Johnny Van Zant Rockin' Lynyrd Skynyrd For 37 Years

Southern Rockers Out With ZZ Top On 'Smart Dressed Simple Man Tour' Promoting New Hell House Whiskey

Jeff Walker,  Entertainment Writer

During the evolution of the southern rock several bands came to the forefront of the genre. However critics, industry insiders, and more importantly fans agree it was Lynyrd Skynyrd that introduced southern rock to the masses. Although the band has endured tragedy over the years they continue to be one of the most celebrated bands, not only in southern rock but in all of rock n' roll.

50 years after Lynyrd Skynyrd made their mark in contemporary music the boys are still on the road. With the last founding member Gary Rossington passing in 2023, the core of the band remains vocalist Johnny Van Zant, and guitarist Rickey Medlocke who spent two years (1970-72) in the band prior to enjoying a 25 year run in his own southern rock band Blackfoot returning to Skynyrd in 1997 full-time.

Johnny as almost everyone on the planet knows is the younger brother of Ronnie Van Zant, who tragically died in the 1977 plane crash along with other founders and family members. Eventually several off-shoot projects emerged, but after a decade (1987) some of the original band members decided to celebrate Lynyrd Skynyrd with a reunion tour. Johnny was asked to take part, but admits he had reservations. aaaaaaaalynskynjohnny

"I was a fan of the band. Seeing them rehearse in our living room I understood all they went through to achieve fame. First off, I thought why not Donnie, but of course his band (38 Special) was doing fine, so there was no reason for him to make the move."

Van Zant's hesitancy was more about how he would be perceived stepping into his brother's role. "I didn't want to harm the legacy of Lynyrd Skynyrd. I didn't want what I do to be cheesy or off the cuff."

What changed his mind. "The turning point for me was the crash survivors doing the reunion tour. After the tour I got a call from Gary (Rossington) who said he wanted to carry on. At that point it just felt right. For me it's all about family. Lynyrd Skynyrd has and always will be all about family."

As the band continue on what was once deemed a farewell tour before being sidelined by the pandemic, they are paired in 2024 on a co-headlining tour with Texas boogie rockers ZZ Top. Together the two super groups have a combined 100 plus years of making music and are two of the most durable bands in rock n' roll.

Van Zant says Lynyrd Skynyrd and ZZ Top have had a common thread since the beginning. "Oh my god, Billy (Gibbons) and Gary go way back. They were always good together. Billy may be from Texas, but he's as southern as he can be. We spent 11 months on tour with them, and all I can say it's a brotherhood. We work well together." 

He adds, "There's no egos. We enjoy each others music. We laugh a lot. Honestly we're just a good fit, and it's an awesome show. This tour is a must see for fans, because ZZ Top and Skynyrd are two bands best experienced live." 

Appropriately titled the 'Sharp Dressed Simple Man Tour', it will take both bands across the country in 2024 with several dates scheduled in the southeast, a part of the country Van Zant feels comfortable in. "Sure, we love playing in the south and where the band got it's start."

But according to Van Zant their reach is global. "Lynyrd Skynyrd is well received everywhere. We recently played in Brazil, and it was great. Our music touches people all over the world." aaaaaaaalynskynbox

Last year Lynyrd Skynyrd released 'Fyfty', an appropriately titled, digitally mastered 4-CD box set pulling together dozens of tracks spanning a five decade career. Included in the anthology is a previously unreleased performance of 'Free Bird' and a poignant rendition of 'Gimme Three Steps' which was recorded at Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Tennessee, in November of 2022, making it guitarist Gary Rossington’s final Lynyrd Skynyrd show before his passing in March of 2023. 

Regarding the box set Van Zant says, "We just thought it's been 50 years, why not put out a package that has 50 songs. We added some new stuff we recorded before Gary passed, and as it turned out it was a great way to pay tribute to him. He was the heart and soul of the band for as long as I've been a member."

Prior to 'Fyfty' it had been 12 years since the band released a studio album, aptly titled 'Last of a Dying Breed' with all new songs. Can fans expect anything from Johnny and the boys moving forward. "When Covid hit it kind of knocked us out for 15 months. We were just beginning the final tour, and suddenly we're out of commission."

Van Zant found a positive during his down time. "There was an upside for me during the pandemic. I got to work on a gospel album with my brother (Donnie). That kept me busy. It was something we had talked about for years, so being off the road and having idle time worked out well for that project." Van Zant expects the gospel album to be out sometime in 2024. "That's the plan."

Although Johnny has been with Lynyrd Skynyrd going on 37 years, he fronted his own band (Johnny Van Zant Band) early on, and has recorded several albums with Donnie under the Van Zant name. He and his brother have had success on both the US Country and Mainstream Rock Album charts. aaaaaaaalynskynget

2005's 'Get Right with the Man' reached #2 on the country charts for Van Zant. "Southern rock and country are so closely related, so I'm never surprised our music crosses over. One thing I do know for sure is that Donnie and I have music in our blood, our soul, and in our very core." 

The legendary band that got it's start out of Jacksonville, Florida still has a hold on Van Zant, where he and Donnie still call home. "I lived in California for a short time. It wasn't for me. I'm a good old southern boy raised on collard greens." Johnny and Donnie live next door to each other on the outskirts of suburban Jacksonville.

While their music and legendary status in rock n' roll is unparalleled, it's only fitting that the pioneers of southern rock introduce an adult beverage that captures the indomitable spirit of Lynyrd Skynyrd. Johnny along with long time guitarist Rickey Medlocke partnered with Bespoken Spirits to create Hell House Whiskey which is an acknowledgement to the band's early days. aaaaaaaalynskyn3

"Hell House was the name the band called the house they practiced and recorded in when they were just cutting their teeth. I think Ronnie rented it for $50 a month. It was just a shack about 30 minutes outside the city limits of Jacksonville. It had no heat or AC, so they froze at times and certainly sweat a lot. But from that hell hole they formed some of their best songs. 'Free Bird' and 'Tuesday's Gone' got their beginnings there."

Hell House Whiskey is described as a smooth drinking whiskey with an honey-amber appearance, unleashing aromas of honeydew, sorbet, butterscotch, and allspice. Its smoky oak-driven finish presents a sweet and spicy aftertaste.

Van Zant said it was meant to be. "Over the years we've drank a lot of whiskey, so we thought maybe it's time we have our own. This all started a couple of years ago, so Gary was in the mix. As a matter of fact he came up with the name. He was there when they were practicing and writing at the hell house."

He adds, "Again this was something we had always wanted to do. Bespoken came us, so it was a no-brainer. They allowed us to be a part of the whole process. Too sample the product and but our seal of approval on it. Hell House screams 'whiskey' and it fits the legacy of Lynyrd Skynyrd." aaaaaaaalynskynwhiskey

Van Zant admits it was a win win for Bespoken Spirits and the band. "Hell yeah. I may be partial, but I feel with all certainty whiskey drinkers will love sipping our whiskey."

As they've done over the years Lynyrd Skynyrd salute fallen members at each and every concert. "We pay tribute to the founders. It's the right thing to do and it's good for the fans. We salute Gary on 'Tuesday's Gone', and give Ronnie his due on 'Free Bird'. Thank God we have the technology to have Ronnie take part. He was a great singer and the song is by my standards one of the best rock n' roll anthems of all time."

Music industry types agree placing 'Free Bird' inside just about every Top 100 list of greatest hits, and inside the Top 10 for guitar solos. The track off their debut album 'Pronounced 'Lĕh-'nérd 'Skin-'nérd' reached No. 19 on the Billboard Top 40 in 1975, with a live version returning to the charts peaking at No. 38 in early 1977.

At roughly 11 minutes long 'Free Bird' and the equally familiar 'Sweet Home Alabama' have become Lynyrd Skynyrd's signature songs. Not bad for a hard rocking tunes during the disco era. aaaaaaaabillygibbonstour

"Without question. Fans love all our songs but they gravitate to a few more than others. We love closing our shows out with 'Free Bird'. It's not only a great tribute to Ronnie and the band, but a way to say thank you to fans who have supported Lynyrd Skynyrd over the years. It still gets me a little choked up when we do it in concert." 

The 'Sharp Dressed Simple Man Tour' makes stops in Savannah Ga at Enmarket Arena on March 8th, the Bon Secours Arena in Greenville SC on March 14th, and Colonial Life Arena in Columbia SC on March 16th. For more dates visit