Fireworks Magazine Online 76 - Interview with Van Zant

VAN ZANT

Interview by Elin Sigfridsson

Johnny and Donnie are the younger brothers of Ronnie Van Zant, Lynyrd Skynyrd's original vocalist who was tragically killed in a plane crash in 1977. Johnny is better known as the current singer of Lynyrd Skynyrd after the band reunited in 1987, and Donnie for 38 Special which he formed with guitarist Don Barnes back in 1974.
Johnny had released several Southern Rock albums in the 80s with the Johnny Van Zant Band before changing genres for the totally AOR sounding self-titled Van Zant album in 1985. The brothers then joined forces in 1998 with Van Zant reverting back to their Southern Rock roots and releasing a further four studio albums.


VanZant

With a new live album being released Fireworks thought it was about time to dig a little deeper in the history of these two brothers, although the first question had to be why a live show from Georgia, back in 2006, is being released now?

Johnny: We went back and revisited the live album about a year and a half ago. To our surprise it sounded incredibly good, so we shipped everything up to Nashville to producer/engineer Ben Fowler. Over the past year went to Nashville and mixed the CD. We decided to put out the end product as we did very little shows with Van Zant and thought the fans would enjoy it.

That Johnny and Donnie have their roots in Southern Rock is a well known fact, and is clearly demonstrated by the songs on the album which are an interesting mix of not only Van Zant songs but also some cool choices from Lynyrd Skynyrd and 38 Special. Although for fans of Johnny's more AOR output, the lack of songs from that '85 self- titled album is rather disappointing.

Johnny: We were actually promoting our 'Get Right With The Man' Country album, so the choice was easy. We played mostly songs from that particular CD. When it came to our individual bands, we decided we would throw in some of those songs as well.
Donnie: We thought it would be great for the fans to get a little bit of our history with our bands. I thought it would be cool for Johnny to sing Don Barne's 'Wild-Eyed Southern Boys' from 38 Special, which turned out great. I got a chance to sing a few of my older brother Ronnie's songs with Johnny, which made it especially cool.

Being busy with Lynyrd Skynryd and 38 Special, Van Zant never did much touring, which was clearly a vast disappointment for their fans. With so many albums behind them there must have been requests for tours in the past.

Donnie: We actually have toured together as Van Zant doing the Rock version. The Country tour was the longest tour we ever did together but it was always hard to tour as Van Zant because 38 Special and Skynyrd do between 90 to100 shows a year, which didn't give us much time for Van Zant.

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The 1985 self-titled album is decidedly more AOR than the Southern Rock leanings the band are better known for. The interesting thing about this album is that it is completely uncharacteristic for Van Zant and does raise some questions – was Johnny pushed by the record company to record songs in this style or was it simply what he wanted to do?

Johnny: It was definitely the type of music I was into at the time. As for the musical direction on this album, I was in control with my decisions for the album. With that said, I still took all of their advice and direction into account.

That 1985 album is a big favourite of many of us here at Fireworks and we wondered if Johnny would ever consider pursuing that musical direction. Johnny's 'Brickyard Road' in 1990 did follow in the same AOR footsteps but with some Southern tinges, but what are the possibilities for the future?

Johnny: I never say never. Those records helped shape who I am today as an artist and a person. I hold them dear to my heart but I also have to take current music into account.

So perhaps there is some hope left for us. Although with that sound already going on from their self-titled album, why didn't they release 'Brickyard Road' under the Van Zant name?

Johnny: The chairman of Atlantic Records signed me to a record deal. We thought it would be better if we do it under just my name. I've been with Skynyrd for almost 30 years, I've always been proud of my brothers' Southern Rock music. As an individual artist I wanted to shape my sound different from my brothers. My intention was to make my music more commercial to appeal to those who love Southern Rock, and maybe even Metal.

For over three decades Johnny and Donnie have kept themselves busy with Lynyrd Skynyrd and 38 Special, and Johnny is still as active as ever in writing new material for Skynyrd. But what are the chances of a new Van Zant studio album considering the fact that there has been nine years since 'My Kind Of Country' was released?

Johnny: We've been writing non-stop and we probably have over 100 songs. We would like to create a Gospel album, and a Blues record.
Donnie: We have enough material to do two Van Zant albums. We'll see what happens. I would love to do another project with Johnny and don't ever count me out!

And we are very pleased to hear that Donnie! And speaking of Donnie, 38 Special has been active since 1977 and released 12 studio albums and toured relentlessly all over the world to reach their fans. But in 2013 Donnie decided to quit the band.

Donnie: I didn't quit the band, I was forced to leave due to inner-ear nerve damage in both ears which took away 75% of my top and 75% of my mid range. I was told by doctors if I continue staying on the road I could go completely deaf. But I still write every day, especially with my brother Johnny.

When it comes to writing music, Johnny and Donnie seem to have an endless imagination.Working and writing for Skynyrd and 38 Special, and with Van Zant to unite both brothers in the middle, perhaps comparing them is not so different after all?

Johnny: There isn't much of a difference. We always try to write about honesty, family values, and touch on our religion.
Donnie: It wasn't a big jump for either of us. The songs I did with Van Zant I would have brought to the table for 38 Special.

When I thought of a last question for Johnny and Donnie I started to wonder about their feelings about it all. When they look back on their careers, from the very beginning up to this very moment - how does it make them feel?

Johnny: It still feels like a dream. I often find myself questioning if it ever even happened. I'm honoured to say the least, especially the fact that the fans have stuck by me this entire time, and enjoyed all of my hard work.
Donnie: I feel very blessed to have forty years in the music business. When you think about it, only five percent of musicians get a chance and only five percent make a living doing it; I've done both. Thanks to all of the fans for making my dream come true.

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