Staying true to rebel roots

Lynyrd Skynyrd remains defiant with new ‘Gods & Guns’

August 06, 2010

In an era of the Tea Party movement, southern rock icon Lynyrd Skynyrd is finding a new popularity with a new album that not only rousingly defends the First and Second Amendments, but seems tells President Obama: "You can take your change on down the road."

But don’t call the lyrics on "God & Guns" political, Skynyrd guitarist Rickey Medlocke says in a recent telephone call.

"I’m an artist that doesn’t like to get on the podium and speak politically," Medlock says from a stop in Ontario, Canada, on a tour that brings the band to Bethlehem to headline Musikfest’s Riverplace stage Monday. "I use my platform to play guitar and entertain people."

Whatever the songs’ motivation, "God & Guns" has given Skynyrd its best-selling disc in 18 years and highest-charting (No. 18 on Billboard) in more than three decades, since 1977’s "Street Survivors," with its hits "That Smell" and "What’s Your Name?"

Medlocke says "God & Guns" simply states what’s on the minds of Skynyrd’s members.

"Do we wear our heart on our sleeve? Yes," he says. "Do we believe in doing things a certain way in this country? Yes. I am quite disturbed, maybe, about how relaxed everything has gotten in this country."

But he says, "I don’t follow either side as far as being political. I know people would look at me and say I have conservative points and maybe people would look at me and say maybe I even have liberal points. I look at myself as a patriot. I’m for this country."

For example, Medlocke says the band’s members "all have spiritual beliefs" and "believe in protecting ourselves with our what our Second Amendment has provided us with in this country."

But he also says, "I don’t believe every knucklehead out there should be allowed to have a gun. I don’t preach that. It’s idiots out here running around with the weapons that should have the background check."

Forthright lyrics should be no surprise to Lynyrd Skynyrd fans. The group’s signature song, "Sweet Home Alabama," has lyrics that say, "Watergate does not bother me," and the band still flies the Confederate flag at its concerts.

Medlocke says complaints about the Confederate flag are unfounded.

"We’re not racist," says Medlocke, who is two-thirds Native American. "If there was any racism in this band, I’d tell you about it. But there’s not."

The flag, he says, is "just about the band starting out that way; as just tradition. The rebel flag was a battle flag, it was nothing else. But now you’ve got groups that feel like they need to adopt that as their symbol. And those groups, I don’t agree with them."

"I guess after all these years, younger people could look at me and go, ‘Oh, he’s just an old son of a bitch. He doesn’t know what he’s talking about,’" Medlocke says. "Well, that’s OK. You know, I’ve walked a lot of miles in the moccasins I’ve got on. Whether you agree with it or not, that’s your own choice. We live in a country where we have choices."

Medlocke, 60, says he doesn’t foresee an end to Skynyrd, or its independent spirit — especially if it’s able to make successful records like "God & Guns."

But he also says it’s a surprise the disc, only the band’s second album of new material in 10 years, was made at all.

Despite having new songs, the band delayed recording because it was in a dispute with its record company and wanted to wait until its contract ran out, he says.

Then, after Skynyrd signed with a new label and started to record "God & Guns," tragedy struck. Original keyboardist Billy Powell and eight-year bassist Ean Evans died less than four months apart last year — Powell, 56, of a heart attack and Evans, 48, of lung cancer.

That left the band questioning whether it should continue, Medlocke says.

"We were deeply affected," Medlocke says. "It’s like a big family. … And if you’ve lived long enough to lose family members, then you know what it feels like."

Skynyrd, of course, knows exactly what it feels like. At the peak of the band’s popularity in 1977, a plane crash killed three of its members — singer Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines and back-up singer Cassie Gaines — and led to a 10-year hiatus before surviving members reunited in 1987 with Van Zant’s brother, Johnny, as vocalist.

"There’s been so many tragedies this band has faced," Medlock says. "And we really thought about calling it a day."

But he says fans urged them to continue; one e-mail even resulted in the song "Skynyrd Nation."

"Somebody wrote in to the website: ‘With Billy passing away, does that mean the Skynyrd Nation won’t continue?’" Medlocke says. "And so we felt that was a good idea for a song."

The band decided to finish the record "because those guys had already started working on it with us, and I think they would have been very disappointed in their efforts to help get something out. And we put the record out, and we’ve been touring on it ever since then."

Similarly, Skynyrd decided to release "Live from Freedom Hall," a CD/DVD of a 2007 concert with both Evans and Powell. "It was the last bit of film footage that we had of Billy and Ean," Medlocke says. "And we really felt strongly we should put it out so fans could see those guys and have an old film of those guys rolling about."

Since the reunion, original Skynyrd bassisr Leon Wilkeson also died in 2001, leaving guitarist Gary Rossington as the only original member of the band.

But Medlocke, who played with the group in its early years before leaving to form the successful group Blackfoot, rejoined in 1996. With his 17 years in the band, he’s behind only Rossington and Johnny Van Zant’s 23 years for member longevity.

"We’re also not stupid; we know that everything comes to an end," Medlocke says. "But look at The Rolling Stones, they’re still going. … You got to roll with it and take it as it comes. And then one day when it’s time to lay it down, we’ll do a farewell tour."

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