Arts

Lynyrd Skynyrd have been musicians all our lives – you don't turn it off like a switch

Sweet Home Alabama rockers Lynyrd Skynyrd are in the midst of their epic farewell tour, marking the end of decades on the road. Band member Rickey Medlocke talks to Lucy Mapstone about what it means to be calling time on touring life and what legacy he hopes to leave behind when all is done and dusted

Lynyrd Skynyrd take their farewell tour to the UK next month

RICKEY Medlocke is confident about the future of Lynyrd Skynyrd despite the band being in the midst of their last tour. Named the Last Of The Street Survivors Farewell Tour, after their 1977 album Street Survivors, the group – who have toured consistently for the past few decades – will finally give themselves a break.

But Medlocke insists the epic stint across the globe is not the last you will see or hear of them.

"Personally, for me, I cannot foresee me just sitting around, not going out and playing or recording," he says, in his husky southern American twang over a long-distance phone chat. "I've gotta be doing something."

Despite his clear passion to carry on rocking at the age of 69, it was a no-brainer for the group – named fondly after their strict gym teacher Leonard Skinner, who so detested their shaggy manes – to call it quits on the touring front at the very least.

"We decided to make the announcement that it would be our last tour in 2017, mainly because Gary had, and still is having, some pretty serious issues with his heart," he says of Gary Rossington, the band's only original member.

Rossington (67) suffered a heart attack in 2015, prompting several of the band's concerts to be cancelled.

"Normally we do between 80 to 100 shows a year, staying out for long periods of time and it just... it just wasn't working anymore," Medlocke adds, sounding somewhat tired at the sheer volume of concerts.

"Even though this is a farewell tour, there will be a time when the band may want to do a residency in Las Vegas, like Aerosmith and others have done. We've been musicians all our lives, you don't just turn that off like a light switch."

The tour, which has so far taken them to more than 60 shows across North America since May 2018, will mark their final appearances on this side of the Atlantic next month.

Overall, the world tour is set to run "well into 2020", according to Medlocke. "After that, we plan on doing some recording and then the band will probably do special events, charity shows and so on – we just don't want to undertake the long touring like we used to."

Medlocke admits finding the air travel side of touring the most tiring, although he does love performing for fans across the world.

It will no doubt be a shame for devotees of the group when they do finally hang up their touring mics for good but their musical legacy will live on.

The band – hailed for popularising the Southern rock genre of music, which has its roots in rock 'n' roll, country music and the blues – was founded in 1964 by original members Ronnie Van Zant, Bob Burns, Allen Collins, Larry Junstrom and Rossington in Jacksonville, Florida.

With a string of hits including Sweet Home Alabama – the band's 1974 riposte to Neil Young's accusatory Alabama and Southern Man, about racism in the US South – Free Bird and Simple Man and their distinctive blues-rock image due to the long-haired band-members, Lynyrd Skynyrd became global stars in the 70s.

Tragedy struck in 1977 when three members of the group – lead singer Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines and his sister, vocalist Cassie Gaines – died in an air crash while flying to a concert in Louisiana.

It killed a number of others, including the band's assistant road manager, and left the other members severely injured.

Broken after the catastrophe, Lynyrd Skynyrd disbanded before reuniting a decade later, with Van Zant's brother Johnny taking over as lead singer.

Medlocke, who played with the band in the early 1970s for a short time before returning to his former group Blackfoot, rejoined in 1996 as guitarist and they have toured extensively and released a number of albums, their last being 2012's Last Of A Dyin' Breed.

The band's influence on rock music goes beyond chart success – in the UK they have never landed a top 10 hit despite their songs being quintessential jukebox mega-hits. Their tracks are popular because of their timelessness and sympathetic lyrics, Medlocke says, explaining it is all down to Ronnie and his skilled musical touch.

"Most people could relate to what he was writing – he had this insight into the everyday person, no matter what walk of life. The songs will live on a lot longer after we're gone, that's for sure," he says with a gruff chuckle. "He just had a beautiful, natural gift for putting things into words – he was a genius. He was quite a special man and I was really happy that I got to be in a band with him when I did."

For Medlocke, Lynyrd Skynyrd has been a bit of a journey of self-discovery. Reflecting on the late 1990s, when he decided to return to the group after fronting Blackfoot for so long, he says: "It was getting tougher and tougher for me all the time and I always knew something was gonna work out but I didn't know what.

"And when it happened, I was ready for that. I was ready to ride in the back seat of the Cadillac. As my grandfather told me, he said, 'You'll never get to be the driver of a Cadillac unless you can ride in the back seat first'.

"And so that's what I told Johnny and Gary, I said, 'I guess now I'm in the back seat'.

"So now, 23 years later, I'm finally in the front seat of the Cadillac with the two guys."

With the group's past behind them and the future looking like a more stripped-down version of what they have known for so long, Medlocke hopes their legacy lives on beyond their epic stage performances.

"I hope that people love and enjoy the moments with us and I hope that we created great memories for everybody," he says. "And, on a personal level, I hope that I leave behind something for my wife and my daughter, something that they can be proud of.

"I hope that I believed in what I was doing and lived what I was doing, and that I really was a stand-up musician and artist. I hope that's the way I am remembered."

:: Lynyrd Skynyrd tour Britain, with supporting acts Status Quo and Massive Wagons, from June 26 to 30.

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