Rickey Medlocke on reuniting with Skynyrd, the plane crash, and the rebel flag

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ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, AUG. 21, 1997

By Steve Newton

October 20, 1977, is a day branded by sadness for southern-rock fans. That’s when Lynyrd Skynyrd’s rented plane, short on fuel, crashed into a Mississippi swamp en route to a gig at Louisiana University. Vocalist Ronnie Van Zant and guitarist Steve Gaines died in the crash—along with backup vocalist Cassie Gaines and road manager Dean Kilpatrick—and most of the other band members suffered serious injuries. According to Rickey Medlocke, who joined the current Skynyrd lineup on guitar last year, he came very close to being on that fateful plane himself.

“I got to see the guys at their studio right as they were leaving for the Street Survivors tour,” recalls Medlocke, calling from his home in Fort Myers, Florida. “They were getting ready for it, and I took my dad, Shorty, over there, because Ronnie and I always used to hang out at my house and listen to my dad play the blues and stuff. And Ronnie was like, ‘Hey, man, if you’re not doing anything, why don’t you come ride for a week or so?’ But I couldn’t do it because I had obligations with my own band, Blackfoot.

“Then all of a sudden everything happened the way it did, and I went through a period for a while of where I got to thinkin’, you know, maybe I should have been there. Maybe I coulda made the difference in something, you know what I’m sayin’? But I guess it wasn’t meant to be, and this was meant to be. Now I’m back with the guys and it’s 110-percent positive.”

Before Medlocke began his 16-year career with rootsy hard-rockers Blackfoot, he was actually an early member of Lynyrd Skynyrd; he figured prominently on the band’s 1978 release, Skynyrd’s First and…Last, which featured then-unreleased recordings from the group’s formative, pre–“Free Bird” days. Back then, Medlocke played drums, sang a bit, and wrote for the band, but he left because he didn’t want to spend his whole career behind a set of drums.

“I really love playing guitar,” he says, “so I elected to go ahead and leave the group and continue playing guitar. I figured if I make that step and Skynyrd goes on to do something great, then that’s the way it was meant to be. And, sure enough, they did. But at the same time, I went on and had success with Blackfoot. Now all of a sudden, I’m back with the guys again, and it feels great.”

The path to Medlocke’s reunion with Lynyrd Skynyrd—which puts him in the guitar lineup with founding member Gary Rossington and former Outlaws picker Hughie Thomasson—was first cut about a year and a half ago, when he attended the world premiere of director Jeff G. Waxman’s documentary Freebird: The Movie. (The feature-length film revolves around concert footage from a 1976 gig with the Rolling Stones at England’s Knebworth Park; selections from the soundtrack were released on CD last year, as was a remastered version of the band’s first live recording, One More From the Road, also from ’76.)

“They were gonna have a big jam session the night before the world premiere,” explains Medlocke, “and I got invited to come up there for the three-day event, which I accepted right off; I didn’t even think about it. In fact, I cancelled some dates with Blackfoot and went up to Atlanta and joined in with the guys for their celebration. It had been a while since I’d been around them, but the camaraderie was still there, and the next thing you know, I got a call from Gary Rossington that he was gonna come down and see me and jam with me again. His exact words were, ‘I want you to learn “Free Bird”, “I Ain’t the One”, “Saturday Night”, and “That Smell”, and if you pass the audition, I’ll hire you and give you $1.50.’ So he hired me, and here I am talking to you.”

Thomasson had already signed on with Skynyrd when Medlocke came on board, and the two recruits had previously known one another from playing Blackfoot/Outlaws double bills. According to Medlocke, Thomasson’s role onstage is to cover the guitar parts previously handled by Ed King—and King’s predecessor, Steve Gaines—while Medlocke has been assigned to play the bits that founding member Allen Collins is known for. (Collins survived the plane crash, but he was paralyzed from the waist down in a 1986 car wreck that killed his girlfriend. According to the tragedy-prone band’s current bio, Collins died of pneumonia in 1990.)

“When Gary hired me,” reports Medlocke, “he said, ‘I want you to cover all of Allen’s parts, because you and him had sort of the same style, and I really miss that rock side of the band.’ I said, ‘You got it!’ Then I sat down and learned everything note-for-note.”

It’s a bit of a coincidence that the player chosen to stand in Collins’s hallowed instrumental boots wields the same, relatively rare types of guitars that he favoured—Gibson Firebirds and Explorers. They’ll surely sound just dandy—cranked up between Rossington’s trusty Les Paul and Thomasson’s trademark Strat—when the Florida guitar army invades the Pacific Coliseum on Thursday (August 28). With backup from ’70s blues-rock belter Paul Rodgers and loud ’n’ proud Louisiana guitar slinger Kenny Wayne Shepherd, the show seems made in shit-kicker heaven, so those with refined tastes and delicate sensibilities might want to give the old hockey rink a wide berth. They shouldn’t feel too threatened, though, as Medlocke asserts that the image of southern-rock fans as scruffy, Confederate flag–waving rednecks is stereotypical.

“Being that I am part Native American, I have to consider this thing, and I think people have a misconception about the South. A lotta people will look at us and say, ‘Hey, you fly the rebel flag; the rebel flag was a symbol of oppression,’ and all that. Nah, not really. To us, it’s just a symbol of where we came from—the South—and whatever happened during that time, you know, now we should look past that stuff. We’re all here on this land together, and we should try to make the best of what we’ve got before it’s too late.

“And when you talk about rednecks—I have seen rednecks all around the country. Lemme tell ya, we draw all different kinds of fans, and that’s wonderful, man. People from all walks of life come to a Lynyrd Skynyrd show, and as long as they love the music, that’s all that counts.”

To hear the full audio of my 1997 interview with Rickey Medlocke, subscribe to my Patreon page, where you can also hear my interviews with:

John Fogerty, 1997
Joe Perry of Aerosmith, 1987
Rick Derringer, 1999
Robin Trower, 1990
Mick Ronson, 1988
Buck Dharma of Blue Oyster Cult, 1997
Michael Schenker, 1992
Vince Neil of Mötley Crüe, 1991
Vinnie Paul of Pantera, 1992
Joan Jett, 1992
Steve Harris of Iron Maiden, 1988
Sebastian Bach of Skid Row, 1989
Rob Halford of Judas Priest, 1984
Bill Henderson of Chilliwack, 1999
Paul Rodgers, 1997
R.L. Burnside, 1999
Guthrie Govan of the Aristocrats, 2015
Mick Mars of Mötley Crüe, 1985
Carlos Santana, 2011
Walter Trout, 2003
Rudy Sarzo of Quiet Riot, 1983
Rob Hirst of Midnight Oil, 2001
Tommy Aldridge, 2001
Donald “Duck” Dunn, 1985
Mark Farner of Grand Funk, 1991
Chris Robinson of Black Crowes, 1990
Jennifer Batten, 2002
Mike Fraser, 2014
Leo Kottke, 2002
Lemmy Kilmister of Motorhead, 2002
David Gogo, 1991
Booker T. Jones, 2016
Link Wray, 1997
James Reyne, 1988
Mike Rutherford of Genesis, 1983
Buddy Guy, 1991
Country Dick Montana of the Beat Farmers, 1990
Mike Cooley of the Drive-By Truckers, 2016
Gary Rossington of Lynyrd Skynyrd, 1986
Lindsay Mitchell of Prism, 1988
Buddy Miles, 2001
Eddie Money, 1988
Tom Hamilton of Aerosmith, 1983
Gaye Delorme, 1990
Dave Murray of Iron Maiden, 1984
Graham Bonnet of Alcatrazz, 1984
Mick Fleetwood of Fleetwood Mac, 2016
Doc Neeson of Angel City, 1985
Rik Emmett of Triumph, 1985
Sonny Landreth, 2016
Tosin Abasi of Animals as Leaders, 2016
Jeff Beck, 2001
Albert King, 1990
Johnny Ramone of the Ramones, 1992
Peter Frampton, 1987
Otis Rush, 1997
Gord Downie of the Tragically Hip, 1989
Leslie West of Mountain, 2002
Steve Howe of Yes, 2017
Bruce Dickinson of Iron Maiden, 1983
Uli Jon Roth, 2016
Poison Ivy of the Cramps, 1990
Stevie Ray Vaughan, 1985
Greg Lake of ELP, 1992
Robert Plant, 1993
Malcolm Young and Brian Johnson of AC/DC, 1983
Warren Zevon, 1992
Tal Wilkenfeld, 2016
Steve Clark of Def Leppard, 1988
Roy Buchanan, 1986
Gary Moore, 1984
Ronnie Montrose, 1994
Danny Gatton, 1993
Alex Lifeson of Rush, 1992
Ann Wilson of Heart, 1985
J.J. Cale, 1990
Yngwie Malmsteen, 2014
Chris Cornell, 2008
Long John Baldry, 1985
Allan Holdsworth, 1983
Kim Mitchell, 1984
Warren Haynes of Allman Brothers, 1994
Derek Trucks, 1998
Susan Tedeschi, 1998
Joe Satriani, 2018
B.B. King, 1984
Albert Collins, 1985
Ronnie James Dio, 1985
Tony Iommi of Black Sabbath, 1984
Dick Dale, 2000
Greg Allman, 1998
Dickey Betts, 2001
…with hundreds more to come

 

One response to “Rickey Medlocke on reuniting with Skynyrd, the plane crash, and the rebel flag

  1. I’m so thankful Lymyrd skynyrd is still going strong and so thankful Medlocke was not on that flight on 10/20/77 . God has a purpose for all and we should all be so thankful for each other . God bless our skynyrd family !! We love you all and love black foot too !

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