BROTHERS IN ARMS
Donnie and Johnny Van Zant Talk About Their Brother, Their Parents, and Their Second Collaborative Album
By Michael B. Smith
Perhaps no other name in Southern Rock conjures up as many images as that of Van Zant. Like the Pettys in NASCAR, their family name is forever etched into the rock and roll family tree. From the legendary Ronnie Van Zant of Lynyrd Skynyrd, to his baby brother Johnny who would one day take his position at the front of the Skynyrd band following his untimely death- to the middle brother Donnie, a veteran rock and roller with his band .38 Special, the Van Zants are icons of the American South, and musical heroes to millions around the globe.
The two surviving Van Zant brothers have once again come together to record a follow up to their highly successful "Brother to Brother" release of 1998.
SWAMPLAND.COM caught up with the brothers for a telephone interview the day after Valentine's Day, 2001.
Donnie: Johnny will join us in one second. He's having a house built out here, and somebody came up unexpectedly.
That's great. How have you been?
Donnie: Just great, man! It's good to hear from you again!
You too! What inspired you guys to return to the studio to do this second record together?
Donnie: You know what man, I think it was just the success we had from the first one. It went out there and did well for us. Like the song "Rage," it was like a top ten r&r song for us, and it did well selling wise. We were very happy with it, and CMC offered us a deal to go back in and do another one. We didn't really know if we were going to do another one or not. But when they came back with an option to do a second CD, we jumped on it, you know.
The first song on the album is very compelling. Can you tell us the story behind "Oklahoma?"
Donnie: It came from watching the news. It's about the devastating tornados that those people have been through out there. Robert Johnson, Chris Peleer, and myself wrote a song about it. We were inspired by the people. They didn't seem to be complaining, you know? They just showed an incredible amount of faith and strength. They just pulled together to help each other. There wasn't anybody out here trying to be heroes, you know? They were just trying to help their neighbor. It was a pretty heavy song.
There's a lot of great songwriting on the album.
I noticed Kenny Wayne Shepherd plays on the album. How did that come to be?
Donnie: Well Michael, Kenny Wayne was opening for Skynyrd. They were doing some big sheds a couple of years ago. So Johnny met him on the tour there. After that, Kenny Wayne started dating my niece Melody, which is Ronnie's youngest daughter. About two an a half years ago, and he came over to my mother and father's house for Thanksgiving, and had dinner with us over there. That's when we hit him with it. (Laughs) Hey, we're thinking about doing another record, would you be interested in playing on it? We kept him to his word, man! (Laughs)
Do you have any favorite songs on the new album?
Donnie: You know, I'm really proud of all of 'em. If we weren't proud of them, they wouldn't be on the record to begin with. I mean, I like "Oklahoma" a whole lot. "Alive," I like that one a whole lot because Johnny and I wrote that with Jim Peterik. Jim was actually flying to Nashville to write with us, and he had a real difficult time. The plane that he was in had to make an emergency landing. So when he got to Nashville, he was real upset. Real nervous and the whole nine-yards. you know. I just mentioned the line "Ain't it good to be alive," and that just triggered something. The song just came from that one little statement.
Who would you say influenced you the most in your songwriting and music?
I think our brother. He was definitely a big influence. He was very underrated as a songwriter, and as a performer and a singer. He was a big influence.
Michael, we've got Johnny here now. (Laughs)
Johnny: Hi Michael!
How are you, Johnny?
Johnny: I'm just fine, thank you.
Johnny, let me ask you the same question I just asked Donnie. Who would you say influenced you the most as a songwriter and singer?
Johnny: Oh, God. Tiny Tim? (Laughs) No...Ronnie and Donnie were my biggest influences, me being the youngest of the three. And I loved Paul Rodgers from Free. And I loved the country people, like Merle Haggard. Of course, I loved Marvin Gaye and Ray Charles, as far as singing goes.
Donnie: I just gave him a dollar, Michael. (Laughs)
Make a buck any way you can, brother!
Johnny, could you address the internet rumors that Lynyrd Skynyrd is planning on breaking up in 2002? Is there any truth to that?
Johnny: Not that I know of. But that's how the rumors get started, the internet ain't it? No, as a matter of fact we are writing for a new album. Actually I leave on Saturday to go and write some. We'll be cutting demos for the record in April. And we've got 72 shows planned for the outdoor amphitheaters this summer. After that we'll take a little break, and between our break, me and Donnie will go back out, I'm sure. (Laughs) And then we'll start on the record after the first of the year.
I just wanted to throw in that I thought your Christmas album was just great. I hope you'll do more duets with Dale Krantz Rossington. Your duet on the album was awesome.
Johnny: Thank you. Yeah, that was my idea. I've done opened up a can of worms with that. (Laughs) I always thought she was a great singer, and I had that song for a long time, so when we decided to do a Christmas album, I just hit 'em with it on the bus one night and it all just fell together. But that was a fun record for us, because we got to produce it. We didn't have any jerk in there going "you can't do that."
Donnie, what's the status of the new .38 Special album?
Donnie: We're working on it right now, Michael. It's got some good rocking songs on it. If it's as good as this Van Zant album, it'll be great.
Donnie: I hope it's better! (Laughs)
We were all deeply saddened by the recent death of your mother, Sister Van Zant. I just wondered if you'd each tell me the most important thing your mom ever taught you?
Donnie: She was the glue. She held this family together. I think Johnny and I realize it more today than we did when she was living. We always felt that way, you know. We just lost our best friend, that's it. She was someone you could just go to and talk in confidence, you know? She would just listen to you, and not judge you.
Johnny: Like Donnie said man, she was just everything to us. We miss her a lot, and we know that she's with us every day of our lives.
How's your dad Lacy doing these days?
Johnny: He's doing good. He keeps me and Donnie hopping. (Laughs) He just turned 86 years old. He had a birthday and we had a cake over there for him the other night and he was in good spirits.
Lacy's almost as popular as you guys.
(Johnny and Donnie Laughing)
Donnie: You know what I always said. If he could sing and play guitar, we'd be out of a job! (Laughs)
I wonder if each of you would give us a special memory of your brother Ronnie.
Johnny: The last day I spent with him, Donnie was there too, just being out there at his house. He really had his stuff together right before he passed away. We'd gone out there to do a People magazine interview. That was a special day for me. There were a lot of them to be honest, but that one, maybe because it was the last one, sticks out in my memory.
Donnie: He was physically in good shape too. So many years before that he wasn't. But he had been lifting weights and swimming.
And you could hear it in his voice. It was so strong at the last concert here in Greenville. We all miss Ronnie for sure, but we're so glad we have you guys to carry on the tradition.
Both: Thank you.
Do you think 38 Special and Lynyrd Skynyrd will ever tour together again?
Donnie: Johnny, what do you think about it? (Laughing)
Johnny: We have done shoes in the past together, but never a complete tour. I would love to see that happen, of course. That would be a great thing.
Donnie: We actually both have the same management now, so we're going to be working on that, especially on 38's end. (Laughs) I think it's a great package.
And 38 is going out on The Volunteer Jam Tour this summer too.
Donnie: We're gonna do I think 15-18 shows with that. From what I understand it's doing great already.
Has the Van Zant tour started, or getting set to start?
Johnny: We just started rehearsing - for my birthday, February 27th. And I expect to get a birthday present. (Laughs) No, it starts, Michael, March 6 th in Orlando.
How do you feel about doing this together?
Donnie: It's exciting but scary. I know, for myself, I've been playing with the same guys for 27 years, you know. I've never been outside of 38 Special as a band. But it's a dream come true for me and Johnny.
Johnny: Hey man, I figure I'm just gonna have a lot of bruises on me. (Donnie Laughs) Donnie running around. I'll be that pole that he always runs into. (Laughing) But I'm looking forward to it. I told him we should have started off somewhere like South Dakota where nobody would come see us. But we're starting in Orlando where all the family will come see us. We'd better be on it that night, either that or be loved real well. But fans are great. The way I look at it, when I first went out with Skynyrd I was scared to death. But now doing something new is real adventurous to me.
Will you be doing any of your 38 Special or Lynyrd Skynyrd tunes on the tour?
Johnny: Well man, they need to come and see. (Laughs) We wouldn't do a show without giving 'em a taste of both.
What's next on your agendas for each of you?
Donnie: Right now, we're concentrating on getting the Van Zant II out there and going as far as we can with that. Also there's 38- that's my band there- you know what I mean? I really want to put the effort and time into that too and come out with a great CD there too. We're pretty busy man.
Johnny: Myself, just writing for another record. That's the end of the cycle, we put one out and then do another one. We have 72 shows we are doing this summer. We start out in May in Canada, where we're going out with Ted Nugent. But Donnie and I do this because we like working together and hanging out with each other. And I think we're putting out some pretty good music too.
Donnie: Thanks. I want to encourage your readers to call up the radio stations and ask for the new songs. It just means so much. I'll just tell you a for instance. We have a radio station in my own home town. They just play classic rock music, and it's hard to get our new stuff played on these classic rock stations.
Johnny: I'll tell you what it is, it's Rock 105 here, and they suck because they don't play us! Radio is so confusing these days. They have active rock, mainstream rock, and classic rock. It's all a bunch of bullshit. They should just have "rock."
And play good music, old and new.
Johnny: Right. Just play good music. It just makes it hard to get new music played here, whether you are 38 Special, Lynyrd Skynyrd or Van Zant- or Van Halen. If you come out with a new record, you're not gonna get it played in Jacksonville, Florida. But you would think- between the two of us we have how many years?
Donnie: About 40 years?
Johnny: Forty years, I figure we're as classic as they come. Play our damn music! (Laughs)
Donnie: But we would appreciate the fans calling up the radio stations.
Johnny: Yeah. We do love the fans. Without them, we'd be mowing grass.