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.”