Lynyrd Skynyrd has endured, despite
all odds, through death and disaster, as the signature rock group of
Skynyrd's ability to constantly rekindle its creative fires following tragedy is a testament to the indomitable spirit that has surrounded the band since its inception, and has largely defined Lynyrd Skynyrd over the years. The legendary singer/songwriter Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines and vocalist Cassie Gaines died in the infamous 1977 plane crash that ended the band's initial run. Guitarist Allen Collins survived the plane crash only to suffer paralysis and, eventually, death in a tragic car accident. And most recently the band lost bassist Leon Wilkeson, who died during the making of Vicious Cycle. Yet once again Lynyrd Skynyrd found the determination to continue working as well as a way to perpetuate its greatness, and Vicious Cycle may well be the greatest Skynyrd album since the band's classic lineup.
"It's been a long time comin'," philosophized Ronnie's younger brother, Johnny Van Zant of Lynyrd Skynyrd's latest offering. Having taken over the duty of lead vocalist in 1987, Johnny has grown into the role of fronting the band so well that Lynyrd Skynyrd has truly become the central part of his identity.
"We've hit on a combination of old style Skynyrd, with new style Skynyrd, with commercial Skynyrd," Johnny said with a laugh. "We've got that hard rockin' country thing going full blast on this one."
Lynyrd Skynyrd has always been an arsenal of determination, articulation, personality and, above all else, guitar prowess. With Gary Rossington, one of the greatest guitarists in rock history, Lynyrd Skynyrd's stellar guitar lineup also features Blackfoot's Rickey Medlocke and the Outlaws' Hughie Thomasson. Keyboardist Billy Powell contributes melodic touches that add a stark beauty to the band's sound. Drummer Michael Cartellone gives the rhythm section a thunderous kick.
Though Leon Wilkeson’s passing in July 2001 of natural causes was tragic and untimely, it is one element that furthers the meaning of the album’s title. Wilkeson was known for his huge sound and the outlandish collection of hats he wore on stage. “Mad Hatter" is the band's tribute to its fallen member.
"That's about brother
Wilkeson had recorded a couple of tracks, “Lucky Man” and The Way,” for the album before he passed, and Skynyrd fans had heard him play the latter and “Funked Up” in live performance.
"We've done “Funked Up” and “The Way” live and they both got a great response," Johnny noted. "The people really loved “The Way.” They were coming up to us and saying they can't wait to hear it on record. The eerie thing is that the song talks about passing on to the other side and how things are so screwed up in general and it was the last song Leon played on.”
The band completed Vicious Cycle with a former bandmate of Thomasson's from the Outlaws, Ean Evans, on bass.
"Ean's a trouper," said Johnny. "He and Leon were good friends. Leon had a few problems toward the end and Ean would fill in for him when he couldn't make the gigs. Ean's one of us. He's from Mississippi. He's a talented guy and a great person. God bless Leon, he's gone now but he would have wanted us to keep going and we will."
Having come full circle through all the hardships -- death, illness, departure, disagreements, exhaustion -- that Lynyrd Skynyrd knows so well, they channeled their life experiences into powerful and emotive songs for this aptly named album. "Life's Lessons" offers pointed advice about self-assuredness and hindsight. "...You think you know it all/but you're heading for a fall/to make it back again/you'll have to crawl....when we look back and see what we've done will we be proud or ashamed....is this another life's lesson too late?" sings Johnny on the song.
On the flip side, not only does the band express the uncertainty of the cards life may deal a person, but also Lynyrd Skynyrd addresses free will in "Hell or Heaven.” Johnny noted, “You can choose your own hell, or heaven on earth. That hell could be drugs or it could be being married to the wrong woman or whatever. If you lay with dogs you're gonna get fleas."
From "Sweet Home Alabama" to "Saturday Night Special," Skynyrd always has been known for tackling controversial subjects head on, and the fierce "Dead Man Walking" is squarely in that tradition.
"We just love that groove," said Johnny. "It's old Skynyrd with new heavy guitars. Gary is just ripping on that one. It's about somebody doing a kid wrong, the parents finding out and avenging it with vigilante justice. It's hard to say you wouldn't do the same thing if you were in their place."
Similarly, "Jake" tells a story of a father's white-hot anger after catching his daughter and her beau in the throes of passion. The couple runs, but the angered, gun-waiving father catches up to the couple and fires the gun. Indeed someone dies, but it is the father, not Jake.
Another hot point addressed on Vicious Cycle is the brewing hostility between the U.S. and the Middle East: "Got our heads stuck in something overseas/Standin' ass deep in hypocrisy," read the lyrics on "The Way."
Not only focusing on tragedy and controversy, Lynyrd Skynyrd also draws on their blue collar roots for musical inspiration. They've always been known as one of the hardest working bands in history, having exploded onto the scene in the 1970’s and playing approximately 300 dates each year. Lynyrd Skynyrd doesn't know how to take it easy -- through any and all lumps life has offered Lynyrd Skynyrd, they have not given up or even slowed down.
Few bands have made as spectacular an entrance as did Skynyrd in 1973, and aside from their music, another distinguishing factor was Skynyrd's audience. While virtually all of the band's contemporaries were writing to a suburban people, Lynyrd Skynyrd fiercely promoted the values of its heritage, the values of America's workers. The band's hometown of Jacksonville truly was a blue collar town, and Ronnie, Donnie and Johnny Van Zant learned the value of hard work from family patriarch Lacy Van Zant. Ronnie was a master at articulating these values in Skynyrd's songs and Johnny has grown into the role so well that he's actually brought the group to another level. The new album is packed with working class anthems like "That's How I like It," "Pick'em Up," and "Sweet Mama."
"Our fans are country folks, they like the basics," Johnny explained. "They're not afraid of dirt, they know how to work with their hands. If you've got a good car and a good woman you can be happy. Life has gotten so complicated that a lot of people have lost sight of the fact that the simple things are the best things
. We came from a basic family. Our father was a working man. Our mother was a housewife. We didn't live the high life. Sure, these days we buy our own cars, but we still live a basic life."
Johnny and Donnie collaborated on a powerful tribute to the family's roots with "Red, White & Blue," an unapologetic celebration of the American working class. "My hair's turning white, my neck's always been red, my collar's still blue," goes the chorus. In a wonderful nod to Merle Haggard that Ronnie would have loved, the boys pay tribute to their parents. "I've driven by the White House, but spent some time in jail/My momma cried, but still wouldn't pay my bail."
Skynyrd has always managed to balance its kickass party anthems with messages that offer solace against life's troubles and hope for a better future. "The Way" touches on an inspirational theme that ranks with one of the band's most enduring songs, "Free Bird."
Music has always carried Lynyrd Skynyrd through life's cycles, and the band aims for their album Vicious Cycle to reflect that and to do so for others as well.
"I hope we can help some people through their bad times with our music," said Johnny. "That's what music's all about anyway. Music has brought me through some really dark times in my life and I hope this record can bring some other people through their bad times."