Johnny Van Zant of LYNYRD SKYNYRD Converses with Mark of Madness To Creation on Future Plans After their Farewell Tour, Defining their Legacy & Finding their Faith

Contributor’s Note: Earlier this year Southern Rock icons, Lynyrd Skynyrd, announced that, after a career that has spanned more than 40 years and includes a catalogue of more than 60 albums with more than 30 million units sold, they would embark on their Last of the Street Survivors Farewell Tour. The two-year farewell tour will have logged over 50 stops in the US and Canada by the end of 2018.

On the heels of last week’s announcement that the Rock & Roll Hall of Famers would be taking their blockbuster farewell tour to Canada in spring 2019 comes word the band will head to the U.K. and Europe next summer. They will be joined by special guests, Status Quo, for U.K. dates. The run of headline and festival dates will give European fans one last night of unforgettable classic Southern rock music.

The tour derives its name from their song, “The Last of the Street Survivors” and the band’s fifth studio album Street Survivors that is certified multi-Platinum by the RIAA and includes the Platinum-certified single, “What’s Your Name.”

The Last of the Street Survivors Farewell Tour marks a big moment for generations of fans, as Lynyrd Skynyrd has been touring consistently since the 90’s. The band, that USA Today called the “whiskey-soaked genre’s most popular and influential crew,” is ready to rock one last time. The farewell tour will take original member Gary Rossington joined by Johnny Van Zant, Rickey Medlocke, Mark “Sparky” Matejka, Michael Cartellone, Keith Christopher, Peter Keys, Dale Krantz Rossington, Carol Chase and special guest Jim Horn across the country over the next two years.  

The Southern Rockers are best known for the RIAA Platinum-certified “Sweet Home Alabama” and self-proclaimed signature song, “Free Bird,” that Rolling Stone said was “easily the most requested live song in existence.” With everlasting hits such as “Simple Man,” “Gimme Three Steps,” “What’s Your Name,” “Call Me The Breeze,” “You Got that Right,” and more, it is easy to see why Rolling Stone named Lynyrd Skynyrd one of its 100 Greatest Bands of All Time.   

I was afforded the opportunity of having a conversation with vocalist Johnny Van Zant of Lynyrd Skynyrd when he was enjoying some down time ahead of the band’s next set of tour dates.After initial connection difficulties we were quickly off and running.

Mark:  I’m good. You guys finally doing a final tour.Is it really the end for the Street Survivors?  

Johnny Van Zant:  Yeah, we started last May down in West Palm and it’s been awesome. The cool thing about is we’ve been able to see all the bands and a lot of them that … you know, hey, I’m like every other band, when you have a band you see them every year you don’t come out, you go well, I’ll see them next year. But this is our final tour. The crowds have been just great and a lot of folks and it’s just been great. I mean, it’s been fun and sad at the same time to know that some of these places are the last time we’ll play there. But hey, all good things come to an end, right.But you know what, we have a lot of places we still want to hit. We’ll probably make another run sometime through Europe and down to Brazil, Australia and New Zealand. Going up to Canada tomorrow to play some shows. You know, we’re staying busy.

Mark:  Okay. Of course, that tours taking in the U.K. I just wondered as you  playing over here with Status Quo, I just wondered how familiar you are with the band Status Quo?

Johnny Van Zant:  Yeah. Yes and no, you know what I mean. I don’t know a lot of their stuff, but I think we’ve done some shows over there with them before, if I’m correct, but you know hey, we want to come through and do our best job. Hey, I always worry about Lynyrd Skynyrd you know, that’s my big thing. People that play with us, I like them and that, I’m listen and then I go, oh that’s something that I know, oh yeah there you go, oh yeah.   

But on this particular tour, we did, took in different people and their name came up and said okay, let’s try it.  

Mark:  A lot of bands quit touring but the still release music. I just wonder if you guys had any plans maybe to still release music?

Johnny Van Zant:  Yeah. You know, Gary said that. We have an album in the can really, to be honest. We have a bunch of songs that we’re all the time writing. And you know, so probably after this tour we’ll have that album, do a studio thing and we actually recorded our last show here in Jacksonville. Did a DVD and actually the CD for it and that’ll come out sometime along the way too.

Mark:  So your retirement then is not just going to consist of fishing?(Johnny is well known for his interest in fishing)?

Johnny Van Zant:  Yeah, yeah, we’ll get into fishing after this tour. You know what, when we started out, we said let’s play every place, every venue in every city that we ever thought about playing or wanted to play and before it’s over with, we’ll try to accomplish that. And the reason why we’re trying to cut back, I’ll be very honest with you, Gary will tell you himself, you know his health hasn’t been that good.

Mark:  Yeah, I had actually heard something about that.

Johnny Van Zant:  Just wanted to make sure that we treated our fans right and do it right one more last time.  

Mark:  What about yourself then musically? Do you have any plans to reactivate the Johnny Van Zant Band or any other musical things?

Johnny Van Zant:  You know what I’m always making  new music – me and my brother Donnie we’re creating all the time and we live right next door to each other here in Florida and I got a little place in the back and we go out there and we bang around and make music. So we’re actually, one of my things on my bucket list is to do a gospel album. Really would  be right, one of the things I would like to do. I lost my oldest daughter last year due to cancer and it kind of got me back to where I should have been at a long time ago with God. So I’m a true believer in that and that’s one of my things and maybe make a blues record. I’ve done a couple of country albums. But I’d love to do those things before I go on to the mighty big heaven up in the sky too.  

Mark:  If I could take you back, how was it when you became the Lynyrd Skynyrd singer? Did you find that brought a hell of a lot of pleasure or it was just something like you naturally fell into, you got easily comfortable with?

Johnny Van Zant:  No, no, no. I mean heck, I’ve said it in plenty of interviews, how I probably didn’t feel comfortable singing for Skynyrd. And still at times, I’ll be honest with you. My brother was a big figure. And I’ve always wanted to do it the right way and Ronnie was Ronnie and I’m Johnny. I never wanted to be him, there was only one Ronnie you know, God broke a mould after him.He’s kind of like Babe Ruth or Billy Powell. I always said that Billy Powell was like Babe Ruth on the keyboard, that old baseball player. God gave this guy special gifts and I never wanted to be Ronnie, but it was a couple years in for me before I actually started going okay, well new people are coming here to see us and they know what it’s all about, just carrying on the music and carry the tradition of Lynyrd Skynyrd, the legacy!

Mark:  When did you first realize that you could sing? Was it something that you were always doing from a very young age?

Johnny:  I think if you talked to most singers they’ll tell you they can’t sing. Most singers will go, you know, I really don’t like my voice that much. That or they’re over confident in their voice. But I wanted to be a drummer. I really liked playing drums and thought about doing that and then both my brothers, Donnie was 38 and Ronnie was in Skynyrd here and they were all singing and everybody was like you got to sing, what do you mean you’re not going to sing? So one day I was just in my back room like every other kid that gets in the music business, with my record player and I think they … Joe Joe Gunner, I don’t if you remember that group, but they had a song called “Ride” was on, listened to that record and I just started singing along to it and I went hey, that’s kind of fun too. And I was kind of hooked from here. It’s a weird way it all came down, I guess when we are just said and done, you’ll think back about it and you’ll go wow, that was kind of a wild trip, how did that happen. I think God puts you in places. You’ve got to look at it or you just take the left or take the right and I just ended up being a singer.  

Mark:  Do you remember first hearing a song of yours on the radio for the first time? And what sort of emotions … what feelings did that create?

Johnny Van Zant:  I did an old Eddie Floyd song called “Six, Three, Four, Five, Seven, Eight, Nine” and I was 17 years old and it came on the radio and I remember going, oh my god. Of course, I sound like Donald Duck no it, I had no extra to my voice at that time. I was so young. And it was off my first record that I did and I remember hearing that the first time, it was really a neat thing.

Mark:  What in your life would you say that you’d be most proud of?

Johnny Van Zant:  Probably my family, my kids and that. Those are the things that … of course, music. But to be honest, I’d have to say my family, my kids. I have grandkids now that I’m real proud of. They’re playing T-ball, which is really a fun thing to come see. That’s where they put the ball on the stand and hit the ball and it’s just really a lot of fun. It gives me a lot of joy to watch little kids get into that because again, I wanted to be a drummer but before that I wanted to be a baseball player like all kids here in America what to do that.  

Mark:  Looking back, how do you view your own musical legacy? Does it fill you with a sense of pride, what you’ve created?

Johnny Van Zant: Yeah, I think so. There’s some things that I look back on and go wow, I should have done this different and that different. But I think overall, you know what I mean, hey I tried to do it with integrity and honor and God blessed me to be able to write a few good songs and I think the coolest thing about anything is that if you could touch somebody with a song, that’s a great thing. So I do love hearing about something that I’ve been involved with.

Mark:  If you could go back in time and give your younger self a piece of advice, is there anything that you would’ve done differently?

Johnny Van Zant:  Yeah, probably a lot. Stay away from the booze and drugs, the wild stuff . Appreciate really what you’ve got. I think … I guess when you get a little older you go oh wow. Like back, you mentioned the Johnny Van Zant Band and that’s … I don’t even really … I had a friend who passed a few years ago, that before he passed he had a bunch of his shirts that said Johnny Van Zant on them, of tours that we had done and he said, “You know, I’m going to send these to you.” And I found it awkward at that time that he wanted to get rid of them.  And I come to find out he had cancer too. But he passed. But that’s how I got a shirt, I never kept anything back then. You kind of go okay, yeah sure, you can have that, yeah sure. And kind of go wow, I wish I would have kept a few things. I got a few of my old vinyls, which I wish they’d bring back vinyl, .. these days. I don’t know. I think you appreciate things more, that’s probably my advice. Not to take things for granted because when you get the gift of music, it is a gift, whenever you say that, it is a gift. People ask me all the time, how do you write a song? I say I don’t know. I can tell you there’s a verse, a chorus, a bridge maybe, a lead break. But I don’t know how that happens, it’s a gift from God.

Mark: And genetics as well, of course. I mean that must play some part.  

Johnny Van Zant: Well genetics came from God too.(laughing)

Mark:  How would you define the enduring appeal of Lynyrd Skynyrd. I’m sure when you play shows now, you seeing two, maybe three generations of fans looking back at you singing those songs?

Johnny Van Zant:  Oh yeah. We just did a cruise and I was looking at the audience, there was a young lady there with her dad and we had met them years ago, actually I believe in Manchester. Yeah. And they actually brought a little teddy bear and handed it off to me up on stage and every time we came back through there, whether it be London or Manchester, they would have a teddy bear of some sort and I actually seen her … and now, she’s a grown lady and it’s just amazing to me. It is just generational, it really is and I think that’s the one thing about Skynyrd fans, you know what I mean? It’s not only … some bands have their fans, but ours seem to, the parents and the kids are listening to it together. And a lot of … that warms my heart because hey we bringing families together. And it’s always cool to see a young kid out there because hey, we’re on our farewell tour. You know what, this music’s going to go on long after we’re six feet under in the ground. But those kids are going to be listening to it and they’re going to probably turn some other kid on to it.

Mark:  Obviously your fans are going to hear all the classics on the final tour. But have you any plans,for you and the rest of the guys, to maybe drop some songs in there that you’ve maybe never played live in quite some time?

Johnny Van Zant:  We have, we actually have. What we’ve been kind of doing is certain shows we may do this song or two. You know, it’s inevitable that we’re going to end with “Freebird” of course.  And we’ll kind of drop in a song or two here, like this year we’re thinking about going back and putting a couple of things in the set. But it’s not really, really good. It’s a mixture of old and new and I think people are going to, they’re going to love … we’re actually really excited about coming to the U.K. and to Europe  and going over and seeing the fans. We’ve always had a good time over there and it’s pretty amazing to me. Like the first time went with Skynyrd to Europe, I couldn’t believe it because I’d never been over there myself and to think that somebody who knew the music from way over on the other side of the pond, was kind of, blew me away.  I was like, wow this all started on the left side of Jacksonville, Florida. It was in a garage and here it is years later and people from different countries are loving this music, that’s really an impressive thing, you know, it really is.

Mark.You mentioned there “Freebird.” I just wondered, with the likes of “Freebird” and some of those classic songs, how do you keep them fresh? I mean you must have performed those songs so many times

Johnny Van Zant:  I think it’s the audience. For us. And I always tell people, so what band wouldn’t want a “Freebird” or a Sweet Home or “Tuesday’s Gone” or “Simple Man” or smell in their set, you know what I mean, come on. I mean, to me, I’ve never been bored. I’ve heard artists say that, “I’m bored of playing this, I ain’t playing this no more.” I’m like, really? So to me, every nights a different night, it’s new and refreshing because it’s a different audience. I tell you, our shows go by the audience. If people are into it and I call myself the head cheerleader because along with Medlocke, I try to get people into it, I want them to forget their problems, come listen to the music, enjoy the time. We all work and we all have such stressful times these days, that hey, we need a little release right? And so, for two hours they come on. That’s forget our troubles.  

Mark:  Just a couple more then to finish. Who would be the most influential musician that you’ve worked with and created music work? Somebody that you’ve really learned from?

Johnny Van Zant:  Probably my brother Donnie and I’m happy to fit him up there as one and then, just listening to Ronnie songs too and I’ve been blessed with guys like Ed King and Gary and Ricky and I even worked with John 5 from Rob Zombie, Marilyn Manson and a phenomenal guitar player, but there’s been so many people that I’ve drawn off of. Of course, as far as vocally I loved Paul Rodgers, I love Steven Tyler, I love George Jones, I love Merle Haggard. So I think I’m like anybody else, you draw off of those kind of things that hit you and inspire you to do their songs.  

Mark:  I’m sure there’s been many changes in the music industry and the music business since you first started. Is more difficult being a musician these days then when you first started out?

Johnny Van Zant:  Well I don’t think I would want to be a new and coming out these days. It would be very difficult because I think that these days, CD sales are down. And when we actually could rely on a nice check coming to us when we’re off the road. But nowadays, a lot of artists have to depend on being on the road, away from the families because they make their money playing live. Now that’s great. It’s great if your a live band, but if your not, it sure as heck seems to me like it’d be a hard time to make a living doing it.  And then if you’re on a major label, a lot of them has these 360 deals that they want to do and they take part of your live performance, your publishing, your merch and that just seems like a tough ride to me, as far as making a living at it. And I’m sure that there’s probably been some great artists lost because of those situations, where they went well man, I just can’t make it, I just can’t keep going on like this because I got to make a living.I never could understand how people could think … I know with me, I can’t just walk into a convenience store or Quick Stop, whatever you want to call it and go in and take something for free. Why would somebody think that music should be free, I don’t understand that. I know I’m in the business, maybe if I wasn’t in the business, I might think difference because there’s opinions, you know everybody’s got one. But it seems like a real hard time to be in the business, as far as an artist goes. So I’m kind of glad that I was born when I was and I could make a decent living and actually sell out a few records.

Mark:  Just a final one then. I’m sure you’ve done many, many interviews since you first started in music. Who would you most like to interview? Maybe somebody that’s personally inspired you?  

Johnny Van Zant:  God. Well I’d probably like to interview God and ask him a few questions.   But even that, you shouldn’t do that. But I don’t know. As far as here on earth, that’d be a good question. I don’t know, there’s been so many … Paul Rodgers probably, sit down and talk to Paul Rodgers. I’d probably like to sit down and talk to Robert Plant, Muddy Waters. God there’d be a bunch of them. I’d love to bring George Jones back, have a few conversations with him. Tammy Wynette. A bunch of the country folks too. Hank Senior. So that’s who I’d probably like to interview. But hey, they’d be probably some heavy metal guys. So I’d probably interview Metallica. A few different bands!

Mark:  Really. You like the heavy metal as well?

Johnny Van Zant.Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. No, no, no, there’s some great stuff out there. We talked about, if I wrote with John 5, Rob Zombie, Marilyn Manson, so there’s some good stuff out there. That’s the cool thing. I think this year when we were over in Europe, we’re actually playing Hellfest over in-

Mark:  Oh yeah. In France.

Johnny Van Zant:  Yeah. And the first time we did that, I don’t know what the band was that was in front of us, but we got there and I was like, oh my god, we’re not going to fit in here at all, because I think it’s “Sweet Home Alabama” and this don’t go along with what the heck’s playing before us, it was so heavy. And man, we got up there, played and those people loved us. And I was like, oh my god, this is awesome because I was kind of worried about it. I was like, well this is a little different than our typical crowd. Then we came back to the states and we played a show with a guy by the name of Tim McGraw here, country, actually went over great there. So I said, you know, Skynyrd really is intertwined with heavy metal fans, country fans, blues fans. Just straight out rock fans.We really actually fit into any category.

Mark:  Okay Johnny that’s great. I’m over my time now, thank you very much for chatting.

Johnny Van Zant:  Okay, thank you so much.  

Mark:  Looking forward to catching you guys in Manchester.  

Johnny Van Zant:  All right my friend. Sounds good, thank you so much.

Mark:  Brilliant. Thanks again. Cheers.  

And there you have it!  Massive Wagons were also announced as supported for Lynyrd Skynyrd’s final run on the “Last of the Street Survivors” Tour.  Check out the U.K. dates below:

Wed. 6/26- SSE Hydro Arena in Glasgow, UK

Thu. 6/27- O2 Arena in Manchester, UK

Sat. 6/29- Wembley Arena in London, UK

Sun. 6/30- Genting Arena in Birmingham, UK

VIP Packages will be available for all dates.  Details available at lynyrdskynyrd.com

To check out Mark Dean’s other work, check him out at the following locations:

www.antiheromagazine.com

www.spillmagazine.com

www.ventsmagazine.com

www.twitter.com/DeanoJou

www.facebook.com/Mark-Dean-Music-Journalist

Photo Credit:  Doltyn Snedden

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2 Comments

  1. Wow! Such a gifted and talented man! And a truly “Simple Man”! Of all the music Johnny has been involved in with “The Johnny Van Zant Band” , “Skynyrd”, and “Van Zant”, “Brickyard Road” is probably one of my favorites! I still get a tear Everytime I hear it! I hope before my time comes for me to go to heaven I get a chance to meet Johnny and Donnie!

    • David, thank you so much for checking out the article! What an interesting career that Lynyrd Skynyrd had, and the most impressive thing is that their music is truly genre-bending, in the sense that country fans, blues fans and rock fans all like their music. They played in my hometown a long time ago, and it was magical hearing Freebird live!

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