it was when I'd get out. I just turned 65 a week ago, and I'm still doing it. I look at other bands such as ourselves, like the Stones, AC/DC, and Aerosmith, and they are still out there touring and making new records, so why shouldn't we? We've got some new stuff on the horizon too.
Bands playing full albums in concert has become something of a big way to celebrate their greatest hits. Was somebody bugging Skynyrd to join the trend? Or was it something you guys wanted to try out?
We did this same concept one time for Sirius XM maybe ten years ago. We did Pronounced on its anniversary. Man, it turned out really well, so it's nothing we haven't done before, except the upcoming shows will be in front of a live audience and filmed, which is really cool. For me, it's a lot of fun to revisit great music, which we do every night live in the shows. We just don't usually do the albums in their entirety. It's usually random. You try to play the songs people want to hear and maybe experiment with some new songs or play songs from an album or two back and give a well-rounded show.
You were an original member of Skynyrd playing drums, and you rejoined on guitar 20 years ago. What's different?
When I was young, I was 20, I spent time for a few years on and off as a drummer, and I couldn't see myself staying with the band as a drummer. The band thought I was good; they liked me playing with them. I had a great groove and I fit the band really well, but I loved playing guitar. It was something I really loved more than sitting on a kit. I was good at playing drums, but I didn't think I was good enough to take the band where it needed to go, to a higher level, so I made the choice to leave. They made it big. And to be honest, I was really happy for them. Would I have liked to be there with them? Sure. But it almost worked out better that I was able to come back to the band almost 20 years later in a capacity to really keep the band up and moving forward. That's what [founding member] Gary [Rossington] said to me: "It wasn't meant for you to be here then, but it's meant for you to be here now." Which is true. You know, I like my capacity in the band. I'm one of the main, steadfast members of the group. The three of us -- Gary, Johnny [Van Zant], and myself -- are the cornerstone of the band, I reckon, along with Michael Cartellone, who's been there for 15 years. Some of the original members have passed away, and we've had to decide whether to go on, and we decided to continue.
You were there when all of Skynyrd's biggest hits were at least a kernel of an idea. Did you know these would be big hits?
I was there during the original recording of "Free Bird." You just knew. It had all the elements. Another one you could tell was "Simple Man." I'd left the band when "Sweet Home Alabama" was written. I remember when I was in Blackfoot; we opened for the guys, and Alan Collins said they'd just recorded "Sweet Home Alabama" and he was sure it was gonna be a hit. It came out, and it was. And now, over time, you've heard it everywhere. We've done it on The Voice and American Idol. The song is the state song for Alabama. There's big signs up that say "Welcome to Sweet Home Alabama." It's in movies and commercials. It was the first ringtone to cross over a million downloads. Every once in a while, I'll be in an airport or restaurant and somebody's phone will ring, and it's "Sweet Home Alabama." It's crazy. But that's the sign that it's a great song.
"Sweet Home Alabama" is one of those songs that every band anywhere plays. It's iconic. The song's lyrics address some serious topics and specifically call out Neil Young, with the lyric "And I hope Neil Young will remember, a Southern man don't need him around, anyhow," because he'd been politically critical of the South. Was there ever any kind of real feud between you guys?
No, no, no. Everybody took that really totally the opposite way. Neil took a dig on the South and Ronnie [Van Zant, the original singer and primary songwriter], being a Southerner who loves the South, took one back. There's never been a feud between us. We've invited Neil to come play with us; we've seen him, talked to him. There's no animosity or friction. None.
Everybody at every show likes to scream "Free Bird" at any band that's onstage. I imagine the screams for that song at a Skynyrd show start before anybody's even in the venue. You ever wish they'd yell for a different song? You wanna tell people to simmer down a bit?
No, no. I think every band walking wishes they had a "Free Bird." For us, we have one, and for us, we don't mind them screaming it. They know we're gonna get to it. There's no way we could leave an arena and not play it. I believe that would be a really bad mistake.
Yeah, you'd have people waiting out back by the buses.
Yeah, along with "Sweet Home Alabama," that'd be the biggest mistake we could make. But those have been the life's blood of this band. I never get tired of playing them. Somewhere in the midst of the show, playing them every night, they're a little bit different. The fans may not notice it, but we do. You go, Hey, that little passage was a little different and we enjoyed it. It's interesting. That said, we never get tired of people yelling "Play 'Free Bird'!" I think other bands get tired of it more than we do, 'cause I think every rock 'n' roll audience, even if they're going to see Katy Perry, they're gonna scream "Play 'Free Bird'!" It's one of those running things where people go, "Hey, we're at a hip-hop show -- let's scream for 'Free Bird.'" Or "We're at a country show" or whatever. We find it pretty funny. That's a great honor when people do that all the time. It's a big honor.
-- Stephen Feller
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Lynyrd Skynyrd. As part of Gator Jam. Saturday, March 7. Miccosukee Resort & Gaming, 500 SW 177th Ave., Miami. The show starts at 6 p.m. and tickets cost $35 plus fees via miccosukee.com. Call 305-222-4600 or visit miccosukee.com.
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