'Free Bird' is more than a bar-room cliche for Lynyrd Skynyrd
One of the current guitarists in Lynyrd Skynyrd, Rickey Medlocke, was around for the band it its earliest days. Although he went on to form his own hit band Blackfoot, the return to Skynyrd has Medlocke thinking about those days in 1971 and 1972 when he was a part of a musical pioneer.
“"There was always something unique and unusual," Medlocke told the Rapid City, S.D., Journal in an August interview about Lynyrd Skynyrd, who plays on Aug. 20 at the Peppermill Resort Spa Casino. "There was something special about them. You never know what's gonna happen when you're young, but you knew they were gonna do something."
Lynyrd Skynyrd began as teen musicians in 1964, with current founding member Gary Rossington on guitar, Allen Collins also on guitar, drummer Bob Burns and vocalist Ronnie Van Zant as those who would be a part of the band during its heyday. After going under various names, it was in 1969 that the band found its distinctive moniker, a takeoff on a P.E. teacher they had in Jacksonville, Fla., named Leonard Skinner.
After the band earned a following in the south in the early ‘70s, they were discovered by Al Kooper, a musician and record producer who singed them to MCA Records. The group’s debut album in 1973 was a hit, with songs that are still staples in the band’s live shows: “Free Bird,” “Simple Man” and “Gimme Three Steps.”
Triple guitar attack
Medlocke was actually a drummer with the group from 1971 to 1972. Now on one of the three six-strings in the band, he told the Rapid City Journal that playing the band’s popular songs has really shown him how broad the band’s appeal is, from bikers to heavy metal fans to office workers.
"That's something you can really be proud of," Medlocke said. "Because of that, there's a responsibility to do the songs right, because they're all-time classics people love to hear over and over.”
Medlocke added that he’d be “really hard-pressed to choose one song that's a favorite. I love 'Simple Man' and 'Needle and the Spoon,' but everyone always asks me my favorite, and I always say, 'All of them.’"
He also part of a three-guitar lineup that’s been a staple of Skynyrd since the beginning. It’s an unusual setup and Medlocke recently told the website Ultimate Classic Rock that it’s still great to be a contrast to other bands.
“I think the three-guitar attack, as they say, is really powerful,” he said. “Especially the way the sound of each guitar is different, and it comes together. It’s incredible. I think it goes all the way back to the way they kind of just did it — kind of by accident.
“I think that each guy, even right now, has his own place in the band, and whatever song you’re playing, if it’s from a new record, whoever fits that style is the guy that pretty well plays the lead in it.”
Those three guitars powered Lynyrd Skynyrd’s rise through three other albums besides its debut in the mid ‘70s. Hits then included hits such as “Sweet Home Alabama,” “Saturday Night Special” and “Gimme Back My Bullets,” as well as a live album, “One More For The Road,” that showcased the band’s rowdy shows.
Only three days after their “Street Survivors” album was released in October 1977, the band was in a plane crash in Mississippi while on tour. Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines and backup singer Cassie Gaines were killed; other band members including Rossington were seriously injured. The group disbanded until 1987.
It was during that year’s reunion tour that Johnny Van Zant, Ronnie’s younger brother, was named the band’s new lead singer. From there, the group has toured and recorded consistently since 1991. Its last two albums — “God and Guns” in 2009 and “Last of a Dyin’ Breed” in 2012 — were both top 20 hits on the album charts.
Lynyrd Skynyrd’s current lineup also includes longtime drummer Michael Cartellone (a member since 1999) as well as ‘00s members guitarist Mark Matejka and keyboardist Peter Keys. Bassist Johnny Colt, who joined in 2012, was also known for his work in the bands Black Crowes and Train.
Medlocke told the Rapid City Journal that when he was asked to join the group in 1996, it just felt right to him. “I felt like this is where I should've been all along,” he said. “The ride has been incredible."
Medlocke told the Miami New Times in a recent interview that he’s still excited about playing after all these years.
“I always said the day I quit enjoying it was when I'd get out,” he said. “I look at other bands such as ourselves, like the Stones, AC/DC, and Aerosmith, and they are still out there touring and making new records, so why shouldn't we?”
Cries for ‘Free Bird’
Of course, Skynyrd is a part of permanent pop culture as well. Yelling for their song “Free Bird” — ironic or otherwise — is an audience staple for lots of bands, so much that it’s become a kind of barroom cliche for some music fans. Medlocke did tell the Miami New Times that Skynyrd’s own fans definitely scream for the tune early on during the sets, and that he’s fine with that.
“I think every band walking wishes they had a ‘Free Bird,’” he said. “For us, we have one, and for us, we don't mind them screaming it. They know we're gonna get to it. There's no way we could leave an arena and not play it. I believe that would be a really bad mistake.”
Medlocke said that songs such as “Free Bird” still transform themselves live during a Skynyrd show, much as they did during the band’s heyday.
“Somewhere in the midst of the show, playing them every night, they're a little bit different,” Medlocke said of Skynyrd’s big hits. “The fans may not notice it, but we do. You go, ‘Hey, that little passage was a little different and we enjoyed it.’ It's interesting.
“That said, we never get tired of people yelling ‘Play 'Free Bird.’ I think other bands get tired of it more than we do, 'cause I think every rock 'n' roll audience, even if they're going to see Katy Perry, they're gonna scream, ‘Play 'Free Bird.’ It’s one of those running things. We find it pretty funny. That's a great honor when people do that all the time.”