Tragedy is the great equalizer. Tragedy can be reflected in our eyes, our hearts, our minds and our demeanor. I would chance a guess that with the exception of newborn babies we as a whole have had some tragedy in our lives. I'm not talking about failing 3rd grade, or breaking up with that girl in 5th grade either. Not even for the most shallow of people can attempt to justify failing 3rd grade as a tragedy and if you do then you should be put in the attic for twenty years. Tragedy can also have unintended consequences. How you ask?
Music in the '70's was something to be desired. The Nation just came out of the '60's with it's counter culture and its music went along with it. Gone was the counter-culture that had divided the Nation and in "danced" disco. Bands like "The Animals" and "Jefferson Airplane" began their spiral from the psyche of the music world and were subsequently replaced with bands like "Queen" and "Aerosmith". I know the fire that the '60's brought didn't just die because of New Years Eve, rather music its self began its change.
It became obvious that music was becoming compartmentalized. Gone was rock 'n roll, there was the "birth" of "hard rock" and this enigma called "Southern Rock" found a comfortable spot within the "family" of rock 'n roll. Despite the fact that "Creedence Clearwater Revival" and the "Allman Brothers" made a transition from the '60's to the '70's. Southern rock bands seemingly were popping up like tulips in spring.
Much like the beautiful tulip as it stretches through the last remnants of winter, Southern rock began to blossom. Acts such as "Charlie Daniels, "ZZ Top," "Black Oak Arkansas," "Molly Hatchet" and "Blackfoot" began to fill the AM radios with the sounds of "Southern Rock". Many of the bands I mentioned previously are still up and running (in fact I have written about the last two on that list) and they really sound as if they will continue to play until their last day. Isn't that dedication to their profession and to their fans? My answer is "Yes".
Of the list I have mentioned above there is a massive omission of what could be described as the best of "Southern rock", that being Lynyrd Skynyrd. Skynyrd has been hoisting the Southern rock flag since its inception and has a distinction that may point to the importance of the band. Its probably a safe bet that we have all been to some sort of concert, whether it be a child's 3rd grade recital to some massive arena filled to the rafters by a powerhouse of a band. During a small pause in the action inevitably some one will yell out "FREE BIRD!!!" which if someone is yelling out such things at a 3rd grade recital you are a terrible person and need to stop that. Its not a reach to make that distinction really, as an example have you ever heard any one yell out "MOONLIGHT SONATA" at a "Suicidal Tendencies" concert? If you have please take a moment of prayer for that persons family and please accept my condolences.
Skynyrd is the quintessential "Southern Rock" band and the importance of the band can be felt to this day in the music by "Kid Rock", "Bret Michaels", and "Pantera (to name a few)." Through the music that they produced between 1973 to 1977 was a catalog of music that included five studio albums, just five. What those five albums became was one Platinum album, three 2x Platinum and one Gold album. With the release of the album "Street Survivors" on October 17th, 1977 the band was on a roll.
Within the span of just three days of the release of "Street Survivors", October 20th, 1977 to be specific, excitement and joy became a day in which tragedy resonated through music. On that date was the tragic plane crash that killed six of the occupants. Both pilots (Walter McCreary and William Gray) were killed as were a member of their management team (Dean Kilpatrick) and three members of the band (Steve Gaines, Cassie Gaines and Ronnie Van Zant). Music was dealt a severe blow with that crash and not until the rumblings of 1987 did the band begin to come back from that horrific crash.
Tragedy is nothing less than a debilitating event that can crush one's spirit if not their beliefs and their physical being. With the exception of the tragic plane crash that killed Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. "Big Bopper" Richardson, the world of music had never experienced such a loss of musical talent in a single day. With some trepidation, from the re-formed band and Skynyrd fans alike I would assume, the band "reunited" if you will in 1987. My little town was in the middle of a full-fledged heat wave, the likes of which could be compared to the heat of the South in the middle of July. Having few radio stations that played music of any caliber I wasn't aware that Skynyrd had come back onto the music scene.
I suppose that is the result of the era more than anything. Hair metal was firing up, alternative - pop was blossoming and "regular" pop music bands (i.e., the Bangles, Prince, etc.) were flooding the airwaves. Thinking back to that era kind of makes me sad for a couple of reasons. I could blame the radio stations for a portion of that, as Skynyrd was being played on either country radio stations or on an "oldies" station but the biggest part of the blame sits squarely on my shoulders.
I openly accept the blame but in an attempt to qualify the blame the simplest explanation was that I wasn't a fan of their music. I didn't like "Southern Rock", or at least I didn't think I did but as I aged gracefully I would listen to their music if it was on the radio and really that doesn't constitute a fan now does it? In 2012 that really changed if not for a simple trip to "The Great Jones County Fair" to see the band "Heart". Having never seen the band before I was excited and I thought seeing Skynyrd open for them would be okay. First of all "Heart" was the opener and Skynyrd was the closing act. I was completely blown away and I started to dig through the band's music and then one person, just ONE person got me to think.
That person explained to me that Skynyrd has been as influential in music as one could ever hope. It made sense really, I mean "Southern Rock" had to have a catalyst, there had to be a reason that "Southern Rock" blossomed. Skynyrd is that reason. Although the fan base of Skynyrd has grown steadily through the years, the years after the "reunion" seem to be the area of the greatest growth. As one can ascertain that growth has been with a smattering of new members along with older members of the band. The history of Skynyrd is like the rings of a tree starting with that little sapling and as it grows it becomes a majestic tower with little bits of dirt, dust and droplets of water mixed between the rings. Thirty-one very talented musicians have been members, and innumerate numbers of musicians and bands have found their roots and formed the rings within the majesty.
When I attended America's River Fest in Dubuque, IA on June 15th, 2013 I knew who I was seeing, I knew what place in the show they were and I knew it was the day after my daughter's 16th birthday. I knew what to expect and I also expected to be blown away by Skynyrd. Before Skynyrd took the stage the band "Survivor" took the stage and there was a torrential downpour just before the end of their set but the Lynyrd Skynyrd was undeterred. As the last bit of daylight fell behind the horizon and the humidity began to form into a low, creeping fog, that legendary band came out blazing. Seven members and two backing vocalists came out with that slap to the face I expected. Of the seven none is more omnipresent than Gary Rossington.
Gary Rossington is the only original member of Lynyrd Skynyrd that remains in the band but his position is far from a "symbolic" membership. Rossington remains as both lead and rhythm guitars but from him lies this demeanor befitting a Baptist minister, not the fire and brimstone kind, but the reserved, comfortable kind that you can talk to and make you feel like its all okay. Seemingly he wants to guide by example simply by being even-keeled and he pulls it off flawlessly.
There is a bit of a legend within the legend if you will. He is the type of person you would love to just listen to him talk about his experiences and his life. That person is Rickey Medlocke. Mr. Medlocke is not plays guitar for Lynyrd Skynyrd but he is the founder of the legendary band, "Blackfoot." What Medlocke brings to the band isn't only a truly gifted guitar player but also a show within the show, he is the epitome of demonstrative. In part his demonstrative behavior lies within a sense of humor and stage presence that can literally take your attention at any time and bring a smile to your face.
When one considers the history of the band its not a stretch to assume that only the best performers have been part of the success of the band. Performers like Mark "Sparky" Matejka (guitar), Robert Kearns (bass), Michael Cartellone (drums) and Peter “Keys” Pisarczyk (keyboards) are part and parcel to the mystique of the band. It really is true, each of those musicians are great and their individual personalities shine through. I would be remiss however if I didn't talk about one of those four gentlemen a little further. Peter "Keys" Pisarczyx is not only great on the keyboards but like Rickey Medlocke, "Keys" has this huge personality while on stage. Here is something you may have probably never heard before, the man is a blast to watch.
Not to be forgotten, the backup vocals by "The Honkettes" are yet another reason the band is so good. Often times female "backup" singers are merely eye candy and they come out, strut around in low cut t-shirts with high heels and skin tight pants but these two women are more than all of that. The likes of Dale Krantz Rossington and Carol Chase can actually be heard (as well as seen) whilst on stage and their vocals are incredible. The backing vocals are that little flavor to the music that when you hear it is an "Aha!" moment.
Three men, Allen Collins, Gary Rossington and Ronnie Van Zant formed Lynyrd Skynyrd, and little did they know how big this band was going to get. The band was on such an upward course that with the release of their fifth album, "Street Survivors" it must have felt as if the band could do anything they wanted and it would turn to gold. With that plane crash the band was devastated. The complexity of the event shows the loss of six people, two brothers, one of the founders of the band but what isn't reflected properly is the fact that much like a biological family, a band is a family. It really isn't about the music at that point is it? It is that feeling of an entire family being decimated and then being forced to recover. It took ten years to get some of semblance of healing but through it all a serious void remained.
When the band had "reunited" in 1987, new members tried to come in and try to fill some pretty big shoes. The loss of Ronnie Van Zant left a massive void in the band but when Johnny Van Zant, the brother of Ronnie, took over the lead vocals, the healing could begin. It must have been one of the most difficult roles that anyone would have taken but Johnny Van Zant stayed the course. Through trials and tribulations Lynyrd Skynyrd began again and then took the role of the "King of Southern Rock" once again.
Johnny Van Zant is the epitome of what a singer has to be like. He is engaging, he's crowd friendly, he's entertaining but first and foremost, he is a phenomenal singer. As I mentioned earlier I had seen Skynyrd last year and what I soon realized is Johnny has taken that role seriously and he's a blast to watch. As I think of his performance I am reminded about the banter he has with the crowd and how he always has a smile on his face. I really don't think he stops moving during the set and when he teams up with the likes of Medlocke on stage its really fun.
Music conveys the feeling of the composer at the time they wrote it. Imagine the difficulty with trying to duplicate those feelings as an entirely different singer, and let's add to that the composer of that song has died tragically, oh and let's add that the composer was your brother. The music intermixed with that tragedy could be crippling and yet it wasn't. Ten years, ten very long years after the crash the band did the impossible by surviving, coming back with the strength and attitude befitting the lyrics and music that made the band what they really are.
Its difficult to understand the entire situation, moreover it is much harder to understand how the brother of the voice of the band can accomplish a similar task and become the voice of the band. Not only did Johnny Van Zant become the voice of the band, he also memorializes his brother Ronnie, each night by dedicating "Free Bird" to the late singer. What he does every night cannot be discounted. This situation is not the same as if the brother of an accountant decides to become an accountant after their brother passes. Lyrics are not line items on a spreadsheet, lyrics reflect feeling and talent neither of which can be faked.
Lynyrd Skynyrd is a name synonymous with "Southern Rock," although that label is not fair, nor is it accurate. The band has reached nearly every performer, in nearly every genre in some way whether or not it is intentional. The band is not made up of "rednecks" and "good old boys", far from it actually. The band is (and has always) been made up of excellent musicians, talented writers and performers. Attempt as one may, it is impossible to discredit the band and it has been tried over and over but really to no avail. Within the annals of modern music, Lynyrd Skynyrd has made its indelible mark upon the history of rock. Success can be identified by the ability to overcome roadblocks that may interfere in the path of achieving that success. In 1977 the band Lynyrd Skynyrd was at the top of their craft with few rivals, and many fans but then tragedy struck and through all of that, the band and its members have overcome so much to be what they are today, tomorrow and for generations to follow.
If you are able to see the band live, do so. I promise you that you will walk away from there with this incredible sense of music history, respect and awe. I will see Skynyrd live again I can promise you that, I hope you can and will too. Great show!