Come on, you know you want to say it. Go ahead, say it. Say it.
“Play ‘Free Bird!’ ”
Yep, there it is. The band behind perhaps the most requested rock power ballad of all time is aware of the song’s enduring and continuing reputation as that song that guy at every concert screams out at least once. And, you know what, Lynyrd Skynyrd is totally fine with it.
“We go out every night, play it, honor it. We love to dedicate it to everybody, that’s where we stand on it,” said longtime band member Rickey Medlocke.
The legendary Southern rock act known for hits like “Sweet Home Alabama,” “Saturday Night Special,” “What’s Your Name,” “Gimme Three Steps” and – yes – “Free Bird” will play a double bill with fellow rock hero Peter Frampton on Sunday, Aug. 21, at the Ironstone Amphitheatre in Murphys.
Medlocke, who first played guitar with the band shortly after it was founded in the early 1970s and then rejoined in the mid-’90s, said while the lineup may have changed over the years, through tragic and less tragic reasons, the music remains the same and the reason they’re all still there.
At the peak of its fame in 1977, while traveling between concert dates, the band’s plane crashed, killing lead singer Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines, backup singer Cassie Gaines, assistant road manager Dean Kilpatrick and injuring other band members. Ten years later the band reformed with Van Zant’s younger brother, Johnny Van Zant, taking over as frontman. The band has toured faithfully ever since with Johnny Van Zant and founding member and guitarist Gary Rossington at its core.
The band recently canceled a few weeks’ worth of tour dates this summer after Rossington suffered a health scare and underwent heart surgery to clear a blockage. But earlier this month he came back on the road, and the band has been touring full force and in full health since.
Medlocke spoke with The Modesto Bee from the road in Palo Alto about keeping the Skynyrd spirit alive, various side projects and, you guessed it, “Free Bird.”
Q: In July you had to cancel several shows after Gary Rossington had health problems. How’s everyone doing? Gary back to full health?
A: He is back; we’ve been out playing shows. He had some heart stents put in a couple of years ago. From all indications, one got out of whack. But he got it all taken care of (and is) doing great, playing great. We’re right back at it.
Q: You’re on tour this summer with Peter Frampton, whom you’ve known and played with for a long time. Why did you want to go out together again, and how do you think you complement each other as a bill?
A: You know, both bands are guitar-playing bands. He is a different style than we are. But it’s all counted as rock music, rock guitar music. So both complement each other. The audience is able to get a well-balanced and -rounded portion of guitar playing. People come to see all the classic tunes, not only from us but him, too.
Q: The band teamed with Frampton, and a lot of other artists, recently for the live CD/DVD release “Lynyrd Skynyrd – One More For the Fans!” released last summer. It includes Gregg Allman, Cheap Trick, Trace Adkins, John Hiatt and more. Tell me about that project and what inspired it.
A: We invited people we know and respect and revere in the music business. It took quite a bit of coordinating because a lot of people are out on the road and a lot of are people busy. Once we were able to do it, it was such an honor to have them there all honoring the name of the band and the original guys and legacy of the music. It was for the guys who went before us. When it all came together, it was beautiful.
Q: You and other band members have been involved in side projects over the years. Your band Blackfoot recently reformed and released a new album. How important is having that other outlet for you and the band?
A: I think it’s very important for everyone to have an outlet. Lynyrd Skynyrd has always been our main project. But Gary and (backing vocalist Dale Krantz-Rossington) have a blues record coming out soon. And Johnny just released a live record with his brother (.38 Special founder Donnie Van Zant). Me and the name I own, Blackfoot, I did something different in that we produced a new record with four young guys for a new generation. We all have to have our outlets. Me, for one, I can’t sit still and sit and home and not do anything after a tour is over.
Q: The band is an institution now, what do you think – despite its lineup changes and tragedies – has kept you together over the decades, and what motivates you today?
A: Really, to be honest with you, basically it’s the songs themselves. The songs are just such classic tunes that will be here long after I am gone. It’s history. I think that what happens is sometimes we take a lot of heat because people say, “Oh, you aren’t the original group.” That’s true, but there was a bad tragedy that happened and took that original group. You can’t say the original group broke up and all of a sudden we decided to get back together.
Tragedies happen in everyone’s lives. You have to sit there and ask yourself – the people who they happened to, would they want the band to carry on the legacy of the group and music? We always ask ourselves that every time we are faced with that and losing someone. And we always believe they would have wanted it to go on and the music to go on. And the fans want it. The day it gets to where the fans quit coming, maybe that’s the day we pull the plug. Maybe that’s the day we look at each other and say, “That’s enough.”
Q: The new Showtime rock ’n’ roll series “Roadies” just did an episode that was really an extended story about Lynyrd Skynyrd. Have you seen it, and did any of that ring true?
A: We’ve been following it, (“Roadies” creator) Cameron Crowe toured Lynyrd Skynyrd. And so all of a sudden we heard about this show “Roadies,” and (one of the actors, comic Ron White) is a good friend of ours. My feeling was it was an interesting take on it. Those things get really personal; you really don’t know what to think at the time. I thought it was pretty cool that a whole epsiode was dedicated to a very historic band whose life was cut short by a tragedy.
Q: The band also made headlines for playing a show in Cleveland the night before the Republican National Convention. Would you say you’re a particularly political group?
A: First of all I’m really about 2/3 to 3/4 Native American, so I have my own felings about politics and politicians. I try not to get involved too much. But when you get hired to be entertainment for whoever, you’re the entertainment.
We would have entertained the DNC, if they hired us to do that. We would have done that. We’re hired to entertain people and play the music people love. I am not going to cop an attitude one way or another.
The deal is, the band has fans on both sides. So just because somebody believes something different doesn’t mean you have to criticize them. I guess my personal hope for this country is we can become a better country. I feel like we are kind of upside down right now. There’s a lot of violence going on and uneasiness and rhetoric. This country has become so politicized. We’ve got to make it good and better, no matter what.
Q: So finally, the obligatory question, why do you think “Free Bird” has become such a cultural phenomenon?
A: I think everyone gets their own meaning out of it. We’ve heard stories going from A to Z about that song. Someone played it at someone’s wedding; someone played it at someone’s funeral. I don’t know. I think everyone is a free bird, to be honest. I know this will sound political, but I wonder how much longer we are going to be free birds in this world – that’s my own view of it.