Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Johnny Van Zant Talks About Life, Whiskey & His Florida Roots
This Southern rock star recounts his favorite memories as a member of Lynyrd Skynyrd, the band's impact and his plans for the future.
Most artists find it difficult to follow the act of the performers who came before them, but for Johnny Van Zant, it was a far more gut-wrenching turn of events that would eventually push him into the spotlight. After Lynyrd Skynyrd's plane crashed in 1977, killing all but five of the band's original members including front-man Ronnie Van Zant, many fans presumed that their favorite songs would only be played from the needle of a record player. And for about a decade that was true. But eventually the strength of their music brought the surviving members back together. They found playing was healing, but they needed a new front man to carry them into a new era. Ronnie Van Zant's younger brother, Johnny, was a natural fit to step into the lead vocalist role. In the years following, Lynyrd Skynyrd would travel the world performing their iconic songs, writing new music and even starting their own brand of whiskey, all while doing their best to honor the spirit of the orginal members who started it all. Before performing hometown shows in Northeast Florida for the band's 50th Anniversary Tour, Johnny sat down with Flamingo Editor In Chief Jamie Rich to talk about his journey and the "swamp music" that has kept him close and connected to his late brother.
What place do you think Jacksonville, as a city, holds in the legacy of Southern rock?
Oh my god! So much. I mean, you had Grinder Switch, 38 Special, Blackfoot, Molly Hatchet, Lynyrd Skynyrd, myself. Heck, I did a few records on my own, way back in the early or late 70s and 80s. I'm trying to think, did I miss anybody? But there's a lot. We always kid around here and say that most people go, “Why Jacksonville? All this music.” And we always say, it's in the water.
The legacy of music goes back far in your family, but what was that original spark?
My dad was a truck driver. He was in the Navy. And he was in Pearl Harbor, when it was bombed. So whenever he got out of the Navy, he went into trucking. And us kids would go on the truck with him and we'd listen to country music. You know, people like George Jones, Tammy Wynette, Loretta Lynn, those kinds of people. We'd sing along with that stuff. But for us, we were rich in family, but we really weren’t rich money wise. So we had a swing set out and my dad had a circle driveway. And I can just remember, as a real small child, all of us out there singing songs. That was our thing. We'd go swing, play on the swing set and sing songs. Ronnie got into it first. And then Donnie got into it. For me, I wanted to be a drummer. I was real shy. Whenever I was younger, I was just like, “I don't know if I want to be out front.” So I thought I'd play drums and everybody was like, “No, you have to be a singer. You have to be a singer.” So I just followed suit. It’s been a family tradition now for a long, long time.
How did Ronnie's death change your life? And do you remember where you were when you heard the news?
Well, my dad and I were working in the yard and the phone rang. Back then we could leave our door open. We had an old screen door. And my dad said, “Go answer the phone. It’s ringing. I hear it ringing.” So, I ran in and there was a manager for Skynyrd way back when by the name of Alan Walden, and said, “Have you heard about Skynyrd’s plane?” And at that particular time, I looked up on the TV and they were having a special announcement, so I hollered for my dad. From that point on, to be very honest, it’s kind of a blur.
I think your brain keeps you from remembering bad things. That's the only way you can go forth. That, and the spirit of Jesus. It was just a bad time for our family.
It took ten years for the guys from Skynyrd to get back together. They offered it to me in ‘86 or ‘87. I really didn't want to do it. I was surprised that they offered it to me, but they wanted to have myself. I wanted to get my brother Donnie involved, but he was in 38 Special and it had just started happening, so he wasn't able to do it. So I agreed and said, “Let's go into rehearsal.”
We went into rehearsal and the thing about Skynyrd is, it's never been just a band. There's bands out there that don't even talk to each other. I know. I'm around them. We're not friends, we're family. And to get in that rehearsal was like, I could see the joy of those who had survived that awful plane crash and how the spark had come back to them. I couldn't say no, and honestly, it's been a spark for me, it's made me closer to my brother. I've learned a lot about him that an 18 year old probably wouldn't have known about a 28-year-old guy. I wish that it had never happened. I went to see BB King one time. And this guy would bring BB a red solo cup and a wet towel. And for some reason, it hit me. I said, “I'd like to have been that guy for Ronnie.”
What do you think Ronnie would say today about the legacy of Lynyrd Skynyrd and how the band has been able to continue?
I would hope that he would be proud, and one day I hope to be able to talk to him whenever I go on up to the good Lord’s house. I know myself, Gary and all the surviving members, we really tried to...we've never went on stage and called it in. We've always gone on stage and said, “Let's give it 110, 120, 130 percent, whatever we have in us.” I would hope that they would be very proud and I think he would be.
The one thing I can tell anybody is that if you’re not talking to your siblings or you’re in some kind of argument with a family member, you need to get over it. Life’s too short and you need to keep going forth.
I think Ronnie, as cocky as he was, he would probably say, “I told you so.” I knew I was writing great stuff that was gonna touch people. But I really feel his spirit. Again, I always call myself an old rock-and-roll singer, but not a day goes by that I don't do something sound-wise. But, I'm a true believer and I feel their spirit. The good Lord has guided us and somebody has guided us on the musical part. I think that, you know, those guys have been our warrior angels for a long, long time looking over us and telling us where to go.
Are you based in Jacksonville now?
Yeah, I'm based out of Jacksonville. I live in a little town called Middleburg. I can still burn a fire and shoot a gun. So there you go.
We were very sorry to read that original member Gary Rossington passed away on March 5, 2023. How has his passing affected the band?
Well, Gary passed away in March and that's why it's been a whirlwind year, to be honest. It’s been crazy. He was the last original member of the band, and I've been in the band 36 years. So for 36 years, me and him crossed the whole world back and forth. It's been a difficult year, but you know what, in [Lynyrd] Skynyrd it seems like when bad things happen, great things happen afterwards.
Do you honor him on tour?
Yeah, we definitely do. We have a song called, “Tuesday's Gone” and for that we got this huge video screen and we put all of his memory up on that one song really. And then we really honor everybody all throughout our show. You know, it's a tribute to all those who started this great music of Lynyrd Skynyrd.
Tell us more about the Hell House, the original cabin where the songs were written and inspiration for your new line of whiskey.
We drank a lot of it [whiskey]. And we used to always kid about having our own whiskey. We'd be like, “We should have our own. Because we'd have the best!” This kind of just fell in our laps the last couple of years. And the cool thing about it is Gary knew about it. He helped name it. We were going through all sorts of names. And I think it was him that said, “Why not Hell House? I can see a guy coming up to the bar going, ‘Hey, give me a shot of that Hell House.’” So we went with it.
It's been an amazing venture, I tell you that, it really has. I didn't realize how these guys who make the whiskey, they’re scientists or chemists or... I'm like, wow, I just figured it's [an] easy process. But it really isn't. I mean, we did Zoom calls, [phone] calls and taste testing. Personally, I wanted something that had a little bite to it, but might be a little sweet, too. So if you just wanted to do a shot, you weren’t like, “Oh god!” Or if you just wanted to put some ice on it and sip it. I'm a barbecue guy, so I kind of like a little charcoal taste. It's a different thing. I think we got it. It's all up to the consumer, but yeah, we are breaking ground in Florida.
Do you still partake in drinking whiskey?
I do. I always call it a nip and tuck. And I like having a little shot before I go on stage. I'm not much of a drinker. But every night before show, [I] always call it a shot of encouragement and it soothes the vocal cords.
Do you have any favorite Skynyrd songs through the years that you hold dearest? Or a favorite album?
I think “Simple Man.” I think every man, whether he's a tall man, short man, sad man, happy man, good man or bad man wants to make their mom happy. And that song just…when I first joined Skynyrd I thought “Freebird” and “Sweet Home [Alabama],” but that song has been used at weddings for mom-and-son dances millions of times. And again, I think guys always want to please their mom no matter what. Yeah, you know, if mom's mad at you, you got a bad day. It's kind of like having your wife mad at you.
Are the tours as wild today as they were back in the day?
Yeah, we drink a lot of this [holds up water bottle] nowadays.
No! At this point in time, I see these young artists just partying their butts off. And I'm like, “Oh my God, they're gonna regret that later on.” And believe it or not, I'm a mentor. I go, “No, no, no, you don't want to do that. Try to calm that down.” Again, I said in moderation.
What's your craziest tour story from back in the day?
Oh you’re trying to get the dirt, girl! Oh God, there's so many of them. I mean, I'm trying to think of one. There was one here in Florida. We played Tampa at [the] Ford Amphitheatre. I believe it was down there, at that time. And one of our guys, his wife never came out on the road. The poor girl, we were going back to the hotel on the bus and here comes a carload of girls and they're all flashing the bus and we're like, “Oh, Lord.” His wife was so embarrassed, and she was like, “This is what happens every night?!”
What's next? Are there any new projects on the horizon?
We’re always thinking of what and how to better things. We are going back out with ZZ. We're doing an arena tour. I think we're playing Savannah, Charleston, South Carolina and up in Virginia, so we're doing those kinds of things. Then we're out again the next summer coming up here with those guys.
And this year, when Gary passed, I actually thought, okay, I don't know how this year is gonna go. And it was amazing. We call our fans our Skynyrd Nation. And we started doing that way before other artists. And they came out, we had so many sold out shows.
And to be out on the road with ZZ is just an amazing thing, we've known those guys for years. It's like a brotherhood. It’s just an amazing thing, and God's really blessed us with the fans that come out. I was really blown away this year.
Then to top it off, going to Brazil. We played to 30,000 crazy Brazilians over there one night, and then I think 10 [thousand] the next night, so it was just a great thing.
I went to see BB King one time. And this guy would bring BB a red solo cup and a wet towel. And for some reason, it hit me. I said, “I'd like to have been that guy for Ronnie.”
Then to come home here to St. Augustine. My grandmother and grandfather lived in St. Augustine. He was a bridge tender going over to Villano Beach. There used to be a drawbridge there. So, I would go down there and stay. Anytime I get a chance to go to St. Augustine, it brings back a lot of memories and feelings and it's just a good place for me.
You have such a high-intensity, high-energy occupation and it probably takes a lot out of you. How do you balance your home life and work life?
Actually, my brother wrote a song called “Don't Ask Me No Questions.” It was about coming off the roads and man, I don't want to think about music. I almost moved to Nashville years ago. My managers we're like, “Hey, come up here, I can get you to do commercials. Blah, blah, blah, there's more opportunities.” I said, “Well, look, I'm a Florida boy. I'm gonna die in Florida. And I don't want to talk music the rest of my life.”
What else do you enjoy? Is it the grandkids?
Oh yeah! That and just hanging with the family. Family means everything to me. We’ve lost a lot in our family. The one thing I can tell anybody is that if you’re not talking to your siblings or you’re in some kind of argument with a family member, you need to get over it. Life’s too short and you need to keep going forth. Somebody’s gotta take the high road. I’ve had to do it with my own family. Family’s everything. You can make billions of dollars, but when you take your last breath and you hope and pray to God, those billions of dollars are not going to be there. Family are. And that means everything. So, I just like being myself. I cut my own grass, I work in the yard, I go to the grocery store with my wife, she makes me take out garbage and I like it! I’m good with that.
Anything you would like to say to your Florida fans?
Just that we love Jacksonville. Skynyrd was born and raised here. Half of them are some of my kinfolks.
We had played a show here…our final show was gonna be at the arena, not the arena but the stadium down there, years back. We actually videotaped it and recorded it. It was a Farewell Tour and I do want to maybe address that. To the fans out there, we had planned on 2020 was going to be our last year. We were gonna just do charity stuff, maybe do a few shows here and there. And COVID came along and ruined our whole tour that we had on the books. We were home for 15 months and we realized that, and any honest musician will tell you that, “We don’t retire, we just play less shows.” So, when you see Farewell…and we actually had all intentions of that, I swear to you, in front of God. Then we were home for 15 months and we had all these shows in 2020 we were gonna do and they were still on the books and we were obligated. So, we went back out in ’21 and we really, really missed the crowd. We missed our fans tremendously.
I call Skynyrd the Grateful Dead of the South because we have fans that just follow us around from town to town. It’s crazy. It’s an amazing thing. I hope one day whenever I’m sitting out here in Middleburg or on one of our great beaches here in Florida—maybe Ponte Vedra—I’ll look back on it and go, “Wow. What a trip.”