The music of Southern boogie rockers Lynyrd Skynyrd is woven into American culture to the extent that it shows up—the threads become visible—even in the life of a locochon Chicano music critic living in Albuquerque, N.M. Here are some instances drawn from personal experience.
• The class song played loudly at my high school graduation ceremony was “Free Bird,” still an Eldorado High School favorite more than 10 years after the record dropped in 1973. When the song was played at the Pit, just about everyone in the graduation party—except for me and my friends who had consumed a pile of psilocybin mushroom-laced enchiladas earlier that evening—started whooping and screaming and shouting “Hell yeah” while we just stared into space and sung along majestically, mythically.
• In art school I knew this dude who worked in a foundry. A few years later—in 1995—he invited me to his wedding in the city of big shoulders, where a huge party awaited. As Mr. Chaudruc and his pals picked me up at the airport, he turned to the driver and said in a calm, clear voice, “Oak tree, you’re in my way,” a line about parties gone wrong from the Lynyrd Skynyrd song, “That Smell.” Nothing went wrong though and I never thought about that damn tree again while in his gracious company.
• In 2004 I married a Southern gal. On our first day together, I went out for some Mexican take-out from Garcia’s Kitchen. When I got back, my future wife was jamming out and dancing to “Call Me The Breeze.” She told me in her luxurious drawl that she was so happy she couldn’t help but put on some Skynyrd.
• Just last week, I had the chance to sit down and talk to Rickey Medlocke, one of three guitarists who lead the band’s sultry Southern sing-along of pure American music. Medlocke’s been with the band since its beginning, left for a while to front the legendary Southern-fried rock ensemble Blackfoot and then returned to Lynyrd Skynyrd in 1996—long after the band reformed post-plane crash and after the subsequent death of original guitarist Allen Collins in 1990—at the urging of founding member Gary Rossington.
Lynyrd Skynyrd will be playing a show at Isleta Amphitheater on Sunday, Sept. 22 and I wanted to ask Medlocke all about the band. Here’s a transcript of our conversation.
Weekly Alibi: Hi. Rickey Medlocke?
Rickey Medlocke: Yes.
Mr. Medlocke, I am honored to meet you, I’m August March from Weekly Alibi. Can we talk about Lynyrd Skynyrd?
How’s it going out there with you all on tour for the millionth time? You’re still playing stadiums and amphitheaters!
It’s a band effort. You’ve got this guy, Gary Rossington, that’s one of the founding members [of the band]. All that stuff, all those classic tunes have his signature on them. I consider myself a guy who’s a team player. We have a three guitar army. I just do what I do and it fits really well, like the original band’s guitar army with Allen Collins, Gary [Rossington] and Steve Gaines or Ed King. This farewell tour, man, has been an overwhelming success. Ninety percent, maybe 95 percent of the shows are all sold out. The ones that aren’t completely clean are within 95 to 98 percent sold out. So, you know, we’ve been having a great run and if you look back and consider when the band started, it’s well over 50 years now.
You were somebody who was involved at the very beginning before you went off to lead Blackfoot. How does that ...
So I mean—sorry to cut you off ...
No that’s cool, I want to hear your side of the Lynyrd Skynyrd saga.
But you know what, I—in the very beginning—left Blackfoot and went over to Lynyrd Skynyrd back in 1971 and played all the way through ’72 or ’73. I was one of the original drummers for the band. Not a lot of history that you read on the band will give me that kind of credit, but many do.
So you all had a dual drum kit early on?
Yeah and I had been playing drums—I had been playing drums since I was eight years old, right after I started playing guitar when I was five. The deal with me was that the guys felt I could do a great job of being the drummer. I came in and [original drummer] Bob Burns ended up leaving the band for the first time. I went to Muscle Shoals and recorded all the session stuff [for the debut album] but toward the end of it, felt that they needed somebody better on the kit. It just so happened that Bob wanted to come back. He came back in and was the drummer for the first two records. I mean the guys thought I was good, they thought my groove pattern was good but I felt like they needed more of a monster to get them across to where they needed to go. That’s why I opted out. I didn’t even have Blackfoot to go back to, man! I opted out, tried to find something to situate myself in as a guitar player and singer. It just so happened that the guys in Blackfoot were getting back together in North Carolina. We created our own history.
Yeah, you recorded that roaring Southern rock tune by your grandfather, “Train, Train!” It was a heavier sound, que no?
That’s true. A lot of people in the industry, a lot of musicians and a lot of fans consider Blackfoot to be the first Southern heavy metal band. We took a lot of our influence from heavy English and European bands. We did create our own thing. When that was done, I bought the name and still own it today. I kept the band going in different versions, but come the end of 1995, I participated in the premiere of Freebird in Atlanta, Ga. There had been a jam session the night before and the guys in Lynyrd Skynyrd saw me play. Lo and behold, the following March I get a phone call from Gary [Rossington]. I was back in the band.
Is it challenging to play in a band with three guitarists? That’s like so Radiohead!
Well, understand that the original three guitar army ended when the first band did. Each guy—just like today, right now—has his own distinct sound, tone and style of playing. One of the things that I think contributed when I got back in was that my style and sound was very similar to that of Allen Collins [original member who died in 1990 after the band broke up after 1977, post-plane crash]. I’m very energetic, high energy. And I think that Gary said to me, “I don’t have Allen anymore and you’re the closest thing to him.” That’s one of the reasons I got the gig, other than the fact I was a good guitar player and performer. With the other guys, Gary and me—and at first we had Hughie Thomasson from the Outlaws who played a Stratocaster [he passed away in 2007]—and now we have Mark Matejka, Sparky, another Strat player. When you put all three of us together, it’s a very distinct sound, you know what I’m saying? Uh, it’s not like go there [to a gig] and turn it up to 10 and all three of us go at it at one time. It doesn’t work that way. A lot of times, I hold down a real solid rhythm for Gary and Sparky to play leads over and so forth. The combination of Gary and Sparky and me exchanging leads is a very solid sound. It’s the sound of Lynyrd Skynyrd and it works rather well.
That sounds like fun! What’s your favorite Skynyrd jam?
You know, it’s a funny thing, I get asked this all the time, man. Yesterday a fan stopped me and said, “I’ve been dying to ask you, ever since we’ve been on this flight together and I didn’t know whether to talk to you or not but I gotta ask you, what is your favorite Lynyrd Skynyrd song to play?” “All of them,” I said, though there are special ones like “The Needle and the Spoon,” “Tuesday’s Gone,” “Simple Man” and “Free Bird,” of course. But when it really comes down to it, man, they’re all my favorite. I love being the guitar player in this band!
So is this just a workaday thing? Do you ever stop and think about the significance and legacy of Lynyrd Skynyrd in American culture?
This has never been a job to me. It’s something I’m very honored and proud and blessed to have been a part of. For me the legacy that we—the band—leave behind for all to hear is a sense of timelessness. These songs are timeless, they are understood and are part of the lives of four generations of Americans.